Book Review: Disruptive Witness, by Alan Noble
Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age. InterVarsity Press, 2018. 180 pages.
What should evangelism look like in the modern world? How can believers work to make the gospel heard above the din of smart phone notifications and competing visions of the good life? And how do Christians understand our own relationship to this secular age? Alan Noble tackles these questions in Disruptive Witness. Building primarily on the work of Charles Taylor, Noble first describes the challenges of faith and witness in the modern world and then offers ideas about how Christians can confront these challenges.
In other words, this book is about evangelism. As Noble writes in his introduction, building on the parable of the sower, he’s talking about how Christians need to plow (disrupt) the ground, so we can sow the seed of the gospel deeply.
LIFE IN A SECULAR, DISTRACTED AGE
Noble devotes the first part of the book to explaining our “distracted, secular age.” He argues that because of the way we surround ourselves with technology that constantly demands our attention, and because “we are addicted to novelty . . . the modern mind is often not prepared to engage in dialogue about personally challenging ideas, particularly ones with deep implications” (21). As a result, Christians can no longer assume our listeners are engaged and ready to consider the profound realities of the gospel.
Not only are we surrounded by distractions, but we also inhabit a secular age. In this age individuals are “protected behind a barrier of individual choice, rationalism, and a disenchanted world” (37). In the secular age, all beliefs are “contested” and there has been an “explosion in ways people find meaning and justification in life” (76).
In the secular age, we no longer look to a transcendent God for our sense of identity and purpose. Instead, we find meaning through “expressive individualism.” As Noble puts it, “We need to defend refugees not only because they need defending but because we want to be the kind of people who are known for defending refugees” (47). Yet, even as we search within ourselves for meaning and answers, life in this age is also marked by a “sense that all these answers are fragile, or uncertain; that a moment may come, where we no longer feel that our chosen path is compelling, or cannot justify it to ourselves or others” (79–80).
Noble then connects secularism with the perils of the age of distraction. “Distraction and secularism have shaped the way modern people tend to find or create meaning in their lives. So long as we are moving to the next thing, we feel that our life has some direction and therefore meaning.” All of this makes bearing witness to the gospel especially difficult. We might fall into sharing the gospel “as a performance of our identity” (60). And if our neighbors actually consider the gospel, it may be nothing more than a fleeting thought before they’re on to the next meme. Or they might evaluate Christianity by whether it fits who they are, and not in terms of the transcendent claims the gospel makes on their lives.
In part two, Noble offers ways Christians can provide a disruptive witness in our secular age. He is clear from the outset that “there are no easy answers to the problems created by our contemporary condition” (7). He does, however, offer three ways forward: “changing our personal habits [chapter 4], recovering church practices that convey God’s holiness [chapter 5], and rethinking how we participate in culture [chapter 6].” In these ways “we can offer a disruptive witness that will help people to see the world anew, as created by a living and sustaining God” (7).
Chapter 5, titled “Disruptive Church Practices,” warns against church practices that help “obscure the gospel by adopting secular ideas that undermine it” (121). Noble says that “we’ve tried to communicate the gospel with cultural tools that are used to promote preferences, not transcendent, exclusive truths” (122). Instead, he advocates that we retrieve historic church practices that “counter the stultifying effects of the consumerist vision of belief” (174). With James K. A. Smith’s work as a guide, Noble walks through the traditional elements of Reformed liturgy and shows how they offer a disruptive witness in our secular age. For instance, with regard to corporate singing, Noble comments:
When we sing we must stand and use our body to publicly express praise to God. . . . “The practice of singing together in Christian worship—singing one song, with different parts, in harmony—is a small but significant performance of what we’re looking forward to in the kingdom” (136–137).
Through singing together, we enact this mystery [that the church really is the body of Christ on earth] in worship of God (137).
Without delving too deeply into the worship wars, part of the challenge of contemporary services is that our focus is directed to the stage rather than to one another. Volume levels rarely allow us to hear ourselves clearly, and certainly not our neighbors (137).
In the final chapter, Noble urges Christians to “participate” in our culture’s stories in a way that seeks to understand our neighbors and lament with them in their sin and suffering. “We can offer a disruptive witness merely by weeping with those who weep. . . . Our presence and openness to the weight of tragedy will itself be a witness to God’s compassion and the significance of each human life” (168).
DISRUPTIVE WITNESS AND THE WORK OF THE CHURCH
Noble concludes his introduction by saying, “My admonition in this book is to understand how our culture processes beliefs, so we might better fulfill our duty to love our neighbor and glorify God” (7). Even if you don’t find all of his recommendations compelling, his pervasive concern to help us love our neighbors well will encourage and help you to that end. He will provoke you to examine your own assumptions and habits, individually, in your family, and in your church.
Noble is also a helpful popularizer. If you haven’t read Charles Taylor or James K. A. Smith, Noble provides a helpful introduction to these thinkers and others. The book is worth reading for a busy pastor who needs to dip into deeper waters but doesn’t have time to get scuba certified.
I was also provoked to think about other ways the church might offer a disruptive witness. Further reflection could be given to the role of preaching in the church’s witness. Noble provides some helpful paragraphs on the announcement of the law and reading from the gospels, but he doesn’t give the sermon itself much emphasis. It would be worth exploring more the way the act of preaching itself is a disruptive witness, and how it creates a people rooted in our transcendent God.
Along similar lines, Noble reflects on the corporate witness of the church at worship, but not as much about the corporate witness of the church in our everyday life together. The word of God forms us into a body of believers committed to sacrificially loving one another for the sake of the gospel and God’s glory. As we fulfill the one another’s of the New Testament, the corporate life of the church is a witness that true meaning is found not in expressing yourself, but in losing your life for Christ’s sake and the gospel (Mark 8:35). By suggesting these further lines of inquiry, I only hope to extend the conversation Noble has begun for us.
None of these questions take away from the good work Noble has done in Disruptive Witness. Pastors, church leaders, and thoughtful Christians will be helped in their witness by reading it.