Book Review: Disruptive Witness by Alan Noble

The American church now essentially finds itself hungover and utterly unprepared for the vastly changed world that now greets it.

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.

 

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.

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