Most days I can hardly hear myself think.
It feels like there are a million voices calling for my attention as long as I’m awake: text messages, work emails, kids wanting a drink of water, looming deadlines, billboards, the sense of missing Something Important on social media, breaking news, Instagram, app notifications, Netflix, podcasts, music, a smartwatch telling me to stand up.
My mind is scattered and cloudy most of the time. Probably as a result, I often discover that I’m anxious or depressed or worried about something but I can’t remember what, let alone why. There’s just too much going on. So when these feelings come, the easiest and most efficient thing to do is unlock my phone. And then the dread mostly goes away, for a little while. A shot of dopamine from Twitter keeps the anxiety away.
It’s not just the technology that creates this feeling, it’s also how ordered and scheduled and deadlined our lives are. We feel like we are constantly missing out on something or failing to do enough. There are always more shows, exercise, dishes, dieting, organizing, reading, and podcasts to catch up on.
The effect of all this is that from the moment we get out of bed until we crash at night, life feels like a buzz of attention-grabbing technology and busyness for a lot of modern people. One of my great worries about this distraction is that it makes recognizing and repenting of sin hard to do. When do we have the time to quietly reflect on our day and prayerfully evaluate our actions and words?
The answer used to be at night. Traditionally, the moments before we fall asleep have been some of the most convicting in life. When you are stuck in bed with the lights off and nothing to distract you, your day comes rushing back. You remember the things you said and the things you left unsaid. You are alone with yourself, which can be a terrifying thing. As the protagonist of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises says, “It is awfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything in the daytime, but at night it is another thing.” At night all the barriers we put up begin to crumble, and our own sin and need for Jesus is a bit easier to see.
Except that the night isn’t really so quiet anymore. With the growth of smartphones, we can have high-speed, high-definition, limitless content in rich colors to keep our minds preoccupied until the moment we fall asleep. Or perhaps we fall asleep binge-watching Netflix. The point is, in our contemporary world, we have rooted out every last second of silence and preoccupied ourselves to death.
Of course, to some extent, humans have always tried to avoid their conscience or moral reflection. Plato’s Socrates was devoted to provoking Athenians into examining their moral lives because for him the unexamined life was not worth living. Apparently being distracted to death is a millennia-old problem. What has dramatically changed is the quality and intensity of our distractions. However, as engaging as a 5th century B.C. scroll may have been for an ancient Athenian, the sheer sensory power of an iPhone 10 dwarfs it. The amount of content, the speed, accessibility, quality, cost—everything has worked to make it harder and harder not to be distracted.
In this way, the technology of distraction can become a barrier to self-understanding that has some serious implications for our faith. Therefore, we should consider how to rein in our use of technology, to set aside specific quiet time for prayer and contemplation. But while we can seriously limit the effects of technology and a life of distraction upon ourselves and our families, what about our neighbors?
For the most part, when we think about moderating our use of technology, we think in individual terms. We make these decisions for ourselves and our families. But unless you want to outlaw technology, we should expect that most of our neighbors are going to continue to live lives of perpetual white noise. If you can afford it, it’s actually a fairly fun way to live. This raises an important question for Christians: How do we bear witness to our faith to people whose default is to avoid reflection and contemplation, the very things that are important to recognize our sin and need for Christ?
Let me give you a scenario. I believe it’s entirely possible today to sit down with a non-believing friend and have a passionate, lengthy conversation about the gospel and never plant a seed deeply. Because as soon as you both rise from the table, he pulls out his phone and checks Facebook or responds to a text from his wife. If he does continue to think about your conversation, it’s probably not because the gospel unsettled the way he conceives of himself. He’s more likely to be thinking about the conversation as a kind of game, and like a good athlete, he looks back on the game to imagine how he could have scored more points.
And honestly, your reflection on the conversation might look identical. Neither of you wagered anything. No one really risked deeply changing their life. It was all a kind of rhetorical dance or game that we play. And the primary purpose of the dance is not to win over the other person but to define your identity. The game is called expressive individualism. And most of us play it. Your non-believing friend goes home and brags to his wife about the agile rhetorical jabs he used in the conversation, then he watches some football and goes to bed scrolling through Twitter on his phone. But at no point is he struck with the reality that a transcendent God became incarnate to die for our sins.
While technology is a significant barrier to people devoting the cognitive resources necessary to recognize their sin and need for redemption, secularism works in similar ways to shield us from taking the gospel seriously.
By “secularism” I don’t mean “atheism,” but rather, following Canadian Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor, I use the term to describe the skepticism toward transcendence, an awareness that we always have other belief options, and the sense that we live in an “immanent frame”—a closed, material universe. Together, these qualities make modern secular living (which affects Christians and non-Christians) a lot like consumerism. Since we know that there is always another lifestyle or belief system or worldview we can choose from, all beliefs are flattened down to a kind of preference. What matters is what works well for us and what is authentic to our identity. This is true for the brand of clothes we wear and beliefs we adopt.
Returning to our hypothetical conversation with a non-Christian neighbor, part of the reason the dialogue was a game was that both parties felt Christianity to be simply one of a billion possible lifestyle choices available. Which means that it doesn’t matter all that much whether it is true. The most important question is whether it makes sense to me, whether it resonates with my identity. As a result, sharing the gospel sometimes is functionally like arguing over who is the greatest basketball player of all time. You make passionate arguments, you study the “evidence,” you reflect on how you could have made better points, but none of it truly touches you and your life. It’s just a part of performing your identity.
Together, technology of distraction and secularism work to create unique barriers of faith for modern people. They work against reflection, they incline people to perceive Christianity as just another lifestyle choice, and they numb us to our need for redemption.
Seeking a Disruptive Witness
Given these challenges, the task before contemporary Christians it to provide a disruptive witness—one that testifies to the radical, exclusive, transcendence of God and invites our neighbors to wrestle with and contemplate the gospel, not as an option, but as the truth. And that is no easy task.
What makes this task so difficult is that there can be no method. A disruptive witness is not an evangelism method that can be rehearsed, memorized, and deployed strategically. I have no training resources for your church to buy. Rather than a system, a disruptive witness involves creating the conditions under which our neighbors are more likely to clearly hear the truth of the gospel for what it is. And that means we have to evaluate every situation uniquely, asking ourselves practical questions like “How can I spend time with my neighbor in a setting that invites them to think slowly and carefully, rather than be distracted? What particular truth does this person need to hear to unsettle their assumptions about Christianity as a lifestyle option?”
As we seek to bear witness to our faith, we can’t adopt the approach of mass advertising, which focuses on getting consumers to have positive emotions about a brand. Increasing the number of times someone hears the name “Jesus” or sees Bible verses is only effective if our goal is a consumer Christianity. But our faith is not a brand. It is the truth embodied in a tradition. So instead, our witness must be attuned to the needs of each person.
Practically, this may look like inviting a friend over to watch and discuss films you both are interested in that raise difficult questions about life and death. Tragedy, even fictional tragedy, has a way of clarifying the anxieties and fears we repress during our distracted daily lives. For example, when my wife and I watched the film Tree of Life, we felt the need to repent of taking the goodness of being for granted. The film disrupted my comfortable life and forced me to examine the beautiful world around me and the gift of my children, which drew me to give thanks to God. My wife and I talked about the movie for days. It haunted us in a way that we needed to be haunted. It interrogated us.
In addition to such personal interactions, the way we communicate our faith in public, the way we run our church services, and the way we practice gratitude can all act as disruptive witnesses to those inside and outside the church. Because the truth is that the church needs to hear the gospel more clearly in our age. The barriers of secularism and technology have not just made bearing witnesses to our faith harder, they have made our own faithfulness harder by flattening belief, turning Christianity into a preference, and keeping us from self-reflection.
Every culture and time faces its own burdens. The task for faithful Christians is to identify those claims and carefully work to address them. I believe that secularism and technology of distraction are two profound and yet relatively unaddressed challenges of our time. And how the church in America attends to these forces will determine how well we shall offer an alternative to the worldly gospels that surround us.
Alan Noble is an assistant professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University and the editor in chief of Christ and Pop Culture. His latest book is Disruptive Witness (InterVarsity Press, 2018), was released today, July 17, 2018.