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.”