To be a faithful evangelical in 2018 is to find yourself in a difficult, frustrating position. The two defining sub-groups in the American Protestant church since 1980 have been the religious right and the seeker-sensitive church growth movement. Their primary leaders were Jerry Falwell and Bill Hybels. Falwell is now deceased, succeeded by a son, Jerry Jr., who has been happily lighting incense to Donald Trump these past two years. Hybels, meanwhile, has been disgraced in the aftermath of many credible accusations of sexual abuse happening over a 25 year period.
Some evangelicals, desirous of a faith more serious and counter-cultural than that of either of the above movements, might look toward Rome. Yet to do that is simply to plunge yourself into another morass, one that seems to run even deeper and darker than ours–though whether that is because it really is darker or simply because our own worst secrets are yet to come to light remains an open (and frightening) question.
That said, the problem is not simply that the American church seems to be currently reckoning with the cost of decades of systemic failures and infidelity within the church. The surrounding world has not simply stopped to gawk at us as we stumble about like a drunk on an especially bad bender. It has, rather, continued going about its business, progressing down the path it was always likely to go down, given the way the post-war settlement in the western world played out.1
The sad result is that the American church now essentially finds itself hungover and utterly unprepared for the vastly changed world that now greets it. In such a context, the church needs maps to help orient them to the world as it is and to guide their response to that world. Alan Noble’s new book Disruptive Witness is one of the best maps I have so far encountered. The book’s virtues are many but I want to focus on two in particular.
The Fusion of Distraction and Secularism
One of the refrains that pops up throughout the book is that we live in a world that is both distracted and secular. The combination is important. It is not simply that we live in a world full of choices where Christian fidelity appears to us as simply one lifestyle option of many and often one of the less plausible ones. That’s true, but Noble does not stop there in his analysis. It’s that the nature of our world and particularly our technology leaves us radically unequipped to make make reasonable sound choices when presented with that variety of options.
By fusing a Neil Postman-style critique of visual and internet technology, both of which basically assume the distractibility of their users as a normal part of the experience of using the technology,2 with the increasingly familiar gloss on the work of Charles Taylor, Noble does a better job than anyone else I have read of capturing the feel of our age, viewed from a Christian angle.
Part of the triumph is in the fact that Noble’s own work implicitly offers to us an alternative to distraction and the ephemeral. He models how to patiently consider the way we use our technology and then walks the reader through careful readings of a number of key texts and authors, deftly moving between novelists like Cormac McCarthy and philosophers like Taylor. His treatment of Taylor is especially satisfying as he somehow offers an overview of the man’s work which seems both more complete and helpful than any similar reviews of his work that I have seen.3
What was particularly helpful is the discussion of Taylor’s work in the book’s final chapter in which Noble explains the ways in which Taylor thinks the “imminent frame” can be punctured or temporarily seen through, you might say. To lay my cards on the table a bit, I’ve not read as much Taylor as I’d like, but that is partly because from the things I have read about him I tended to think this critique at First Things is mostly correct. Certainly it fit well enough with other things I had read about Taylor. But in chapter six Noble had me thinking I need to take the time to read Taylor more slowly and carefully—if Noble’s presentation of him is accurate, then some of Rose’s critique in that linked piece are not reckoning with the fullness of Taylor’s work.
Against Fighting Fire with Fire
The other strong point is the second half of the book in which Noble offers ideas as to how Christians can live as disruptive witnesses in a distracted, secular world. I’ve seen some readers note that the first half feels stronger than the second, but that was not my experience. I actually think the second half is the most valuable part of the book. One of the unique challenges for Christians after the Religious Right, after the attractional movement, and after the mass discrediting of Rome is that we think the thing which we take up as an alternative should have the same sort of grand ambitions and structure as the things which have necessarily been set aside.
What both the religious right and the attractional movements offered us was a way of surveying a battlefield, spotting a hill, and enthusiastically mobilizing to take the hill. Yet many older Christians would say that even that basic approach is actually part of the problem. The answer according to these writers is found in simply taking up the ordinary disciplines of Christian piety, choosing to follow Christ in your ordinary life–even when it seems to demand of you quite unusual things–and trusting that God is at work in that and through that.
You can see this in literature, of course. If you read The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s heroes repeatedly consider whether or not the ring of power (a name not idly chosen) can be wielded to defeat Sauron. The verdict they come to every time is that to take up Sauron’s ring is to become like Sauron. The enemy and the enemy’s weapon cannot be understood apart from one another.
So it is, I think with the world we live in today. To chase political power as understood by the dominant parties is, I fear, to necessarily be compromised.4 Similarly, to chase a life of suburban affluence and respectability, as it seems to me the megachurch model eventually ends up doing is, likewise, to give in to the very idols that the prophets frequently warn us against in Scripture.
So many of the proposals that evangelicals have landed on in recent decades amount to answering one large-scale social program with a different one that, we promise!, has better content. (Narrator: It doesn’t.) But if that is not how we should respond, what is to be done? The answer I see more and more young evangelicals rallying to is that we must recover the ordinary practices of daily Christian fidelity. Noble’s work is focused on how simple liturgical practices in the church and social practices in our neighborhoods and communities can become disruptive witnesses that challenge the status quo not by fighting against it on its own terms and, perhaps, “winning” but rather by modeling an entirely different way of living.
The reason Sauron loses is not because he is defeated in a battle he understands; it is because his enemies answer his hostilities with what is an altogether unimaginable response. In a world of spectacle and distraction and life-as-theatre, we would do well to find our own version of that answer, an answer that the world regards not as competition, but that it does not regard at all because it cannot even fathom such a thing. Noble makes much of simple practices, like praying before meals in restaurants, singing in four-part harmony in church, and passing the peace between congregants. To his list we might add a number of other small, ordinary gestures. Noble’s point, it seems to me, is that these ordinary practices that many of us are already doing are themselves the disruptive witness. There is not another program, another scheme, another strategy. The people of God actually behaving as if they are the people of God is the strategy.
What about the antithesis?
Both Noble and I are admirers of Francis Schaeffer. Schaeffer’s name shows up in the acknowledgments of Noble’s book and if you know the weeping missionary’s work well you will see his influence in many parts of Noble’s book, particularly the final chapter. For that reason, one note that I did find odd about Noble’s book is that it largely neglects one of the chief themes in Schaeffer’s work, which is what Schaeffer called The Antithesis.
For Schaeffer, the Christian is not simply a member of the world alongside everyone else–an equal participant in the imminent frame, if we want to use Taylor’s framing. He is that in one sense, of course. But in another the Christian stands apart from the world and calls the world to repentance and to following Christ. Schaeffer sees the world after the fall of man as existing in a state of spiritual warfare between those who love God and those who hate him, those who submit their lives to him and those who attempt to embrace an autonomous human existence, self-defined and self-made.
The response this calls forth from Schaeffer is two-fold: First, it calls the Christian to compassion, to weep for the world. He was fond of saying that if he had an hour to share the gospel with a person he would spend 55 minutes listening, so that he could understand the person’s position relative to God and then relate the Gospel to them in an empathetic, sensible way that would make sense to that person, given where they stood at that moment. But second, it calls forth anger. Schaeffer makes this point in his sermon on the resurrection of Lazarus, noting that the Greek word used in John 11:35 (“Jesus wept”) does not simply denote sadness, but also anger. Jesus is not simply grieved by sin; he is angry about it.
If there is a dissonant note in Noble’s book, it is that I think the idea of antithesis and the various consequences that flow from it–which fit marvelously with his thesis–are largely neglected, such that the Christian’s position relative to the distracted, secular world looks less like a conflict with actual human entities and more like a negotiation of challenges presented by impersonal machines and forces. But part of existing as an alien in the world is living with an awareness of irresolvable conflict.
It is possible that the source of this criticism is that Noble and I have different assessments of our moment. Using Aaron Renn’s helpful idea of cultures having “positive,” “neutral,” or “negative,” relationships to Christianity, it is possible that Noble still sees our era as being neutral but tilting toward negative whereas I am more inclined to see it as being pervasively negative and having been that way for some time.
Much of your rhetorical approach to questions of evangelism, apologetics, and Christian fidelity will be shaped by what kind of world you think we’re living in. If you’re a neutral world-er, then you have good reasons to play down the antithesis because it creates an unnecessarily missiological barrier for your audience. In such a context, I think the case for a rhetorical posture like Noble’s is very strong.
On the other hand, if you’re a negative world person, you would want to play up the antithesis as a way of making sense of what you’re seeing and encouraging the faithful to see the conflicts they are living in as being normal and not a cause for alarm or a reason to cede ground.
Of course, the practices of Christian piety do not change when one moves from a neutral to a negative world. Nature is still what it was before. Christian virtues, the sacraments, the Gospel… none of these things change. And so in terms of offering positive prescriptive habits of disruption, you can find Noble’s prescriptive ideas enormously helpful (as I do) even if you also wish that the theme of conflict showed up a bit more.
We need good maps. Such maps are especially necessary today at a time when evangelical Christianity has, for so long, been defined by an ungodly chasing after power and respectability. We are not simply confronted with a world that is disorienting; we ourselves have also forgotten our rightful starting place beneath the cross of a crucified lord whose kingdom is not of this world.
Noble’s book helps us to regain our bearings and figure out where to go from here. We need to understand the world we live in. We also need to know how to live faithfully in it. Finally, we need to know how to commend our faith to others. On all three of those points, Noble’s book is a great success.
Disclaimer: I don’t know if this is necessary, but I’m erring on the side of caution: Alan’s book was published by InterVarsity Press. My forthcoming book, scheduled to be out next spring, is also being published with IVP. Alan and I also have the same literary agent. That being said, I purchased my copy of Alan’s book and was never asked by anyone at IVP or by Alan or by the agent we both work with to publish a review.
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- I won’t get into great detail on that except to say that many Christian writers saw the current state of the west coming way back in the mid-20th century or earlier–Lewis, Eliot, Auden, Christopher Dawson, and many others. And the critique continued to be developed after they were gone by men like Alexander Solzhenitsyn and on down to the present in the anti-liberal works of men like Dreher and Deneen.
- Hopefully Noble does not mind me making the comparison. Don’t @ him, technophiles.
- To say something both clear and concise about a writer as prolific as Taylor is in itself a great achievement.
- Note carefully that I say ‘to chase political power as understood by the dominant parties.’ I am not saying we cannot pursue a vocation in politics, but only that pursuing that vocation will almost certainly require making choices that render one incomprehensible to both Republican and Democrat power brokers.