In which I review Alan Noble's 'A Disruptive Witness'

In which I review Alan Noble's 'A Disruptive Witness'

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There is a certain, Alanis Morisette level, of irony in reviewing a book about ‘speaking truth in a distracted age’ written by someone I first got to know about on twitter. However, I can say that - aside from instagramming the cover and tweeting one quotation - I read and enjoyed A Disruptive Witness by Alan Noble with a minimal level of self-inflicted distraction (the same will not be true of writing this review, I procrastinate like nothing else when writing). The central concern of the book is to help Christians reflect on and practice a way of witness that is positively distinctive in the western cultural context (Noble is American and the book is written for a predominantly American audience - which does not make it irrelevant for UK Christians, because there are a lot of similarities within the church culture, and especially the evangelical church’s thinking about evangelism and witness).* It starts by offering a diagnosis of the culture, broadly, and how those of us who live in it perceive ourselves, noting the challenges this poses for Christian witness. The second section offers some concrete ideas for personal habits, church practices and cultural participation. The aim of these is to be ‘disruptive’ - by which Noble means not rowdy or deliberately, crudely offensive (there is a difference between offending and setting out to be offensive, I think), but provocative and unsettling. In a nice opening, he draws out the parable of the sower, focusing not on the sprouting and growth of the seed but on the action of the farmer in ploughing the field to prepare good soul - an activity that disrupts the soil. The start of effective witness, he is arguing, is to jolt people in or out of their comfortable norms, opening them up to consider what is different and desirable about the Christian faith.

Essentially (as the subtitle of the book suggests) Noble’s diagnosis of our cultural climate is that it is characterised by distraction. Symptoms of this include lack of concentration and focus, a lack of reflection and engagement with the harder stuff of life because it can be avoided, and by the picking up and putting down of lifestyle preferences that express our identities but are often not deeply rooted. He argues that this is a challenge for the church, because in a culture that focuses on finding authentic, individual identity expressed through choices and preferences, the Christian faith is generally understood as a preference or lifestyle, rather than a fundamental orientation towards God that shapes every other aspect of a life. It is also a challenge because Christians are also formed in this distracted culture - and so are prone to being distracted people with a distracted faith, a thinner faith that we’re more likely to be defensive of rather than confident in.

Noble’s offerings for habits, practices and participation are simple and tangible, which is not the same as saying they are easy things to do - and indeed, some are ways of being rather than things to do, and take time to bed in. Fundamental to grounding Noble’s idea of disruptive witness is Christian recognition of the fact we are not the centre of the universe and that the meaning of our lives lies outside us in our relationship with and worship of God.

He starts with an emphasis on personal contemplation and reflection that doesn’t just look inwards but does this in tandem with looking outwards towards God and developing habits, like saying grace, that roots us in a sense of living ‘in a created world sustained by a loving God.’ For church, he recommends embracing ‘being weird’ to the world at large, emphasising relationship, thinking about our liturgies, and being willing to be uncomfortable ourselves - with a very recognisable story of how often he just wants to avoid greeting people in the peace. He also provides some helpful questions messaging and modes of communication of our beliefs - and I am always here for an understanding of the fact that regardless of our intent in communication, our wider discourse will often undermine and betray us. Finally, as Christians engage in culture, Noble asks us to lean into moments of pressure where we feel a gap between what can be explained within the visible world and a sense of the invisible world, seek the presence of God, and embody this in, ‘our compassion, honesty, empathy, and abiding service…’

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In all of this Noble is building on a strong trend in contemporary Christianity to engage with Charles Taylor’s mammoth work, A Secular Age - which I confess I have not done much more than dip into for it is very large and sitting in a pile with the other Very Large Books I wish to read. (The Essential Kirkegaard is smaller than these) - notably James’ Smith’s Cultural Liturgies series.

I’ve enjoyed and been strongly influenced by this work, and I’m solidly behind the key ideas driving Noble’s argument, most particularly:

  • its embrace of witness as holistic, cutting out that pesky false word/deed dichotomy

  • its embrace of embodiment: humans have bodies and this matters - the Christian faith isn’t just about intellectual understanding, assent and articulation in order to convince others of its truth.

  • its embrace of aesthetics as a part of revelation and witness. BACH, everyone

  • its willingness to engage with the incredibly tricky question of how to communicate through modern channels without that adaption hollowing out or betraying what you actually want to express.

Engaging with this stuff has deepened my faith and shaped its expression in my life, including my confidence in it and in articulating how I understand the world. However, it has also made this understanding and articulation more complex (because it actually engages with the complexity of humanity and culture, duh) - but it gives rise to a concern for the book (not with the book). Shortly after its release I lent James Smith’s You Are What You Love to a friend, who enjoyed it but commented: ‘I’m not sure that it will convince people who don’t already agree with it.’ This, essentially is my concern here, too. Despite being really readable and, I think, right, A Disruptive Witness, with its discussions of immanence and transcendence, isn’t light stuff.

I cannot be the only person in the church world who knows people who ’don’t do theology’ either out of a lack of confidence or a suspicion that playing with intellectual ideas (especially ideas connected to postmodernism, which as any Evangelical Fule Kno is the Gateway to Relativism and thence to Hell) is a temptation to abandon simple truths. Are people up for buying and reading this stuff? And if they do, how open are they to being shifted by it - with they either close up, or - something that is easy to do - assume that they are already living like this, because of course God is at the centre of their lives shaping everything else.I hope that I’m underestimating the Christian book-buying audience (and the publishers’ comms plan) and that people will be willing to make the time for a book that has the potential to be a bit different and a bit challenging, but yeah, I'm nervous - I've been burnt before talking about these kinds of ideas with people. I'm delighted that the publishers are going here though.

So, while I wait to (hopefully) be wrong, if you’re a person who keeps coming back for my burblings, there is a strong probability that A Disruptive Witness is a kind of book that you’ll like, so you should get hold of it, read it - and then get another copy or lend yours to that friend you have who you want to talk with about these ideas.

* That said, while A Disruptive Witness is published in the States this July, but doesn’t seem to have a UK publication date yet, so you might have to import it, or lobby some publishers.

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