Disruptive Witness, Alan Noble. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.
Summary: Drawing on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, Noble explores our longing for fullness in a distracted, secular age of “buffered selves,” and the personal, communal and cultural practices Christians might pursue to disrupt our society’s secular mindset.
When I first came across this title, I was expecting something different, a call to a form of Christian activism, a form of resistance against prevailing destructive and unjust structures. This book both isn’t and is about that. Noble’s analysis looks at deeper causes in the secularism that shapes the warp and woof of our lives.
Drawing on the work of Charles Taylor in A Secular Age, Noble focuses first on the endless distraction of our lives. He illustrates from his own life:
“Sufficient to the workday are the anxieties and frustrations thereof. And so, when I need a coffee or bathroom break, I’ll use my phone to skim an article or “Like” a few posts. The distraction is a much-needed relief from the stress of work, but it also is a distraction. I still can’t hear myself think. And most of the time I really don’t want to. When I feel some guilt about spending so much time being unfocused, I tell myself it’s for my own good. I deserve this break. I need this break. But there’s no break from distraction.”
Such distractions are inimical to Christian witness in making us and those we engage with impervious to the contradictions in our fragmented lives, unable to engage in the extended reflection needed to wrestle with hard questions, and prone to present faith as just one more lifestyle option.
All this feeds into a perspective on self that is “buffered” rather than “porous”–where meaning and our understanding of ultimate reality comes from within rather than is open to the transcendent. Noble observes, “As Christianity has ceased to offer the vision of fullness shared by the vast majority of people in the West, in its place we find billions of micronarratives of fullness.” It is critical for Christians to understand this, both because they need to abandon treating their own faith as a micronarrative and then, in engaging their neighbors, must refuse to treat faith as mere preference.
The second half of Noble’s book explores how we engage in disruptive witness in a distracted world of buffered selves. He explores personal, church, and cultural practices that eventuate in disruptive witness. He begins by commending this double movement:
“This is the movement we need–a double movement in which  the goodness of being produces gratitude in us that  glorifies and acknowledges a loving, transcendent, good, and beautiful God.” [enumeration added]
For this he commends the simple practices of silence, the saying of grace at meals, and the practice of sabbath, each of which open us to gratitude that acknowledges a transcendent God.
Noble is critical of high-tech, staged worship in which “our focus is directed to the stage rather than to one another.” In place of this, drawing on James K. A. Smith, he calls for the retrieval of liturgical practices that draw us out of ourselves and remind us of the transcendent. He contends that our observance of the Lord’s supper may be one of our most disruptive acts in reminding of the transcendent God who is also immanent, sharing our body and blood, and nourishing us with his in the bread and the cup.
He also advocates culturally disruptive practice, and observes that “intimations of the transcendent” arise in our exercise of human agency, in moral obligations, and aesthetic experiences. As a good English professor, he contends that stories are a place where we may particularly encounter these intimations, offering The Great Gatsby as an example. He concludes by advocating that disruptive witness cannot play by the rules of the secular age, but rather provide a contrast of lives limited around the transcendent that, in Flannery O’Connor’s words, draw “large and startling figures.”
As I concluded the book, I found myself musing as to whether this was “disruptive” enough. In discussing this with a friend, he observed that the re-centering of our lives around a transcendent God not of our own making is pretty disruptive! Moving from distraction to attentive reflection is disruptive. Refocusing worship from an event with high production values to an encounter with the transcendent God is disruptive. Moving from stroking our personal preferences to recognizing goodness for which we are grateful and turning that to an acknowledgement of the transcendent in our daily practices, and in the stories that shape us, is disruptive.
Alan Noble encourages me that disruptive witness isn’t found in how hip, tech-savvy, plugged in, and “relevant” we are, which may be simply Christian versions of a distracted, buffered self. Rather, disruptive witness arises when our lives and cultural engagements are disrupted by the transcendent God in the gospel of his Son. Silence, sabbath, saying grace, participating in liturgy, and the expectation that the transcendent will show up in all of life may seem insignificant, and yet may be the most profound disruptions of all.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.