In my classroom, a groggy eighth-grade student confesses that he was up until 2 a.m. watching YouTube videos. My seventh-grade son declares his parents “the meanest ever” when we disconnect his gaming device during the school week. My 6-year-old asks when he will finally get a cell phone. I am quick to be indignant, annoyed and head-shakingly judgmental at the misled youth around me, but, admittedly, I am not much better. My phone beeps, and I drop the dinner I am making to see who might be summoning me. I wake early to work out or get some writing done but see the first 20 minutes of sacred, morning quiet disappear while I scroll the social media notifications that surfaced while I slept. And I rarely find myself in a place of silence – the radio plays while I’m in the car; an audiobook fills the void while I get ready for work; a podcast occupies my mind while I walk the dog.
In Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age, Alan Noble writes a convincing meditation on the challenges of bearing witness in our contemporary world, in a place where “the momentum of life that so often discourages us from stopping to take our bearings” and faith is often understood as little more than “another personal preference in an ocean of cultural preferences.”
Organized into two parts, Disruptive Witness begins by describing with frightening accuracy the state of our distracted, secular age and then, in the book’s second half, describing how we might bear a disruptive witness in our personal habits, church practices and cultural participation. Or, as the reader experiences it: first conviction and then a call to action and reform.
Noble’s first chapter lays out a convincing case for the challenges of bearing witness in a technological world: It’s a world, he writes, where “the gospel appears thin, superficial, and inconsequential – just another image vying for our time.” In the second chapter, our predicament grows more precarious as Noble draws on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, outlining the current explosion of belief systems that turn everything back to the self. “What we intend to be a persuasive proclamation of the gospel may instead by interpreted by our neighbor as an expression of our identity through argument, just like any dialogue in modern culture,” Noble writes. Like a Facebook page displaying one friend’s Scripture quotation posted next to a picture of the peanut-butter cheesecake another friend had for lunch, “the space between the trivial and the crucial has shrunk.”
Triumph of the trivial
I was reminded of an instance, a few years ago when I experienced the discomfort that Noble expects us to feel when a friend, in town for a weekend, came to church with me. As we were filing out of the sanctuary pew, she glanced at me and casually remarked, “That was good.” It was meant as a compliment, but I felt unsettled. Her tone, her body language, her statement seemed to put the worship service we had just experienced on par with a watching a sitcom or a TED Talk. While I wanted to be sensitive to her status as a visitor who might have been speaking partially out of her own discomfort or lack of experience, I bristled. I couldn’t put words to my unease then, but Noble gave me words to express not just this instance, but my general discomfort and distrust of church signs and Christian T-shirts. “This Ichthus-eating-Darwin-fish strategy of Christian witness does nothing to reveal the depths of our sin or the grandeur of God’s grace. Instead, it presents Christianity as just one more slogan or ideology among a million,” Noble writes.
Rather than dispel the tension between reality and life as it could be or offer a magic pill to dissolve the conundrum of distraction and secularism, Noble suggests how we can preserve our witness as participants in culture. He suggests a disruptive posture that would lead down a path of greater authenticity. Silence, Sabbath rest and saying grace challenge the breakneck speed at which we may feel lured to compete. Church liturgies allow us to commune with God and in community. And participating in the stories and tragedies of others reminds us that God’s story – not ours – is at the center of the universe.
While solutions are not simple – and I’m still not certain whether I’m spreading the gospel or adding to the noise when I repost an article on faith and politics that I feel the world needs to read – Noble has provided a necessary interruption to my news feed. His book, while causing me to sigh deeply about our current state of distracted affairs, also has energized me to reconsider my boundaries and to leave more space in my life for wonder, a wonder that is found far from a screen and that cultivates space for a greater awareness of God’s grace and beauty.