Disruptive Witness – A Conversation with Alan Noble

nobleAlan Noble is Assistant Professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University and editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture. In his Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age, Noble argues that the constant stimulation of the social media era poses a variety of challenges to evangelism. In addition to changing the way people speak, social media platforms change the way people think, feel, and (dis)believe.

ECM: What is witness, what is disruptive witness, and what does disruptive witness disrupt?

AN: I wanted to frame this book around a broader phenomenon than what is traditionally thought of as “evangelism.” When we talk about evangelism, the term often conjures an image of someone knocking on the door, leaving a tract, or going on the street and accosting people. I didn’t want to exclude actions like that, but I wanted to think much more broadly about how we as Christians bear witness to our faith. I think that includes moments when we are very explicitly and intentionally going out to share the gospel, but I also think it includes how we live so as to display the beauty and the goodness of the grace that Christ has given us—and everything in between.

A disruptive witness, in the context of the book, is a kind of witness that upsets popular expectations in two ways. First, it upsets expectations of what Christianity is. In the book, I’m working with Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s notion of secularism, including the idea that, within a secular age, we are hyperaware that there are always other options. We can always believe something else, and so our options become sort of flattened. I think it’s essential for Christians to present their faith in such a way that it is not just another lifestyle choice in the consumer marketplace of worldviews.

The second type of disruption involves inviting people to enter into spaces of contemplation and reflection so that the truths of the gospel can take root and prompt them to examine their lives and beliefs despite the distractions of our time.

ECM: When I was growing up in evangelicalism, I recall thinking about witness as kind of a moral or spiritual reputation. I never wanted to do anything that would compromise my witness and maybe turn people away from Christ. Does that fit here?

AN: That’s not quite how I was thinking about it, but it is related. We can imagine witness as existing on a spectrum from explicit to implicit, with overt evangelism on one end and a Christ-like lifestyle on the other. At one extreme you preach with words, while at the other you preach by living in a certain way.

So, for instance, if you cheer when children are separated from their parents at the border, that will damage your witness because it will be in direct conflict with Christianity as your neighbors understand it. But the book itself is not really about that kind of witness beyond living by Christ’s standards and therefore not bringing shame on the Church.

ECM: How central is witness to evangelical life? As a strategic matter, do individuals and churches spend a lot of time thinking about how to craft or improve their own?  

AN: I believe that evangelicals do spend quite a bit of time thinking about how they witness to the public, and I think that takes two forms. One is the very intentional sort of evangelism training that you can go through—something like Evangelism Explosion that was popular for a time and may still be. It’s the sort of program where your church signs up and you get all of these resources and reading materials about how to share your faith and your testimony and things like that.

But the much more common form comes along when, for instance, you’re on Facebook and you see someone share a Christian meme. It will probably be something like a lovely image with an uplifting Bible verse and you’ll think to yourself, “I want to share this because I’m a Christian and I want my friends on Facebook to note this.” That kind of thinking about how to craft your witness is very common, but the level of intentionality is very thin and not very discerning and its telos—its end—is what Taylor would describe as a desire for expressive individualism rather than a desire to winsomely present the gospel. It’s about you and the identity that you want to create for yourself rather than about glorifying God.

There is a similar problem at the level of churches. Most churches have unintentionally accepted an individualist concept of the church experience. It yields what Taylor calls excarnation—rather than being embodied and communal, each congregant experiences the service very much within his or her own head. This experience doesn’t really focus on the solemnity, the awesomeness, or the transcendence of God. There tends to be a lightness to it. Services are tailored to be entertaining, but not awe-some in the traditional sense.

ECM: The problems you document are mostly specific to a middle class, megachurch context in which everyone is trying to live faithfully with a smart phone and a social media presence. But if evangelicals are serious about being witnesses for Christ, shouldn’t they be doing something more dramatic, like selling their possessions and giving to the poor?

AN: I think there are many ways that evangelicals can be concerned about the poor in their midst. The way you frame the question, I would say, no. Selling everything and giving to the poor is unnecessary for every Christian, although it may be the calling of some. Do I think that, on the whole, middle and upper class evangelicals have what Francis Schaeffer called an “unsympathetic accumulation of wealth?” Absolutely. We do spend far too much on stuff that we just don’t need, and that money could be used in far more generous ways. So do I think evangelicals need to give more? Yes. Do I think that this necessarily entails getting rid of computers and televisions and nice cars? Not necessarily. Particularly since the problems of poverty that surround us locally and globally cannot merely be addressed by cash transfers (although those are effective). Promoting just laws, helping countries fight corruption, supporting education and health care—the Christian’s responsibility to care for the least of these involves multiple layers of society, not just personal giving.

I think there is a fine line here between being able to enjoy the good things that God has allowed you to have while also loving your neighbor sacrificially. It’s not an easy balance to maintain, but I do think that biblical precedent is clear. Throughout the Bible you can find wealthy people enjoying things that God has given them. And that is praise—it’s a way to worship God. The distinction that I would make quickly, though, is that if your gratitude stops with you—if it does not generate love for God and your neighbor—then you will probably accumulate wealth in a problematic way.

ECM: Many are of the opinion that white evangelicals have traded their witness for political power through their persistent support for Republican politics and for Donald Trump. How would you respond to them?

AN: First, I would just affirm that I understand why they are frustrated. I am also very frustrated. I think the witness has been damaged. I’m pretty conservative, both politically and theologically, but I have been on record since before the election trying to communicate to my fellow evangelicals that support for Donald Trump is nothing short of disastrous. I think most evangelical leaders still do not understand how much damage they have done to their witness and to ours as a broader community.

And that’s not even the primary reason to oppose Trump’s policies. There are plenty of more serious ones. I don’t want evangelicals to think about it pragmatically—that we should stop supporting him because it’s bad for PR, or something. That’s not appropriate. But it’s simply true that people are leaving over this.

There was a very detailed, heartbreaking article in the New York Times about black evangelicals leaving the church because they no longer feel welcome in these congregations. And white evangelicals don’t seem to get it. It’s such a painful thing to see and I feel like it should have been so obvious—to leadership in particular. Paul says leaders and teachers are held to a higher account, and that’s where I focus my critiques. The leaders are the ones who need to be targeted for criticism.

That said, I am somewhat hopeful. I work with college students, most of whom are conservative evangelicals, and a lot of them do not assume an evangelical-Republican partnership. They are deeply concerned about this administration, and they are pushing back against it. I know a lot of younger evangelicals and a lot of minority evangelicals who are faithful to the church and are willing to say this is not okay. It’s an ugly time. I’m trying to do what I can to push back and I think there are others out there who are doing the same and that has to give us hope.

About Eric

Eric Miller teaches in the Department of Communication Studies at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.
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