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What if much of our Christian witness is self-cancelling? Could it be that we often to white noise which leaves most people deaf to God? Maybe our attempts to proclaim Christ subvert the structures which should make the gospel plausible.
This is the challenging thesis of Alan Noble’s Disruptive Witness.
Noble picks up the now well-known work by Charles Taylor who has argued that modern people are ‘buffered’ — walled off from the spiritual, the mystical and magical. He explores the way in which technological developments reinforce these cultural patterns so that we are not only ‘buffered’ from thinking about God and the big questions of life.
“Our frenetic and flattened culture is not conducive to wrestling with thick ideas, ideas with depth, complexity, and personal implications. It is a culture of immediacy, simple emotions, snap judgments, optics, and identity formation. In such a world, is it any wonder that Christians so often speak past their listeners?” (24)
He says that we are constantly distracted with the result that “it is easier to ignore contradictions and flaws in our basic beliefs”, we give less time to reflection “conversations about faith can be easily perceived as just another exercise in superficial identity formation” (25).
Noble observes that our culture is one of “generic existentialism”, “expressive individualism” and “instrumental reason” (68). We have to generate our own meanings and identity, and impose our own interpretation and understanding reality. He looks at the different ways in which people in America chase visions of fullness, in a culture where they have to choose these. These are all instances of Taylor’s “nova effect”, the explosion of options and positions by which people pursue meaning and purpose. Almost all of these options involve finding meaning in a ‘life-style’, whatever the particular lifestyle may be. We are surrounded by a culture full of people occupying themselves with activity and focused on technology, as ways to connect with the meaning and direction which seems to always be beyond the grasp of the buffered self.
Noble is concerned that most Christians have bought into the same pattern. He challenges ways in which Christians share the cultural project, pursuing our own (unreflective) visions of fullness.
He calls us to refuse to offer another option that looks much like the rest. He argues that faithful witness requires us to recognise the visions of fullness that motivate our neighbours and to be able to spot where these fail. But “our goal is not to offer them just another vision of fullness to add to their options”. Instead, “disruptive witness” will refuse to fit the busy, options culture (81).
To do this, Noble argues that we need to cultivate habits of contemplation and presence that help us accept the wonder and grandeur of existence and examine our assumptions about meaning and transcendence. This involves living ‘aesthetically’ recognising beauty and responding to it with praise and thanks to God, which requires reflection and attention. He encourages us to accept ‘unproductive’ time without filling it with distraction; to adopt a pattern of daily Bible reading and prayer; to take Sabbath rest.
Churches need to “ensure that we are not inadvertently helping to obscure the gospel by adopting secular ideas that undermine it … everything from church signs to Christian T-shirts to the setup of our church stages and pulpits” (121). If you’ve ever run a children’s outreach event his critique of a “Vacation Bible School” will almost certainly be unsettling (125-29).
So, what does he propose for church life? He thinks that we need to make good use of liturgical elements which engage body, heart and mind and do not imitate secular techniques: “It’s hard to imagine an act more disruptive to secularism than celebrating the Lord’s Supper. Every movement in the liturgy of the Lord’s Supper calls us away from a distracted, flattened, material, individualist, and secular view of the world” (142). If you know J.K.A. Smith’s work, you’ll pick up the echo of that.
Building from Taylors view that the cross pressures are felt most keenly in human agency, moral obligations, and aesthetic experiences, Noble identifies two places where people in the secular age feel the “cross pressure”— “in the stories we tell, which play imaginatively on our suppressed desire for eternity, and in experiences of tragedy, which force us to face death and meaninglessness”. He suggests that both of these can provide points at which “we can invite others to enter into reflection rather than distraction, and thus bear witness to the beauty, grace, and contingency of life in a way that disrupts the assumptions of secularism and gives glory to God” (150).
Noble encourages Christians to receive, dialogue about and produce ‘stories’ that touch on people’s longing for transcendence and meaning. “Christians should be known for their appreciation of tragedies, because in good tragedies we must reckon with our place in the world, the problem of evil, and the struggle for meaning” (157). The other response Noble explores is for Christians to be ready to be present in suffering, ‘weeping with those who weep’.
So what do I really like about Disruptive Witness?
Of course there are lots of other things to be said about our witness. But Noble has written focused on one important concern and hasn’t tried to say everything. I think that makes a better book.
This is the kind of book that can valorise the counter-cultural over careful participation in popular culture. Yet, if you notice how Noble describes his own lifestyle, it is clear that he is not proposing withdrawal.
If you are looking for a short, punchy read on how we live well in post-post Christian society — Disruptive Witness is worth the read. And, it will pull you up about your own patterns as well.
Review by John McClean, Vice-principal, Christ College, Sydney