Book Review: Disruptive Witness

Disruptive Witness
Alan Noble
InterVarsity Press, 2018. 189pp.

It is quite apparent to anyone paying much attention that the world of late-modern Western capitalism is ever-the-more distracted, confusing, and messy. And, in the midst of all that messiness, the Western Christian Church finds itself languishing. It is all-too-easy to point the fingers of “poor doctrine” or “weak discipleship” when this languishing is occurring across the spectrums of “good,” “bad,” and “ugly.” For ages evangelicals have pointed at the mainline’s decline in membership and blamed it on their politics; recent polls show that the Southern Baptist Convention  – America’s largest evangelical denomination – is on just-as-serious a decline.

Disruptive Witness

Perhaps, then, the decline of the Church in the modernized, secularized West has far less to do with that of weakening or stagnant or calcifying dogmas, perhaps it has far less to do with where one lands on the mainline-to-evangelical plotline, and more to do with our context. Maybe the ground has shifted under our feet, and we do not yet recognize it.

A Secular (and Liturgical) Age

Alan Noble, in his debut work, sees this trajectory, and, translating the work of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age and James K.A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies for a more general audience, takes careful aim in how to dismantle and address the impacts and effects of the secular culture. Especially for readers unfamiliar with Taylor’s landmark work, Noble’s summations will be invaluable general theological-philosophical introductions (A Secular Age is, after all, *that* daunting 800+ page book on your shelf that you spent $40-$50 on, but are unsure you’ll be reading anytime soon), as will Noble’s adjustments to the commonly-received “worldview” terminology used by evangelical missiologists (ad nauseum).

By articulating a missiology in the midst of Taylor, Smith, and in contradistinction to “worldview” approaches, Noble very carefully – and successfully – attempts to carve out an evangelism-within-the-secular that does not reproduce the secular’s own methods. This is tricky business, as he himself admits, since so much of the Church’s evangelistic language is coded with modern, secular values. Noble uses a bit of self-deprecation to good effect, and his illustrations function quite well to paint the picture of the problem of Christian evangelism under-modernity.

Double Movements

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The second half of Noble’s work is devoted to praxis, and here we find a little bit of stumbling. I think the first instance is simply a clunky term. Maybe he’s channeling a bit of Charles Taylor here – neither “the immanent frame” nor “nova effect” are great turns-of-phrase in technical philosophy (this is the discipline with deep neologisms like being-in-itselfDasein, and noumenon, after all) – but “double movement,” although I feel like I understood it implicitly, doesn’t quite ring with the experience it attempts to circumscribe.

That being said, ignoring the terminological clunkiness, the double movement is indeed a crucial insight for how to apply a missiological response to Taylor. If we live within a frame-of-reference in which all existence is referred back to the immanent materiality, then developing practices that allow us to adopt a stance of recognizing and responding to the transcendent in everyday life is crucial. (Okay, I guess the previous sentence makes “immanent frame” useful; I recant. “Nova effect” is still dumb, though.) Noble provides some sketches of how to accomplish this both within individual, personal lives and, crucially, in ecclesial contexts. In the latter he borrows heavily from J.K.A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies, so those familiar with Smith’s claims in Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom won’t find much groundbreaking here.

Aesthetics as Disruption

But what I personally found most compelling about Noble’s praxis were his overtures to the power of the aesthetic world – art, music, film, literature – and its ability to cause disruption in our lives. This is the point at which Noble’s own speciality, English literature, shines through. His brief vignettes on Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and The Road, a reflection via Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, some engagements with film and music, are among the highlights of how Noble understands the aesthetic to serve as disruption. One autobiographical example from his professorship and the ability of 20th-century literature to disrupt our assurances was particularly telling, and I, for one, deeply appreciate his willingness to confront unhealthy evangelical attitudes towards art head-on.

Final Thoughts

All-in-all, I found Disruptive Witness to be an excellent introduction for both students and evangelists on some of the basic frameworks of what witness in a modern world must look like. It does leave me hungry for more – but I chalk a lot of that up to my own familiarity with the work of James K.A. Smith, which is no fault of Noble’s! – but on its own, given to campus ministers, evangelists, and pastors young and old, this book serves as an excellent starting-point for learning and discerning how to bear witness in a secular world without compromising to its values.

I would like to thank InterVarsity Press for sending me a review copy of this work. As with all these reviews, I was not required to write a good review, and all the opinions expressed within are my own.

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