Alan Noble - "Disruptive Witness"
5:28PM Jul 8, 2020
Jonathan J. Armstrong
Today it is our huge honor to be speaking with Dr. Alan Noble. Dr. Alan Noble is assistant professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University and co founder and editor in chief of Christ and pop culture. also author of the texts that we'll be discussing today Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age. Dr. Noble, thank you so much for being with us.
Thank you for having me,
Dr. Noble kudos on that recent shout out that Tim Keller gave to you best book I've read recently. Congratulations. That's quite
an Yeah. Thank you. Thank you. Yeah, he doesn't say what recently is defined as so it might be. I was
assuming that was like the last 20 years or so. So I think that is a very significant thing. Yeah. So this book has created some really great buzz and many have commented on the insightful analysis. of our culture's distraction that you given this book, How did you come to recognize distraction and the crisis of distraction that our culture faces.
So a couple of things happened. One of the benefits of teaching college students is that you get to watch college students, and you get to see how they interact with technology and their texts and ideas and their faith. So, you know, there was plenty to work with there. And then also, I think, for the vast majority of of Americans who are, you know, above the poverty line, technology of distraction is an everyday experience, right? I mean, there's a tiny minority who don't have any smartphone or who are not on social media, but for the vast majority of us this is this is a daily struggle. And so this book is it is absolutely a book written out of my own experience struggling with distraction the you know, the dangerous sides of Social media and technology. And it's something I continue to wrestle with. And and as technology progresses and new apps and devices are created, it's something that I'll continue to have to be discerning about and checking on and evaluating. So I would say, out of those two things, the The third thing was I years ago, maybe eight years, nine years ago now, I kind of thought experiment, thinking about
the work of Francis Schaffer, who
built the library in Switzerland and then libre programs and other countries, including a number in the United States. And the model being that people in the 60s and 70s, would come to the centers to talk about life's big questions, you know, why do we exist, who is God, these sorts of things, and he had atheists and Hindus and Muslims and former Christians and Christian, you know, all kinds of people would come to him desiring to deal with and wrestle with these issues. And that was a great opportunity for Francis Schaffer to, to share the gospel. And I asked myself as sort of a thought experiment, could I do this today? So if I turn my house into a labrie, how would that be different? Would it be as effective? And I found myself initially saying, I don't think it would quite work. So the next question is, well, why What has changed? And what what would happen? And, and sort of the answer I sort of came up with is that I don't think many, I don't think people non Christians are asking these big questions, at least not in the same way as they did 5050 years ago.
I understand it, right now, a lot of the libre programs, you know, they tend to be
people who attend them
are often Christians who were sort of wrestling with their faith as opposed to non Christians looking for answers. And so then I asked, Well, why not? Why are people you know, it's not that we don't have Have a crisis of meaning all of a sudden, that's certainly not the case. So what's what's going on? And distraction came to mind just this thought that that it is easier today to push away those questions about faith and about meaning and about, you know, justification and things like this.
And so, so that was that sort of sparked the book for me,
Dr. Noble. Throughout your book, you refer to Charles Taylor's book, a secular age. How does Taylor's analysis of secularity inform your own notion of distraction in this study?
Yeah, so reading a secular age as a graduate student at Baylor University was sort of life changing. The best books, in my opinion, are ones that give you language and a framework to explain what you've experienced but can't describe and that's what a secular age did for me. I sort of intuitively felt that we do live in a secular age. That there is a kind of distance that we feel between ourselves and the transcendent that we struggle to make sense of a true religious belief. And Taylor was able to come along and say, Well, okay, here's why you're feeling that. And here's why this is, this is a common experience. And so that was incredibly useful to me, the way that intersected with technology of distraction. It specifically the question of the challenge to belief when that happened was that Taylor described the way our secular age makes it difficult for us to believe and when he says secularism, he does not mean atheism, which is a very common that's sort of how I grew up thinking of secularism. He actually been The
conditions under which
Christianity or belief in God is just one of an increasing number of possible belief systems available to modern people and increase and also increasingly one of the least plausible. And that that was my experience growing up in the church. I always knew I grew up in the church, but I always knew I didn't have to be a Christian because there are lots of people I knew who seemed to live fulfilling lives you didn't believe. And that's a very different understanding of faith than what people would have experienced in let's say, the Middle Ages where everyone was Christian, at least in Europe, and they couldn't imagine not being Christian. So one of the effects of some of the effects of secularism as he describes it,
are that we
everything is flattened. So I know I'm a Christian, but I also know somebody who's an atheist and seems to be very, live a very fulfilling life. religion, politics, commerce all appear on my social media feed in one sort of flat, undifferentiated
And this flattening effect i think is absolutely encouraged by technology of distraction. Because when you have this feeling that there's no way to differentiate between what is true and all the other lifestyle choices available to you, because there's so many things that could be true, you feel like I can never know what the real truth is. What you end up falling back on is your own individuality and your own identity. And you end up pushing away the cognitive dissonance the desire to understand the world or feel, you push those away technology of distraction helps with that. Because now if I feel like there's no real answers to life's big questions, I can stay entertained all day long. And I don't have to deal with that anxiety.
That's a heart stopping thought that you've just put together for us. Yeah, very sobering. But thank you so much for that. Dr. Noble, what's lost when we as individuals do not engage in silence at regular intervals?
So this actually is a great segue because this gets back to what,
what I was talking about. So let's think about this from a non Christian perspective in a Christian perspective, because we're talking about bearing witness to our faith, you know, we need to preach the gospel to ourselves. And we also need to preach the gospel to our neighbors. So from the non Christian perspective, I tell you, I have a friend who I once tried to share the gospel with, I knew he didn't attend church. And so I asked him, you know, do you believe in God? And he said, Yes, sir. So why don't you attend church? And he said, Well, I don't know which church is that Write one. I mean, there are so many different denominations. And then what if the Christian God isn't the true God, there are thousands of different religions. And by the time I figure out which one is true, like my life is going to be over. And so what I need to do, he said to me was to just live how I think God wants me to live. So that's that that flatness, everything is contested under a secularism. And we get you can get to a place where you feel like there's no way to adjudicate, there's no way to determine what's true or what's false. And so you just need to, to live authentically, and the best of your ability and hope that God is gracious. Now, when you get to that place, you're still going to have this sense of, of anxiety, this question of, well, if that's true, then how do I know when I'm living a good life?
you know, it's fine to say, well, we can't decide what's what God is the right God. But at the end of the day, when I'm falling asleep, how do I know that I've done right today,
right. Well, that used to be a problem for people,
the few minutes that you had between the time you turned off your light and the time you fell asleep. You used to have to sit and sort of stare into the darkness and look at your own soul. But now with a smartphone that has all this technology, all this access to, you know, infinite entertainment, you can really just stare at a screen until you collapse. And what I worry about for the non Christian is that they don't have to wrestle with their anxiety. They don't have to wrestle with the fact that, you know, although they've, you'll want to rest in the idea that there is there are no clear answers, but they still feel this sense of a need for justification. Now, for the Christian, I think, you know, part of the challenges is with sin. In order to repent, you've got to be convicted. If you have no space, if your mind is constantly being filled with stuff with ideas, and there's no space in your life where you're just silent, and the Holy Spirit can convict you and you have to listen to that. When are you going to be conducting And when are you going to repent when you're going to figure out okay, what steps do I need to take to practically turn this? And so I think there's there's a great deal to worry about.
Well, thank you so much doctor know before that, let's dive a little bit deeper into the technology of our day if you would. It's clear that technology can produce forgetfulness in US forgetfulness, that gets us out of touch with nature, it gets us out of touch with ourselves and certainly also gets us out of touch with God. is technology morally neutral in your view? Or are there technologies that are simply evil? What's your position?
Yeah, certainly. Yeah, there absolutely. Are technologies that are that are evil. It's really difficult to discern. I mean, they're. So the evil ones are easy to figure out. So I think of you know, sex robots, for example. I mean, you know, we would like to imagine that this is some sort of dystopian science fiction thing, but this is this is a present reality that that society has to the church has to acknowledge and, and publicly condemn.
but so but those are easy, right? So it's not difficult for us to say well, well, as a Christian I have to, you know, just say that this is not how God designed sexuality and, and the family unit and procreation and sexual expression, all those sorts of things. That's easy. This is fine duck, the real challenges, you know, my smartphone for example, or, or specific apps, you know, a specific social media platform, there know, from for many of these issues that are no clear, bright line. So I think of facebook, facebook, instagram, in particular, these platforms are designed to nurture or to give us the ability to express our identity, so that we feel validated and authenticated in the world and I think they are catering to that, not necessarily because there are these malicious people who want to push a certain ideology, but because we as humans, particularly modern humans, most of us get our sense of, of justification through self expression. And so Facebook and Instagram, they're just catering to the demand that we've created. But the problem with catering is that it also increases the demand, right? So that there is this natural feedback loop. Facebook gives me the same tools that were once only available to Hollywood superstars in the 1940s and 50s. Right? So I can cosmetically alter my photos to give you know the world, you know, a high, you know, a beautiful image of me. I can announce to the world, my relationship status, right, I can express to the world my tastes and preferences. Fans, followers can respond to me, I mean, these are literally all the tools that were available to Holly superstars but but now we're all the superstars we're all vying for everyone's attention. And as these platforms give us more tools to express our individuality and to get feedback, which gives us a little hit of dopamine so the likes the comments the shares, we are only encouraged to to go down that rabbit hole more and more
that Oh, all that said
Is it possible to use Facebook and Instagram in ways that do not draw us into those habits? I mean, I think the answer is yes. I think some of us will have a very difficult time doing that. And I think we all need to sort of test our spirit and see okay, as I'm when I'm sharing photos of myself online, what you know what, what's my motive? What am I trying to do with this what what's the value here? But I am very loath to say that that, you know, I should get off Facebook when it's a great way for me to share pictures of my kids to my cousins and aunts and uncles in one, you know, one fell swoop so on. And that's what makes it so difficult because people would love to have a very clear answer, right? No, this is all evil, just throw it away. Or don't you don't have to worry about this. It's all more morally neutral. As long as you don't share anything offend you know, sinful then you're fine, but reality is much murkier. But that's the world we're living in. Thank you,
for your reflection. Dr. Noble, are privileged today to be discussing disruptive witness speaking truth in a distracted age with the author, Dr. Alan noble, Dr. Noble. In this text in the second half of the book, you make recommendations, recommendations for how we can disrupt those engaged in this distraction of our age and make make a presentation of the gospel. Speak gospel truth into people's lives. you recommend three categories of disruptive activities you recommend personal disruptive activities and church practices that are disruptive and also cultural participation activities and cultural participation that are also disruptive. In your view, which of these three types of activities is most difficult to practice as a community and why?
That's a very good question. So, I would say that the cultural participation part is the most difficult, because it is the least programmatic. So when you're thinking about how the church can offer a more disruptive witness, I think the answers typically have to do with
the resources we have, and our 2000 plus year church history of liturgy. have, you know sacred sacraments of singing hymns and spiritual songs, we have the resources there. And I can give an in that chapter I do give pulling on the work of pulling from the work of James K. Smith and others, you know, practical sort of concrete steps that we can take. And for for, I think a great many churches in America, those practices would be very, they're they're very concrete. And I think they would be very helpful for them. But other churches and I think a lot of the people who've read my book, one of the criticisms has been like, Well, yeah, duh, that's Yeah, we, you know, we've already been doing liturgy we've already been treating the Lord's Supper as a sacred event as this, this thing. That's not just a mental exercise, but it's a sacred event where we actually commune with God These sorts of things. And so, which is wonderful, I'm glad that they're doing that. But the bigger challenge is that disruptive, you know, cultural practices. And it's difficult because I can't, I can't just tell you. Here's the method, step one, step two, step three, it was actually one of the challenges writing that chapter was that I couldn't,
it's much more of a, an add an awareness, paying attention to certain sorts of things. Understanding the relationship between suffering and beauty, and our sort of what I believe is our creational orientation toward a transcendent God, and how experiences a beauty or goodness or joy and also experiences or great tragedy, both of those experiences often demand a kind of eternal
I think you know,
interestingly enough, I think nature says something about a joy demands eternity, which is this sort of powerful idea that I think is is true when you witnessed the birth of your child. It is a singular event. But it also seems to have a significance that is irreducible to that historical, single event. It feels like it resonates with some truth that is larger than that hospital room and the whole city and your lives. And I think that's, that's an experience of something that is true,
that is a human life made in the image of God, and that they have worth because they are made in the image of God, and you're recognizing the beauty and grandeur of that. So, a very similar thing happens and experience of you know, the loss of a loved one. Well, you know, the It feels so deeply unjust The reason and, and literature and film and and songs. There's a trope where when someone we love is lost. A character will express the feeling that the world should stop, everything should stop. It's it does not make sense that as we're walking to this funeral, there are cars going by and people are going to work and people are shopping, it seems offensive that this would happen.
why is that? Well, because we intuitively believe that when we get to know someone intimately, that their life shouldn't end like this, that there is this demand for eternity. So in those moments of great joy and great suffering, we have opportunities to
to push back against a secularism and say,
a secular understanding cannot make sense of these things. And here's a more beautiful and holistic way of framing Things that I mean, you don't want to use that kind of language because then it immediately becomes a sort of debate but but what I think we can do and what I try to advocate in that chapter is that we lean into those experiences. When you have a friend who's not a believer who experiences something of great joy or suffering. Sometimes what we can do is we can mediate those things. So, you know, we'll focus on taking pictures and helping them remember the great joy, or when it comes to suffering will help them get over it or cope. And there's nothing wrong inherently with those things. But what I worry about is that we're trying to hurry past these feelings and these experiences and not we don't let ourselves and our neighbors dwell in them and use those as opportunities for them to recognize that they're experiencing things that are basic to their humanity because they're created in the image of God.
Thank you so much for that reflection. Dr. Noble, Dr. Noble. There's a new trend taking place and that is virtual reality. Churches, they're starting to spring out in small numbers still, but it's it's a real phenomenon, especially in the Middle East we're meeting in person is potentially physically dangerous. What's your opinion? Should this emerging media of virtual reality be used for for church services? Is that something we could do? If the church ought to use this for gospel purposes? What are the principles that we should keep in mind if we try to form new ministries around those that emerging technology? What's your view of this application of virtual reality in the church?
It's a great question. So I
that there are some legitimate uses for
non physical church events.
So whether it's streaming video, or it's audio listening to sermons, for example, a prayer request through a chat room on the Potentially virtual reality. And I think the circumstances would be those who are, who are shut ins. And you know, that's, I think, a legitimate, legitimate reason. And, you know, the one you mentioned, you know, where it's difficult to serve in the Middle East to, you know, to attend church services. But even in both those circumstances,
I worry, because what can happen is,
if a church so let's say you have you have a local church, and you have a member who's a shut in for various reasons that cannot attend. And, and so you say, Alright, well, we're going to send you this video stream of the sermon and the worship music. I worried that what that can do is that can help the deacons feel like their job is done. And so now they have less of an obligation to go and fellowship for that person, one on one, which is I think, historically, you know, what would happen is that, you know, the church would go to the person and, and serve them give them communion and things like that. So if the church can avoid that temptation, if they can go in knowing
will be tempted to use this as a crutch, as an excuse to to pull back from their embodied obligations to the to the church, then I think potentially you can use that for redemptive purposes. And a similar thing I think is true with the Middle East. I don't want anyone to be persecuted for the faith. But throughout history churches have been meeting in in secret in in hiding in basements.
there's a kind of, I do suspect that there's a there's a value in forcing yourself to to
to meet inbounded even when it's it's dangerous.
So those are just the exceptions. As a general rule, I do think it's harmful. A regular church should not be a virtual reality church because our God is an incarnate God. He came to the earth in a body, we will be resurrected bodily, our bodies matter. We need to be around each other. I cannot understand your needs at church if I don't see you in church. Now maybe you communicate them but it's not the same as seeing someone in church. There's a value of being embodied. When Paul talks about encouraging each other with hymns and spiritual songs. That is a physical thing. I mean, it's their sound waves but but it is physical and you can hear each other singing the same hymns acknowledging your faith and your trust in God. And that is encourages you that you are not in this alone. Now I can listen to worship music
you know, on Spotify or something like this but it's just
it's not the same as looking i'd i are standing right next to a believer who's experiencing the same sort of challenges in life is seeing the same hands and knows what I'm struggling with and I know what he or she is struggling with. So virtual reality chairs cannot should not ever replace the embodied church. There could be potentially some you know, acceptable uses.
Dr. Noble thank you so much for that reflection. Dr. Noble as we enter this new world where everything seems to be going digital, one of the opportunities that emerges for Christian leaders is the opportunity to communicate across the globe and across old denominational lines. One of the questions that we've been asking all of the participants in this interview program is this and that is How is it that we as Christians can pursue the Unity for which Jesus prayed and john 17?
such a, such an important question and one that, you know, the more I read Scripture, the more it weighs heavily on my heart, because I think particularly as Americans, where we, you know, we are so reliant on our own preferences and choices in churches and denominations. We like we, we tend to circle the wagons, we tend to defend our own, we tend to see ourselves in denominations and in churches, in opposition to other denominations and churches. There's, you know, as you point out, we're in this technological age where we're in communion with a communication, I should say, with so many different other Christians across the globe. And yet, for most of us,
is I think, you know, One where there's a lot of division still. So,
I mean, the first thing I would say is that I think every church needs to be teaching this more and more fervently, because the need the Christ call and demand that we we have unity, because it for many denominations, there is an emphasis on what separates this denomination from the others. And there is a temptation to minimize unity except when it comes to politics. We we tend to, I think Americans tend to to accept Well, we have to become unified in politics because otherwise we're not going to have any sway. We have to have some kind of unified front and what we're pretty good at. I mean, for better or for worse, their religious right is An extremely
effective in the last 15 years. But,
um, I mean, in comparison to spiritual unity, it's such a trivial thing. So, I would say that that's something that people need to hear from the pulpit I guess. That's it. They need to hear it from pastors and leaders in their denomination. And they're going to get flack for it. I've seen I've seen this happen many times when when leaders in various denominations of a Southern Baptist will do something with the Presbyterian and all of a sudden people are, you know, want them to be fired. And it's like. So, I think that that we need to hear that from the top down. Because it is it is a biblical command. And it's not something that that we tend toward, we'd prefer to have our own biases affirmed and to think of ourselves as a part of an elite group, the right Christians. So doing that while balancing orthodoxies is essential, I think For our time,
it's been our delight today to be speaking with Dr. Alan noble, Assistant Professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University and also author of the text that we've been discussing today, disruptive witness speaking truth in a distracted age from IVP. Academic. Dr. Noble, thank you so much for being with us. Thank you