If you asked twenty good men whether or not we lived in a culture that was both distracted and secular, nineteen of them would reply, Yes. We know our condition, at least in part. We know that our society is growing more “post-Christian,” and we know that technology is damaging our ability to focus and be present. It is telling when Instagram rolls out a usage tracker for the sake of its users’ mental health — the platform half-heartedly acknowledging the issue without fundamentally changing anything about its services.
But one of the key problems with our cultural analysis, I believe, is that we have placed The Issues out there somewhere. Like Jesus weeping over the city of Jerusalem, we look from afar and bemoan where society seems to be, as if we are not under its spell. But we should not think so highly of ourselves. These struggles are not just abstractions and generalities floating around in culture. They are very much affecting our very selves, our church bodies, and our cultural participation. My witness is being taxed on every side by tendencies toward secularism and distraction, and I must begin to pay attention to it if I ever hope to be an effective carrier of the gospel.
This is the goal that Alan Noble writes towards in Disruptive Witness. “The best strategy for addressing our society’s condition is to offer a disruptive witness at every level of life” (88). Most of us view our communicating the gospel in the world as planting a seed, which isn’t inherently wrong. But just as important as planting the seed of the gospel is our obligation to “plant it well” (5). And given the state of things, it is likely we need to pay extra attention to “plowing” the ground we hope to plant in. “Unlike the gentle at of sowing seeds,” Noble writes, “a plow’s work is violent, disruptive, and exhausting. It unsettles the ground. It softens by tearing up. When a field has been plowed it no longer appears the same” (6).
What I love most about Disruptive Witness is that the book itself is disruptive, especially to the American Evangelical. It pulls no punches. It is not afraid to “go there,” because we must “go there” if we hope to change. One example of this comes in Chapter 5 when Noble critiques a popular and familiar Vacation Bible School curriculum. I knew well-meaning churches that used this curriculum, and I personally never realized the potential damage it was doing to our witness. Perhaps I was too distracted to notice.
Noble enters complex worlds like technology, identity, and worldview and speaks into them with rare clarity. Leaning on the work of Charles Taylor throughout the book, Noble brilliantly pinpoints how distraction and secularism have come together as a perfect storm, but one we can temper with the power of the Holy Spirit and proper preparation. In sync with Taylor, Noble gives many readers new vocabulary to work with as they process our cultural condition — what it means to live in the “immanent frame,” living as a “buffered self,” pursuing a “double movement.” After outlining the specific problems of distraction and secularism (Chapter 1-3), Noble argues that we fight these problems on three major fronts: our personal habits, our church practices, and our cultural participation (Chapters 4-6).
I have seen some reviews say that Disruptive Witness is borderline an academic work. While I agree it is well-researched and carefully explained, I hope this does not deter the common reader from picking it up. No book about these themes should be simple. Noble has no interest in distracting you from the real problem by writing a book that gets nowhere.
I don’t want to elaborate much more here, because I’d much rather you stop reading my review and buy the book at this point. It is easily one of the most important books for the Church that was written this year. As a pastor, Disruptive Witness is the kind of book that I will buy multiple copies of to keep in my office for the sake of giving out. One should read it for his own soul, being willing to engage in deep and honest self-reflection about the nature of his heart and the ways in which he has been a part of the problem. But Disruptive Witness is rich in hope. Though it admittedly will never solve these age-old problems on its own, it wraps up with this reminder about the gospel’s power:
It’s the easiest thing in the world to make Christianity just one more identity waving at us for attention as we float along. But it’s not. The gospel is not a preference. It’s not another piece of flair we add to our vest. It’s something far more beautiful and disturbing. The gospel is the power to raise the dead, to proclaim the greatness of God in a fallen and confused world. (172)
Disruptive Witness | 2018 | IVP Books | $11.75, Amazon