Tag Archives: alan noble

Disruptive Witness: a review

Alan Noble is one of the founders of Christ and Pop Culture; a few years ago I decided to throw some dollars at a subscription to Christ and Pop Culture because I think good content is worth paying money for, and I wanted to support the approach he, and the stable of writers who produce content for the site, take to cultural artefacts. I made this decision without knowing that it came with a new digital community — access to a forum where nuanced discussions are celebrated and disagreement is predominantly civil. I’ve been part of this online community since, and have benefited from the wisdom of the community but also from the first hand insight it has provided to the growing platforms of its founders, and contributors, particularly Alan. His voice during the Trump election was profound (especially this piece), and I still think this piece on lust and a theology of beauty is exceptionally pastorally helpful (I link to it often).

His book Disruptive Witness has been on my ‘must read’ list for a very long time; its seemingly endless ‘pre-release’ whet my appetite back when he published this piece on the ‘disruptive witness of art‘ last year; long time readers will know I’ve played a little bit with the idea of ‘disruption’ off the back of Paul’s appearance in Ephesus in Acts 19 — where Paul causes a ‘great disturbance’ to the idol-worshipping status quo by hollowing out the value of the idol market; I’ve suggested a Christian ‘political theology’ should be built around the idea of challenging and disturbing ‘beastly’ idolatrous regimes (mostly just channeling Brian Walsh’s Subversive Christianity). The Gospel should disturb and disrupt. It should invert and ‘crucify’ our sinful, power-hungry, self interested, defaults both individually and corporately. The challenge for us as we seek to ‘disrupt’ the world we live in is that we face the twin obstacles of ‘the secular age’ and the ‘age of distraction’; Alan’s book brings together these diagnoses and proposes a series of solutions — practices — for Christians as individuals, the church, and in culture.

Disruptive Witness applies James K.A Smith’s vision of Christian formation (from his Cultural Liturgies trilogy) to Noble’s diagnosis of the present age; which is Charles Taylor’s ‘secular age’ diagnosis paired with Noble’s articulation of what one might call ‘the age of distraction’. The particular elements of Taylor’s work that he draws on, beyond the ‘immanent frame’ we now live in where belief in the supernatural is contested more than in previous ages and the ‘buffered self’ that comes with it (where we view ourselves as individuals cut off from some transcendent source of meaning or being), are Taylor’s insights about where that leaves us individuals in a quest for meaning and identity (unpacked more in his less cited work Sources of the Self). If we no longer find meaning external to ourselves we start seeking meaning from within (think every recent Disney movie). We’re left constructing our identity not from a relationship with a creator, or with the supernatural, but with the various ‘immanent’ things we adopt and cling to — we turn to the marketplace of ideas to define ourselves authentically. As Noble says (summarising Taylor):

“So the quest for authenticity has become a central narrative of the contemporary West. To be fully human, we must discover who we are, actualize our identity, express ourselves, be true to ourselves, and so on.”

Noble’s challenge is for those of us who find our identity in Christ, and so through a connection to the transcendent, to think carefully about how we live and act in our witness to this reality so that we aren’t presenting Christianity as one ‘market’ solution; one ‘identity’ option amongst the smorgasbord of other options on the table (especially the digital table). He identifies several challenges in the digital age — our inability to escape distraction prime among them; I read this book on my kindle while driving through outback Australia — even with very sporadic connectivity I still found myself habitually opening my phone to look for a signal, and being drawn away from concentrating on the book and these thoughts at every available opportunity. His diagnosis was convicting and clear; and his synthesis of the ‘secular age’ and the ‘age of distraction’ is worth meditating on, especially when it comes to how it shapes our life and witness.

The challenge of identities that are shaped by the pursuit of some internal desire — where those desires shift as we change circumstances and as the objects of our desire disappoint or enslave — in an age of distraction — is that we don’t give ourselves the time and space to put down deep roots when it comes to identity and conviction. We don’t make space for ‘slow, careful, introspection’ of the sort required for deep transformation. Our practices mitigate against that. Or, as Noble says:

“The habits we adopt form our desires, which drive our beliefs. When those habits form desires for immediacy, superficiality, continual engagement, and instant gratification, we should expect our beliefs to reflect these desires. The content of our beliefs will be formed by our habits, but so will the nature of our beliefs.”

Briefly, as a ‘distraction’ from the main thrust of this review, and simply because I loved this part of the book so much I couldn’t let it go unrecognised — the implications of contested, fragmented, and distracted identity formation, namely that most individuals live out or ‘perform’ inherently contradictory ‘identities’ for a ‘worldview’ approach of reducing people to a certain sort of outlook on the world are worth considering. Noble suggests ‘worldview’ approaches don’t grapple with reality as experienced by individuals (as Jamie Smith suggests they don’t grapple with the way people are shaped/formed — more by love and practices rather than by deliberate ‘intellectual’ conviction).

“I contend that in practice worldview studies lack explanatory power and often misinterpret people. This is increasingly true today when the fundamental contestedness of all belief and the tendency toward thin belief have conspired to incline us to form eclectic mixes of belief, something we are often quite proud of because it separates us as individuals: I may take a bit of Marxist economics, a conservative view on family and sex and virtues, a modern empirical view of the natural world, a view of nature as raw material for human use, libertarian politics (except on economics), and then undergird it all with a Reformed faith. Would such a worldview be coherent?”

He calls for a pattern of living that doesn’t add more noise to the noisy world, but instead acts as a disruptive signal that pulls people from distraction for long enough to invite them to look beyond the buffered default. Where his diagnosis bites hard; and the platform from which he builds the second half of the book, comes when he turns his gaze to how churches have adopted the rules of the age without thinking about how the mediums shape our message.

“Even evangelicals who spurn seeker-friendly church outreach and “relevant” evangelism heed Paul’s example of being “all things to all people” in other ways (1 Corinthians 9:22), and in a culture of sound bites, viral videos, and hashtags, this regularly involves adopting the media-rich practices that so deeply shape our culture. But in developing our own viral images and mobile apps to reach connected readers, we risk contributing to the clutter and distraction of modern life rather than helping to lift our neighbours out of it. Even more concerning, by adopting these ephemeral cultural expressions, we may signal to our neighbours that Christianity is merely another consumer preference in the endless sea of preferences we use to define ourselves as individuals.”

As I read that particular paragraph I was able to put words to something I’d been thinking as I’ve explored what a Christian aesthetic might look like recently; if we take 1 Corinthians 9 as a call to imitate culture in order to be all things to all people, rather than to understand the culture such that we appropriately incarnate the message of Jesus in the culture, the danger isn’t just what Noble identifies here, but that we’re trapped in a mode of always being a derivative ‘poorer cousin’ rather than shaping the culture we have embedded in by innovating (and this is the problem most of us intuitively recognise with contemporary Christian music). 1 Corinthians 9 is one of the most formative passages in how I understand the role of the church; but somehow it always ends up looking like being five years behind the culture stylistically, a lack of critical media-literacy when it comes to how the medium is the message, and very rarely like Paul’s application of his own principles in the book of Acts — where he engages with poets and philosophers in speaking to the Areaopagus, but doesn’t make little silver statues of Jesus when disrupting Ephesus and its media practices.

While I’m more inclined to quote Marshall McLuhan than his student Neil Postman, Postman’s essay Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change is worth considering at this point, in support of the thesis of Disruptive Witness. Here are his five things:

“First, that we always pay a price for technology; the greater the technology, the greater the price.

Second, that there are always winners and losers, and that the winners always try to persuade the losers that they are really winners.

Third, that there is embedded in every great technology an epistemological, political or social prejudice. Sometimes that bias is greatly to our advantage. Sometimes it is not. The printing press annihilated the oral tradition; telegraphy annihilated space; television has humiliated the word; the computer, perhaps, will degrade community life. And so on.

Fourth, technological change is not additive; it is ecological, which means, it changes everything and is, therefore, too important to be left entirely in the hands of Bill Gates.

And fifth, technology tends to become mythic; that is, perceived as part of the natural order of things, and therefore tends to control more of our lives than is good for us.”

If we uncritically adopt technological or media practices without paying heed to these impacts then we’re in danger of losing control of our communication to the technological mediums we adopt; and having the ‘myth’ at the heart of that technology obliterate what it is we are seeking to communicate. We’re more likely to be co-opted by the world than disruptive. Postman also sounds this warning as he unpacks that fifth point:

“Our enthusiasm for technology can turn into a form of idolatry and our belief in its beneficence can be a false absolute. The best way to view technology is as a strange intruder, to remember that technology is not part of God’s plan but a product of human creativity and hubris, and that its capacity for good or evil rests entirely on human awareness of what it does for us and to us.”

Noble frames the warning this way, alongside this challenge:

“…the church is often tempted to look at popular communication in culture and mimic it with a Christian message. And while mimicking the methods of communication in wider culture can sometimes be valuable, it can also unintentionally signal to readers that Christianity is just like all these other ideas. 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.”

Resisting this effect and taking up this challenge is at the heart of Disruptive Witness; the book offers strategies and practices for resistance so that we can instead be shaped by the Gospel in order to bear witness to it not as one ‘identity’ to adopt amongst or in competition with others; but as an identity we are adopted into by God as he works in us by the Spirit through our union with Jesus.

“The gospel is not a preference. It’s not another piece of flair we add to our vest. It’s something far more beautiful and disturbing. The gospel is the power to raise the dead, to proclaim the greatness of God in a fallen and confused world. To be a follower of Christ in the early twenty-first century requires a way of being in the world that resists being sucked into the numbing glare of undifferentiated preferences we choose from to define our identity.”

Noble turns from diagnosis to prescribing treatments in the second half of the work; it’s here that he puts down Taylor and picks up Jamie Smith as a conversation partner. The second section of the book is divided between ‘disruptive personal habits,’ ‘disruptive church practices,’ and ‘disruptive cultural participation.’

“On the personal level, we need to cultivate habits of contemplation and presence that help us accept the wonder and grandeur of existence and examine our assumptions about meaning and transcendence. At the level of the church, we must abandon practices adopted from the secular marketplace that trivialise our faith, and instead return to traditional church practices that encourage contemplation and awe before a transcendent God. Finally, in our cultural participation, we can reveal the cross pressures of the secular age and create space for conversations about the kind of anxieties and delights that we repress in order to move through adulthood.”

On the personal front, Noble recommends adopting particular spiritual disciplines that push back against a hyper-connected age (and Mike Cosper’s Recapturing Wonder makes a really nice companion piece for this section) — while recommendations around keeping a sabbath and deliberately saying (and meaning) grace before a meal (especially in public) are refreshingly framed around formation for our good rather than legalism, the habit that really ‘sang’ for me was the development of an aesthetic life and the practice of what Noble calls ‘the double movement’.

“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 neighbour. 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.”

This is simply an attempt to habituate Paul’s statement about creation in 1 Timothy 4 (“everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer”). Noble gives several examples of how this ‘double movement’ might come into play (including one articulated in his piece on lust linked above); but at the heart of the ‘double movement’ and personal disruption is the development of a properly-ordered appreciation of beauty; particularly to see the ‘allusive’ quality of beauty in this world — that it always points to something beyond itself (think C.S Lewis’ The Weight of Glory). Where Noble goes with ‘allusiveness’ and aesthetics is the reason this book will be on the list of books I work through with people for years to come; alongside Smith’s You Are What You Love.  

A couple of years ago I interviewed Smith for Eternity News about You Are What You Love — which is a great summary volume of his bigger trilogy — and there are a couple of things he said in that interview that are useful in unpacking some of the implications of Disruptive Witness, and form some of my critique of both Smith and Noble’s work (though to be clear, there’s much more that I affirm). Here’s a nice summary of Smith’s framework, that is something like the backbone of what Disruptive Witness suggests as a model for our life together as Christians.

“In You Are What You Love, I suggest that the forms of Christianity that will most effectively tap into and speak to people’s enduring hunger for the sacred will be forms of what we might call “ancient” or enchanted Christianity – sacramental Christianity that is tactile, embodied, material, “catholic” (though not necessarily “Roman”). That’s why I suggest that the future of Christianity is ancient. And too much “contemporary” Christianity doesn’t realise how much it has accepted the terms of disenchantment.”

Smith, like Noble, sees the arts as an avenue for Christians to avoid being formed by the secular age and its rival ‘liturgies’ (like a liturgy of technological distraction), and the best bits of Disruptive Witness are the bits that go beyond Smith’s thinking here, or that unpack it to the point of supplying and suggesting practices that might form part of a disruptive ‘liturgy’ (when Smith and Noble talk ‘liturgy’ they mean habits oriented towards a certain sort of formation of people, shaped by a vision of the ‘good’ or ‘full’ human life — so how we live together as the church is always liturgical, but so too is how a shopping centre or social media platform is set up to shape us in particular ways). Here’s Smith again:

“I think the arts are a big piece of this – both visual arts and literature. The arts refuse the kind of flattened, brain-on-a-stick temptation of modernity. Well, at least good art does. There are all kinds of terribly bad art that is horribly didactic and just tries to offer “pretty” modes of transmission for some “message”. And unfortunately a lot of that bad art calls itself “Christian” art.

But good art – art that is allusive, oblique, suggestive, evocative, imaginative, art that traffics in mystery – living with that kind of art can re-enchant the world for us. It can become the wallpaper of our experience; it can be woven into our daily rhythms. The films of Terence Malick, the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, the poetry of Les Murray, the paintings of Mako Fujimura – these are all avenues of enchantment that will help us to resist the disenchantment and commodification of a commercialist, consumeristic culture.”

Note that Smith too centres on ‘art that is allusive’ as part of what might blow us out of the ‘secular age’ paradigm; Noble expands on the aesthetic life and how art might form part of our witness in the ‘disruptive cultural participation’ section of the book too, but before we conclude there, the section on ‘disruptive church practices’ is where my main disagreements lie; and not necessarily for the reasons that might seem obvious upon reading his critique of modern church practices (that sound very much like the practices of my church).

“If the challenge of bearing witness in a distracted, secular age is that buffered people struggle to recognize the distinctiveness of the Christian faith, then our first task is to ensure that we are not inadvertently helping to obscure the gospel by adopting secular ideas that undermine it. I have in mind here everything from church signs to Christian T-shirts to the setup of our church stages and pulpits. As the church has taken more and more of its cues from a secular, market-driven culture, we’ve picked up some bad habits and flawed thinking about branding, marketing, and promotion. We’ve tried to communicate the gospel with cultural tools that are used to promote preferences, not transcendent, exclusive truths. We see the same trends at work in high-production church services that feel more like a concert and TED Talk than a sacred event. High-quality video clips interrupt the sermon. The pastor paces the stage with a headset mic, skillfully weaving facts, stories, and dramatic pauses. The young, fashionably dressed worship band puts on a performance at center stage. The lighting and volume make it clear who the congregation should be paying attention to. Each element of the service alludes to bits of popular culture that draw the audience in. The cumulative effect is to give the impression that the Christian faith is something akin to a good motivational conference.”

Noble unpacks some of these ‘media’ choices to make his point, and while he doesn’t make a blanket statement that anything technological or ‘worldly’ is bad, he does call for some serious discernment about how to balance a desire to be ‘all things to all people’ in our communication, with the danger that our message will lose its distinctive call. It’s a sort of ‘media literacy’ I hope continues to reform the practices of the church, for the reasons he identifies.

“The way we speak, write, and visually depict our faith has a serious effect on the way others conceive of the nature of faith. Words like sin, redemption, guilt, and grace are tied up with the rhetorical shape we give them. And if that shape takes its source from a secular marketplace, we can expect the words to be heard as part of that marketplace.”

My problem is with the solutions he prescribes; and they’re the same problems I have with the same solutions prescribed by Smith. I am all for looking beyond the practices we might adopt from the age we live in — the ‘distracted age’ or the dis-enchanted ‘secular age’ that will see us not being ‘conformed to the patterns of this world,’ but being transformed by the renewing of our minds. I am all for that involving a ‘looking backwards’ to ages that had different pressures and patterns, and to the practices of faithful Christians in those times; but I’m wary of prescriptions that don’t carefully consider how those forms, too, were a product of their own time and place.

There’s a trend in Christian publishing at the moment amongst authors grappling with how to bear witness in a changing landscape to find a solution from some point in church history and to seek to replicate it rather than to be poorly imitating the culture around us; that’s the Benedict Option with its turn to monasticism, and Smith with his return to medieval practices (which came from a time where the ‘backcloth’ of life was not secular but shot through with supernatural meaning — as described in C.S Lewis’ The Discarded Image). Noble isn’t quite so keen to normalise the ‘cathedral’ experience as some of Smith’s writing, but I’m yet to be convinced that the sort of liturgy he outlines pre-dates the Medieval church (there are certainly elements of liturgy of the sort Noble suggests in the descriptions of church gatherings in The First Apology of Justin Martyr. I’m also not sure any traditional liturgy is devoid of certain forms from the age they emerged in. Like monasticism before it, medieval Christianity assumed certain categories, functioned in a particular social and physical location (at the centre of the town square), in a certain sort of architecture (a cruciform building centred on the altar) — the forms of liturgy developed in those cultural ages reflected assumptions no longer true in our age, such that a return to those forms, even if it pushes us beyond our cultural defaults (particularly distracted individualism and the self-centred pursuit of piecemeal ‘authentic’ experiences) might solve some problems without necessarily being the panacea we hope for; if we’re going to look for ‘ages’ to draw practices from, my contention is still that our present experience as Christians will increasingly more closely reflect the experiences of Christians pre-Christendom, whether that’s outside the west, or pre-Constantine. I’m not sure, for example, practices and church services built around available public space will survive and thrive, whereas a return to ‘family’ life like that found in the New Testament church might push back against some of the present cultural concerns. While I’m convinced by Smith (and Noble, and Augustine) that liturgy is important (and indeed inevitable) for formation, I’m also not sure we should be prescriptive and ancient when it comes to shaping a liturgy rather than imaginatively seeking to create disruptive practices within certain parameters, confident in the Spirit transforming us, looking both backwards to the richness of our tradition, sideways to the de-formative practices and assumptions of our present age, and forwards to the new creation while being mindful of things like media ecology and the importance of form. I’m not sure the Medieval Church had it right in terms of disruptive practices, coming as it did before a decline (and before the ‘secular age’), but I’m reasonably confident that the early church radically re-shaped the western world. I’m more inclined to consider practices outlined in something like Acts 2, Justin Martyr’s apology, and the Epistle to Diognetus than other more recent ‘traditions’. While Noble has a quick dig at our modern obsession with personality type understandings of our humanity (including Myers-Briggs), and while I enjoyed that — I can’t help but think that like Smith, he might not avoid prescribing an approach to liturgy shaped by a certain sort of personal preference (something I explored elsewhere).

That critique aside, the section on disruptive cultural participation is my favourite — and is reflected in Noble’s web project Christ and Pop Culture at its best. Part of Noble’s diagnosis of the world we live in is that most people are constructing their sense of ‘fulness’ or the good life through stories. We’re seeking distraction and affirmation in stories. We seek communities that affirm those stories. One of the solutions then, to disrupting people, is to change the story by embracing and challenging the stories in our culture, to see stories as ‘allusive’ opportunities for both a ‘double movement’ on our part, but to invite others to consider that move too — the move from secular ‘immanence’ to connecting with the transcendent God.

“When Christians interpret, critique, and discuss stories with our neighbours, we can model a contemplative approach that promotes self-reflection and honesty, inviting empathy rather than promoting the detached rationalism of the buffered self. We can offer interpretations that affirm and account for our longings for forms of beauty, goodness, order, and love that find their being beyond the immanent frame.”

This comes with an important ‘how-not-to’ as well; something I’ve always loved about the way Christ and Pop Culture deals with art (and why I threw some money their way).

I am not recommending that we participate in stories in order to find allegories for Christ or spiritual truths. This method doesn’t take the world of the story seriously; it treats the story as a prop. Instead, we should consider what the story says about life and explore its truth in relation to our experience… The correct posture for Christians approaching a story is one of humility, charity, and a desire to know.

The way the book explores our presence in and explanation of tragedy both in art-as-story and in life-as-story is a beautiful fleshing out of how ‘disruption’ isn’t always un-settling or disturbing for our neighbours, but instead is the blessing that comes as we embody the story of Jesus in the world for the sake of others — a disruptive witness indeed.

“It is this kind of witness that we are called to bear in the world today—a witness that defies secular expectation and explanation, that unsettles our neighbours from their technological/consumerist stupor, and that gambles everything on the existence and goodness of a transcendent (and immanent!) God, whose sacrificial love for us compels us to love in return.”

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Excuse my French: A response to Stephen McAlpine’s Plan B planning

The ever provocative Stephen McAlpine has a new post up urging Christians to head to the bunkers (hyperbole, just) in response to the postal survey and Royal commission findings. I like Stephen, I think he has useful insights and a cracking turn of phrase… and, along with Mikey Lynch we’ve talked about doing a bit of a ‘blog in the flesh’ type jaunt around the Benedict Option (the theme of his latest post); in the absence of an ‘in the flesh’ thrashing out of what the Benedict Option might look like for an Australian context and outside the context of the big-O Orthodox tradition Dreher writes from, here’s a written response… (the second response I’ve written to a thing of Stephen’s this week — you’ll have to stay tuned for an article in Zadok magazine that Arthur Davis from meetjesusatuni.com and I co-wrote about millennials and church).

The post, titled ‘Church: Plan for a plan B future’ is a call to jump on board the Dreher train; when it comes to Rod Dreher’s specific framework, his ‘option,’ I’ve already voiced my opinion and won’t rehash it here, except to say that I feel like both Dreher and Stephen underemphasise the external focus of Christian life and thus Christian community; you’ve got to train the way you play as a Christian; withdrawing for ‘training’ and formation will be being formed in precisely the wrong posture and with the wrong telos in view; if we’re to be images of Jesus, being transformed by the Spirit until he returns, we’re to be God’s visible representatives in the world — ambassadors for Jesus, not just embassies for Jesus where people might find themselves; and this ambassadorial role should thrust us into some uncomfortable places where we may well be crucified; but this crucifixion is formative and not a reason to withdraw, in fact, it’s a witness to the truth of the Gospel.

Stephen’s piece suggests there are two possible ways to reject Dreher’s (or his own) position. You’re either a liberal or an ostrich, who both misses the power of the cultural diagnosis, or is scared off by the ‘withdraw’ idea. There’s a third option which overlaps with this second one — those who simply don’t understand the complexity of Dreher’s very clear proposition, and so reject it.

“The naysayers have fallen in to two camps.  Those who like the change they see in the culture, affirm it, and think that the church needs to get with the times.  For them there is no need for strategic withdrawal, merely strategic cultural assimilation.  After all what’s not to like about an ageing, shrinking, faithless demographic in your denomination?”

“Others, more likely in the evangelical camp, hear the word “withdrawal” and think “retreat”, “surrender”, “give up”.  They fail to hear the words “strategic” or “return”, so loud are their heart palpitations.  I’ve been to a conference in which the speaker mentioned that naughty “w” word, and was afterwards surrounded by slightly narky people of the “no surrender” type.  May I humbly suggest if that is you, you’d don’t get it?”

Here’s my third way summary to save you getting to the end. I reject Dreher’s Option and McAlpine’s “Plan B” because I think we’re called to be cross-shaped disruptors of the worldly status quo, and not to do that from a position away from the public square or ‘withdrawal’ (as Dreher means it). We’re to take our lead from Paul’s infiltration of Caesar’s household, not from the monastic community of the Essenes or the Benedictine Order.

When Dreher talks ‘strategic’ and ‘return’, I wonder if Stephen shares his timeframe? It’s definitely not in the short term, if his analogy to Benedictine communities and the dark ages is the ballpark we’re playing in we’re not talking about a few years, or decades, but lifetimes; an epoch.

The whole Benedictine analogy is a little tediously anachronistic — these were pre-internet times where it was much harder to form rapid, community driven, responses to political pressure and change, and a much less easily global/transient time where it was much easier to talk about society as mono-cultural, and most of the ‘from above’ political or cultural movements were reasonably difficult to resist. I’m not suggesting global connectivity is a panacea to the pressures of the world, just that a strategy from the dark ages might not be the most imaginative solution (especially when it involves actively disconnecting from these technologies — non ironically suggested by a blogger who has gained global attention for his ideas and sales for his books from these platforms he sees as dangerously ‘deforming’).

I’ve read the Benedict Option. Twice… and plenty of Dreher’s blog posts both before its release and about the response to the book. I think the Benedict Option is a Rorschach test; it has it both ways on the language and descriptions so much that it just gets read according to how alarmist one might be; if you fully drink Dreher’s kool-aid, you’ll find, in it, an urging to monastic living and ark building, but more moderate readers will find plenty of strategies for thicker Christian community; what you won’t find is a manual for hopeful Christian engagement anywhere that looks like a ‘corridor of power’ — be it the legal fraternity, politics (perhaps apart from the particularly local variety), or workplaces where the business is actively engaged in the ‘market’ such that shareholders and stakeholders will want the business to bend the knee to Caesar, be it the Caesar of the political, economic, or sexual empires. Dreher would have us head to rural communities and bunker down in a mostly ‘closed’ but rich communal life, where we start small businesses, work with out hands, and structure a deep and local church (with Christian schools and businesses) that can whether the storms the world throws our way.

In his take we’re defeated already — we’re headed for a dark ages, and Christianity, in particular, is going to be expunged from influence and from the public square.

It’s hard for me to totally buy this narrative, when:

a) it was mostly produced before the ‘evangelical’ movement in America elected Trump and jumped into bed with the empire (thus destroying the credibility of the church and the doomsday scenario that says it has no power),
b) in Australia there’s a robust egalitarianism and distrust of all institutions that has been around since ‘institutional Christianity’ was responsible for whipping convicts and seeking to displace and dispossess the indigenous community (until Christians decided our indigenous neighbours were human, and so set apart ‘converting’ them by making them act like white people and institutionalising them in a literal sense).
c) our political institutions still have Christian trappings like the Lord’s Prayer, and a significant number of our politicians are Christians who speak in favour of religious freedoms even as they vote for same sex marriage as a democratic duty.
d) the church is perceived as a powerful institution wielding disproportionate influence on the shape of Australian society (particularly from the top down)
e) research (from McCrindle) suggests most Aussies don’t hate the church or Jesus at all; they do, however, seem to have problems with our stance on homosexuality and with church abuse; homosexuality is the top ‘issue’ that functions as a belief blocker for non-Christians, while church abuse is the top ‘behaviour’ that blocks belief.

It only seems to be Christians who believe that the pursuit of different rights and programs for LGBTIQ+ Aussies has to come at the direct expense of Christians. Now, this might be true, but I simply don’t believe the binary options for rejecting the Benedict Option as a strategy, nor do I buy that Dreher’s diagnosis adequately describes either the scene in Trumpland or in Australia. I’ve certainly not experienced ‘hate’ or being ‘pushed out’ of the public square by anybody but Christians — one prominent Aussie apologist said I should be de-platformed by the Gospel Coalition and called out as a liberal because of the stance I suggested people take on the postal survey…

I don’t buy this ‘there’s only one way… and it’s down’ narrative… I prefer the diagnosis in Wilkinson and Joustra’s How To Survive The Apocalypse, that modern (global) society never just moves in one direction but is in constant tension; I also don’t believe that the church has nailed our public Christianity strategy (or theology) (a drum I’ve been banging for years). Stephen had a dig at me for not having an appropriate political theology in a back and forth on Facebook this week, but I’m simply not sure that assertion creates truth simply by being spoken…

In his own take on the Australian scenario, particularly following the legislation of same sex marriage and the release of the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional abuse, Stephen says:

“For let’s face it, the wider culture does not look at the two events separately, no matter how much we say “Yes, but.”  We kinda need to stop saying “Yes, but” at some stage. We’re not being heard and we’re not likely to be.  The wider culture has signalled that it has made the precipitous move to celebrate sexuality in a manner that the church does not, and will, if pressed, simply state that the church has not been practising sexuality in the way that the church has publicly celebrated.

Don’t say “Yes but.”

For whether or not this is true of all churches, indeed of the majority, is not the point.  In this post-Christian culture as far as the world is concerned, we’re all in this together.  Our echo chamber conversations are a waste of time.  The media conversation sets the tone for the barbecue conversations, so you’d better get used to it.”

I’m unconvinced that the media is as hostile to Christianity as McAlpine suggests; for every Q&A lion’s den, there’s an Andrew Bolt. I am convinced the Aussie media field is massively fragmented and that people are increasingly committed to getting their news and analysis from echo chambers that reinforce existing beliefs and hasten the polarisation and tribalism of the Australian community — which is exactly the danger of the Benedict Option. It supports a tribal, self-interested, form of Christianity that offers a hopelessness in the face of the world’s problems rather than a practice of loving engagement in issues that provides our proclamation of the logos of the Gospel with an ethos to match.

If an inability to have truly civic dialogue and the politicisation of every thing public are two pressing cultural issues in our fragile democracy, then why would Christians withdraw our voice from the public square — particularly given the way this plays out in barbecue conversations? Why would we not seek to create, curate, or patronise (in the sense of supporting) public squares that are less polarising and more open to civic conversation (rather than firing off opinion pieces to The Spectator). Why would we cede defeat and so stop trying? I don’t speak in total ignorance here, plenty of my professional life was spent engaging with the journalists who are now in large media institutions in capital cities, and the most ‘hostile’ or outspoken atheist of the bunch is the one who occasionally engages in civil conversation about politics on my Facebook wall…  An anecdote like this is not data, but the same ABC that employs Tony Jones to run Q&A, also employed Scott Stephens to run a religion and ethics portal, and to host a radio show discussing faith in Australia.

Here’s Stephen’s take (which does give us a time frame — a generation — but also a scenario that drives his ‘Plan B’ strategy):

“So I am all for religious freedoms and freedom of conscience in the public square.  I am committed to pushing for governments to continue funding faith schools that are not required to sign off on anti-discrimination legislations in terms of employment.  I am committed to doing so until it proves impossible.  Which it will indeed prove. So we’d better have a Plan B.  If we don’t we’re plain stupid and playing stupid.

For me, Plan B is Plan Benedict.  And the reason is simple:  I believe that the current hard secular context will push and push and push, and then find that the pendulum swings back against it somewhat.  True there may be irretrievable losses for the church in terms of state favour, but if the goal is a strong church that can demonstrate in word and deed that it runs counter to the culture, and that it is, in my term, “repellently attractive”, then that is a win as far as I am concerned.

Of course you will only see that as a win if you’re prepared to put in the hard work for a generation.”

It’s not all doom and gloom. These are actually fighting words fuelled by a vision of the secular landscape in France (which is different, again, to the secular landscape in the US, and makes me wonder why the secular landscape in Australia has to be the same as those, or even an amalgam).

“The point of the Benedict Option is not that we hide away as the culture gets worse and worse, but that we prepare ourselves for the new landscape that we will have to negotiate; a landscape that will be harsher and that will require a deeper commitment to a seemingly less plausible, more marginalised counter culture – the church of God.

It’s about toughening up, creating alternative institutions for our children to learn and grow in.  Think Star Wars and Jedi Knight training, as opposed to hill-billy fundamentalists.  B/O-ers are planning on coming back, if Jesus doesn’t first.

And will the cultural aggression die down to a point where we can find a non-contested place in the public square again?”

If you’re not in a monotheistic culture where the public square is a temple to a particular god, the public square is always contested; it will always be contested until the return of Jesus. This contest is not reason to withdraw but to remain as faithful witnesses; withdrawing to ‘prepare for a new landscape’ is not the model of the faithful church in Revelation who stays in the public square to be killed and ridiculed (and ultimately vindicated).

Now when they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the Abyss will attack them, and overpower and kill them. Their bodies will lie in the public square of the great city—which is figuratively called Sodom and Egypt—where also their Lord was crucified. For three and a half days some from every people, tribe, language and nation will gaze on their bodies and refuse them burial.The inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them and will celebrate by sending each other gifts, because these two prophets had tormented those who live on the earth.

But after the three and a half days the breath of life from God entered them,and they stood on their feet, and terror struck those who saw them. Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Come up here.” And they went up to heaven in a cloud, while their enemies looked on.” — Revelation 11:7-12

Now. Everybody has their own theological hot take on Revelation, but because I believe it had to speak to its first readers in an apocalyptic ‘revelatory’ voice about the situation they were facing that it has to describe their reality first, and so it describes reality living in a world where powerful human institutions are often ‘beastly’ minions of Satan who cause damage and oppression, especially to those who disrupt their ‘rule’ by challenging the worldly status quo; those disruptive voices (historically) either succeed, or are crucified — a different sort of success… often success leads to the people who win it taking on the mantle of worldly power; and so, Christendom was not all roses though it is, as Stephen acknowledges, the bedrock of western society. Which makes me wonder why he is so pessimistic about our ability to wield change in this moment when the church has been an agent of transformation in the past, and he hopes, following Benedict, that we might be again in the future.

The way we bring transformation — the way the early church did — is through cruciform difference — through faithful witness to the point of suffering, in the public square. That is how God works. It is ever so. Not by removing ourselves from the square, but by staying, and seeking its good, hopeful that God might also work through that…

And so. The French. Stephen shares some thoughts from a French friend about the way the Aussie scene mirrors the French; and his fears that we’re heading into Plan B territory without a plan; unprepared.

“To put it crassly, French secularism – or laïcité as they call it –  has won.  It doesn’t have to be shouty because the contest is seemingly over.  In other words, our Plan B is French Christianity’s small “p” plan.  There simply were, are and will be no other options in the near future.”

In France, Stephen says, there is no place for religion in the public square:

“Now that sounds terrible.  I want a religious discussion in the public square.  But, as Daniel observed about Australia, the idea of open-minded discussion is well in the past. We’re kidding ourselves if we think the public square in Australia is open-minded, fair and tolerant.  And our opponents would simply say, that’s exactly how we felt and now we’re getting our own back.  And we can protest that all we like, but it’s what is playing out.  If you’ve got no Plan B, you’re in trouble.”

I reckon Stephen is every bit as educated in the ways of the media as I am; but I think we’re being sold a pup here if we’re to believe that the public square is the institutional media of yesteryear; that the ‘public square’ is the media of the elite, or some sort of homogenous forum. I think this monolithic take on the public square is outdated (and perhaps if it were truly the case then then Benedict Option would be a good one; and we could go create (local) media-institutions-as-echo-chambers for our own people, or Christian pirate radio… or just tune in to commercial Christian radio I guess…  This is an attitude I’ve found prevalent in ‘establishment’ types (after a recent post I was challenged to prove my claim I’d read ‘piece after piece’ about Christianity being under attack, and this claim was dismissed because there was nothing ‘mainstream’ from ‘credible’ platforms). Old media thinking is going to get us an old media strategy — and not even our politicians are playing that game come election time anymore…

The public square isn’t just your editorial page in the Oz, or in the Herald, or Q&A (to start with, the readerships and audiences for those platforms are plummeting), and nor is it these places informing public opinion. The public square is your Facebook newsfeed and the online presence you stake a claim for via publication and curation of content. The public square is contested not because there is one dominant voice, but because there are now a chorus of voices bombarding us, but this also means we have the opportunity to curate our own public space, and invite people in to the discussion by how we operate it. It may be that I’ve picked option one in ‘rejecting the Benedict Option’ in Stephen’s opinion, but I’ve not found the ‘public square’ I play in in the social media world to be as he has described it. The challenge for us as we curate and create content for this public square is to understand the mediums and platforms (how algorithms work) so as to play them creatively; and to engage in a way that is both interesting and compelling (and yes, different to the world). Life in the ‘new world’ will, as Stephen suggests, require creativity and thick community, but not a sense of hopelessness about what that sort of community can achieve beyond its boundaries, or about the tangible difference such a community might represent to those who sense in it the ‘aroma of life’.

While Stephen’s piece is about as optimistic as he gets, here’s his conclusion, with a bit of French flourish.

“Perhaps it’s time for us in the church in places such as the US, Australia and to a lesser extent, the UK, to look to places like France as our example.  Because that’s the future that is coming.  2018 might be the year to look to hard secular Europe and do some reconnaissance (another nice French word!)”

I want to suggest a different French word starting with R; and (first) one starting with E. The problem I had with the Benedict Option’s pessimism about our ability to be economic influencers is it lacked imagination; it pushed a return to non-market driven professions, particularly local artisanal businesses — work with our hands — and there’s nothing wrong with that, there’s indeed, something beautiful and formative about that sort of work… but I wonder if there’s more ‘imaginative’ rejections of the status quo — of ‘market Babylon’ in being entrepreneurs (a French word, contra President Bush), particularly social entrepreneurs who reject the status quo of participating in the market and seek the good of communities and neighbours by explicitly rejecting an idolatrous tug every bit as powerful as the world’s take on sex.

When David Foster Wallace (DFW) talked about ‘default settings’ and our worship of sex, money, and power in his famous This Is Water, he was describing the way the world pulls us away from who God made us to be (though without God being in the picture). The ‘beastly’ world of the book of Revelation… the ‘real world’ we live in…

“And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it”

DFW was describing the sort of worldly forces that Dreher (and McAlpine) see taking the world to a new dark ages… being entrepreneurs who imagine ways to reject this status quo may provide us a path away from the dark ages, or a dark age strategy before we even get there, especially if the world we live in is in a constant stage of ‘democratised’ flux, where everybody truly is their own king.of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms. Being entrepreneurial in a deliberate rejection of the ‘merry hum’ of this deadly world is, perhaps, a more optimistic form of withdrawal that doesn’t involve quitting the economic scene, but seeking to disrupt it by being present and playing by different rules.

Perhaps I’m naive; but the team at Thankyou would be a pretty compelling anecdote in favour of this being a live option (perhaps especially for those dreaded, flighty, millennials who all want to be CEO of their own company at the beginning of our careers).

But the other word I want to push back with is renaissance; I’m not sure why we’re getting our marching orders from the cultural move that was a protective measure against the dark ages rather than from the rapid movement out of the dark ages. I’m also not sure why when we look back to church history we look at what saw the ‘Christian’ empire effectively collapse, rather than the church’s strategy that saw it gain a foothold (I call it the ‘Diognetus Option’)… If we’re going to talk about being a creative minority let’s not, in the same breath, talk about not participating in the creative arts (or, following Dreher, avoiding the formative power of the television). Let’s harness that power and seek to create art that is excellent and present in the now fragmented media landscape. You don’t need a distribution deal from a big Hollywood power broker to influence ‘culture’ any more…

I was struck today as I read a piece by Alan Noble on the Gospel Coalition, The Disruptive Witness of Art, that it offers a sort of hopeful antithesis to the Benedict Option, of the type I hope his forthcoming Disruptive Witness will continue, a push towards cultural renaissance without cultural abandonment or cultural capitulation. A via media via the media.

Bearing witness to the Christian faith in the 21st century requires a disruptive witness,  one that unsettles our neighbor’s assumptions about life within the immanent frame. One powerful way to accomplish this is through interpreting and creating cultural works that speak not only to our minds but also our bodies, emotions, and memories. Taylor has given us valuable tools to better understand our neighbors and the kinds of anxieties that haunt both them and ourselves. To cultivate the deep knowledge to apply Taylor’s ideas, we will need significant investment in the Christian liberal and creative arts.

The sort of art he’s talking about isn’t the art produced in a parallel community for the formation of that community; but in and through engagement with the world and the ‘creative commons’ — or the public square that includes more than just politics and political discussions. That seems to me a more exciting option or plan for the church to pursue. One that requires imagination and listening (to the world); one that means training the way we play, not heading off to some training field but racking up game time experience; because that’s what counts.