As a fan and student of Church History, I love timeless books. Any Christian in any place at any time could pick up John Owen’s Communion with the Triune God and benefit from it. But there’s also great value in timely books, such as Alan Noble’s Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age.
I’ve found few books that help Christians understand the unique opportunities and challenges of living in their particular culture. For example, if you pick up any number of Christian books from the Spiritual Disciplines genre, you’ll be surprised how few of them talk about how specific cultural challenges might hinder or help us in those disciplines. But from having taught multiple classes on Spiritual Disciplines, and Studying the Bible specifically, what rises to the surface for present-day challenges are things like the pace of life today, busyness, and distractions because of social media, text and email alerts, and the temptation to pick up my phone even if I don’t know why. If people don’t read their Bibles (or do so in meaningful ways) because of these challenges and we don’t help them confront and wrestle with these issues, then simply telling them to “read your Bible” isn’t serving them well.
Noble’s book assesses trends that not only affect our personal faith but also our public witness. The two major trends examined throughout the book are “(1) the practice of continuous engagement in immediately gratifying activities that resist reflection and meditation, and (2) the growth of secularism, defined as a state in which theism is seen as one of many viable choices for human fullness and satisfaction, and in which the transcendent feels less and less plausible.”
I won’t provide a book review, since you can read a good one here from TGC, but I wanted to share a few reasons why we need this book. (You can get a feel for Noble’s style and how his argument is applied in one particular area (art) in this post.)
The book is clear, insightful, philosophical but readable, and well balanced in diagnosis and prognosis. Alan pulls back the curtain on our secular, distracted age at the concept level and then honestly (and humorously) reflects on what this looks like in everyday life, such as the compulsive feeling we need to take our phone with us in that quick trip up the stairs or to the bathroom.
We all know life is busy, we feel distracted, and our phones take up too much of our attention, but we rarely consider how far this reaches into our Christian faith and witness. Not only do these things have an impact on us and our families, but that they fundamentally change the game of how we signal or publicize our faith and how it’s received and perceived.
The book also helps pinpoint and explain the reasoning behind little things we do today, like why we (or someone around us) get swept up into facebook debates about issues or movements we suddenly feel strongly about and committed to even though we’ve only read one headline or saw one viral meme.
If there’s one takeaway for me, and one I see especially needed in my circles, it’s seeing how these two cultural trends mentioned above keep us from reflection. “The constant distraction of our culture shields us from the kind of deep, honest reflection needed to ask why we exist and what is true.” A lack of reflection keeps us from changing. Nothing settles on us or goes deep. The sermon heard on Sunday or your time in the Bible on Monday are soundbites that hit us and we move past just like the last tweet you read, instagram story you saw, newspaper article you scanned, or story you heard or watched on the news. We fill our schedules and then fill up those few spare moments with other distractions, and then we have no room to experience our need for God, confess sin, experience gratitude, meditate on God’s truth, interact with people around us, and think about the stuff of life that matters most. We might turn to alcohol or drugs to numb us, but our TVs and phones can just as easily become distracting, soul-numbing idols we look to for escape, feeling, connections, or some other experience.
The book also is a great conversation partner in at least three domains. First, it’s part of the growing literature of Reformed evangelicals interacting with Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor. See also How (Not) to Be Secular and Our Secular Age. Second, and related, like James K.A. Smith’s cultural liturgy series, it broadens our understanding of how people interact with and respond to the world away from merely a logical framework of worldview and into a complex combination of our experiences, hopes, longings, stories, beliefs, and networks. And third, it’s a great companion to books on the influence of technology on our Christian faith, like Tony Reinke’s 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You.
Here are a few of my favorite quotes (that could fit).
“The challenge for Christians in our time is to speak of the gospel in a way that unsettles listeners, that conveys the transcendence of God, that provokes contemplation and reflection, and that reveals the stark givenness of reality.”
“What seems most true to who we are may actually be what is most disordered—our strongest desires are sometimes the most immoral. This means that there is no static, ideal self hidden within that we are morally obligated to discover and express to give our lives meaning and justification. In fact, the quest for the authentic self can cause great harm.”
“The goal here is not to discover a self so it can be expressed and actualized, but so it can be made more Christlike.”
“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. Simply put, the double movement is the practice of first acknowledging goodness, beauty, and blessing wherever we encounter them in life, and then turning that goodness outward to glorify God and love our neighbor. Such a practice challenges the secular assumption of a closed, materialist universe. It shifts our focus away from expressing our identity and toward glorifying God, and it lifts our attention to a telos beyond ourselves and our immediate entertainment.”
“The key to delighting in beauty is the double movement. First we recognize the thing of beauty, then our minds are drawn onward and upward toward God. What makes a work of art, a poem, or a flower beautiful is the way it suggests more, the way it opens up possibilities, the way it alludes to other things in creation. In no way does this diminish the beauty of an object. It shows that its beauty is performed in its relation to other pieces of creation.”
“How on earth can we redeem each moment for him if we are so absorbed by the next thing that we forget he exists at all?”
“Being open-minded, refusing to draw conclusions, the idea that diversity of belief is a good unto itself—these are all results of a fundamental shift in our basic beliefs about the world. Thus, we aspire to be noncommittal.”
“In a well-crafted story we not only rationally consider the vision of the world created by the artist or artists, we enter that world. And good storytelling invites us to empathize; we viscerally feel the world and the values and ideas that govern it. Stories provide models for ascribing meaning to our own lives, which makes stories ideal for the kind of disruption Taylor has in mind.”
“We should expect modern people, including Christians, to hold strongly to their beliefs and even reject alternatives as falsehoods, but here is the crucial difference for the modern period: no matter how confident we modern people are in our worldview, we are always aware of the alternatives. As a result, we become increasingly concerned with signaling our beliefs. For example, no small part of what it means to be a Christian involves our internal and external identification with Christian culture so we know our place in relation to the rest of the world. Our focus shifts away from practicing our beliefs to signaling our beliefs to ourselves and others. In a world where all beliefs are possible, our attention turns to contending about beliefs, and the terms and conditions of those beliefs matter less, except as fodder. Is it any wonder that apologetics is so difficult?”
“The distracted age has three major effects on our ability to communicate about matters of faith and ultimate meaning: (1) it is easier to ignore contradictions and flaws in our basic beliefs, (2) we are less likely to devote time to introspection, and (3) conversations about faith can be easily perceived as just another exercise in superficial identity formation.”
“The practice of attending church weekly and moving through the cycle of Christ’s birth, life, crucifixion, death, and resurrection reorients us and reminds us that there is a way of being in the world that is truer than the sense of life we have within the immanent frame.”