Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age

Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2018. 208 pp. $16.00, paperback.

To the degree that we have been called to be aliens and strangers in the world, to the degree that we must be in the world but not of it, to the degree that we are to resist conformity to the patterns of the world—to that same degree we are called to be critical and discerning students of the world. We cannot, after all, resist conforming to the patterns we cannot identify or understand. The church, then, must always be about the business of sounding out the spirit of the age in order to fulfill its calling to remain a faithful witness to the grace and glory of her Lord.

Each age presents its own set of challenges and opportunities to God’s people. Our unenviable task is to make sense of our own age, which is marked chiefly by its complex and rapidly evolving character. There are two notable and related factors that lend our own time—whether one thinks of it as late modern, post-modern, hyper-modern—its unique character: technology and secularity. Unfortunately, our thinking about both technology and secularity in contemporary American society tends to be simplistic, shallow, and often reactionary.

In Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age, Alan Noble, professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University and cofounder of Christ and Pop Culture, helps us navigate this perplexing terrain with insight and wisdom. Noble is concerned both with the church’s faithfulness and her witness. He aims to help us understand both the context of our sanctification and the context of our evangelism. The book is divided into two main sections. In the first, Noble presents readers with an analysis of our secular, technologically saturated society. Chiefly, he helps us understand how these characteristics of our age shape the experience of belief. In the second section, he outlines a series of practices designed to meet the challenges of the age. These practices are helpfully grouped into three chapters each addressing a different scale of action: the individual, the church, and the wider culture.

Noble’s analysis of our situation opens with a rough outline of what a typical day might look like for many of us with an emphasis on the prominence of our devices in structuring that day. As Noble rightly observes, “Modern media technology focuses largely on two goals: capturing our attention and gathering our data.” Noble is also right to claim that modern media technology’s drive to capture our attention “has a direct effect on our ability to encounter and contemplate the holy.” Noble understands that technology’s moral and spiritual consequences extend beyond the particular uses to which we put our technology.

Like most Americans, when Christians think at all about media technology, they tend to focus chiefly on content: what are we watching, what are we listening to, what are we saying? So long as the content is safe for work, edifying, or otherwise harmless, then all is well. Technology on this view becomes a problem only when it is used to access or distribute immoral content. What this view misses, however, is how our use of media technology, regardless of the content we access or distribute, shapes our perception and generates habits. Noble focuses mostly on what we might think of as the habit of distractedness that arises from our near constant engagement with digital devices, a habit that undermines our ability to think deeply, examine our own lives honestly, and speak meaningfully to others about our faith. Noble is particularly keen on the subtle temptation in digital contexts to reduce faith to just another facet of our identity work, the ceaseless and joyless business of performing our identity through our online activity.

Noble’s discussion of technology and identity is informed by his careful reading of the philosopher Charles Taylor, especially his 2008 opus A Secular Age. Indeed, one of the chief virtues of Noble’s book is that it introduces Taylor’s work to a broader audience. Taylor’s invaluable account of secularity helps us to see that we are all secular now. Secularity, in his view, is not merely the absence of belief but rather a set of conditions that alter the character of belief. Even for those of us who maintain a traditionally orthodox faith, the structure and experience of faith has changed. Belief is no longer our sole or default option. We believe against the epistemic grain of our society not with it, as would have ordinarily been the case in pre-modern times. We are also formed by our secular society to turn inward for meaning and fullness. In this context, even a confession of faith in Christ takes on a different hue; our Christianity can too easily become just one more identity-defining lifestyle choice and authenticity the Holy Grail of our spiritual quest.

Noble is careful not to claim too much for the practices he recommends throughout the second section of Disruptive Witness. He understands the historical scale of the challenges he has diagnosed. One cannot alter the course of a culture centuries in the making with a few changes in behavior. That does not mean, however, that we should do nothing. At the personal level, Noble encourages us to become attentive to beauty, to cultivate silence, to engage in public displays of faith like giving thanks before meals, and to keep Sabbath. He urges churches to think carefully about the forms of worship and witness, and, like James K. A. Smith to whose work Noble frequently alludes, he urges us to see our liturgy as a morally and spiritually formative reality. Culturally, he encourages us to attend to the “signals of transcendence,” in Peter Berger’s apt phrasing, that remain even within what Taylor called the “immanent frame” that characterizes our secular age. These signals, arising from our experience in a world that remains the theater of God’s glory, generate tensions within an exclusively humanist account of human flourishing, tensions that are also openings for the Gospel.

Noble has written an accessible and thoughtful work that addresses critical challenges Christians face as they strive to live faithfully and call others to faith and repentance. Disruptive Witness especially deserves a wide readership among pastors, youth ministers, and teachers, but all readers will be edified, encouraged, and better equipped to wisely discern the patterns of our age.

Michael Sacasas
Greystone Institute Center for the Study of Ethics and Technology