The rather pathetic truth about our adolescent obsessions with social media, digital distractions, apps galore, podcasts, gaming, entertainment programming and the like, has come to light in a number of national stories about familial denouement, altered neural pathways, and stunted societal awareness, yielding what Mark Bauerlein calls The Dumbest Generation. Alan Noble brings the conversation about society’s intellectual and emotional retardation at the hand of consumed technology to bear on evangelism, discipleship, and worship making for an uncomfortable but necessary contribution in his most recent work, Disruptive Witness. It is an outstanding, much-needed exposé on not just our addiction to electronic devices—smartphones, laptops, tablets, etc.—but how our time on them affects the way we think (or rather, don’t think) deeply about life’s big questions and how that, in turn, impacts the dominical mandates of the Church.
Recognizing that formulaic apologetics as an evangelistic strategy yield too predictable an outcome, leaving no pebble in the unbeliever’s shoe, Noble observes the convergence of two factors mounting barriers to considering our true and holy faith: (1) “the practice of continuous engagement in immediately gratifying activities that resist reflection and meditation,” and (2) “the growth of secularism, defined as a state in which theism is seen as one of many viable choices for human fullness and satisfaction, and in which the transcendent feels less and less plausible” (p. 2). Simply put, Noble is skeptical about traditional evangelism’s effectiveness because of the way the technology in our pockets has changed the way we think, and secondly, how secularism has pushed the Triune God to the periphery of life as only one of many religious considerations, none of which are to taken too seriously anyway, since we are the sovereign consumer/voter in what amount to a closed universe.
Noble then sees how these two factors (omnipresent digital distraction and secularism’s relativism) converge with Charles Taylor’s idea of the “buffered self”, that is, the way modern people imagine themselves to be insulated from forces outside their rational mind, particularly supernatural or transcendent forces like God. Noble avers, “Our pervasive culture of technological distraction dramatically exacerbates the effects of the buffered self, which in turn feeds the demand for technology of distraction” (p. 3). In Bowling Alone, sociologist Robert Putnam evidenced the evisceration of community-based self-awareness and civic engagement over a fifty-year period, concluding that the average person viewed him or herself as part of various, integrated communities bound (albeit loosely) by an ethical tradition, but that today there’s so little interest or involvement in organizations of civic engagement or social benefaction that such organizations are going defunct in droves. The worldview and sense of external responsibility for Gen-Xers and Millennials extends no further than the truncating devices that captivate their every waking moment. We’ve lost peripheral vision. We’ve lost those traditions that beckoned deeper consideration of the values such communities extolled; values grounded in the transcendent. The upshot is that a modern person is buffered (comfortably numb) between the idea of themselves (the sovereign consumer) and the world out there—including transcendent ideas and truths. The consumer demand for distraction hedges against a consistent and coherent worldview and, therefore, any obligation to an established, authoritative worldview. Without question, the marketplace has catered to the consumer. God is effectively left without authority to speak at all, much less claim the individual as His own. Indeed, given the plasticity of neurological pathways for learning, “screen generations”, that is, those reared before “display surfaces”, fortify an inability to ruminate and assimilate “meta” considerations like those related to God, redemptive history, and the afterlife. Consequently, evangelism has to take into account that our present milieu renders us more like “Dug”, the dog from Up, than previous generations that possessed not only the vocabulary and categories to engage Christianity, but also the epistemic software to do so. Given these realities, evangelism needs to be rethought.
While he affirms our dependence upon the Holy Spirit for regeneration and sanctification, Noble argues from Matthew 13:3-9 for the need to plow the soil of modernity and secularism in order to plant the seed of the gospel well. What is true for evangelism holds true for discipleship and even citizenship. It’s not just your unbelieving neighbors given to the aforementioned factors, but likely your children and godchildren, too. In fact, it’s you as well. Your discipleship and citizenship are affected by how our cultural processes beliefs and the habits it encourages. Those processes and practices need to be consciously engaged, altered, and redirected from dominant market and ideological dictates. Plowing as well as planting is needed. It requires biblical strategies—wise and cunning—for disruptive personal habits (chapter 4), disruptive church practices (chapter 5), and disruptive cultural participation (chapter 6). All soils need to be turned over for the seeded word to have effect. The result of such intentional plowing and planting just may be more meaningful worship, compelling apologetical engagement, and truly edifying discipleship. It may also mean sitting loose and letting go on contemporary approaches to public worship, Christian formation, and cultural engagement. The plow needs to be set in these arenas, too. In other words, such plowing and planting may look like a post-Reformation Church in which we are principled Christians that challenge a world that once named and claimed us as consumers within a secular age rather than accommodating our present milieu that militates against something as basic as deep thought.
All of this may sound like lofty discussion for ivory towers, but the author breaks down philosophical concepts for non-specialists, provides plenty of analogies to make ephemeral concepts concrete, and does so by writing in a conversational style peppered with common parlance. For example, Noble does not take for granted the readers familiarity with the writings of Charles Taylor and so provides easy-to-follow synopses of the Canadian philosopher’s germane points related to the nature of being and existence by using spatial concepts to translate the idea of “the buffered self”. The author also effectively brings the reader into the story of how technology forms our habits and informs our worldviewing mechanisms by critiquing the very mediums we use daily, from the frequency with which we “check our messages” (between scores and hundreds of times a day) to hours spent online, connected, browsing, scrolling, swiping, and moving from app to app, platform to platform, device to device, operating at a surface level one each. Noble exposes our own lives to the point of embarrassment, making this book as much about the reader than the church and the unchurched.
Disruptive Witness can be said to be a timely and disconcerting contribution, venturing into domains that cannot but prompt pastors, worship leaders, evangelists and apologists to reconsider what they are doing, the mediums they choose and why. So important are Noble’s theses, research, and hopeful suggestions, that this reviewer urges all parents and teachers to include it in their family reading and classroom requirements.
Rev. John Bombaro (Ph.D.) is a Programs Manager at the USMC Headquarters. He lives in Virginia with his wife and children.