The need to plow
Books | The disruptive, exhausting, unsettling work that’s necessary for evangelism in the 21st century
by Alan Noble
Posted 1/26/19, 01:41 pm
Alan Noble’s Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age was on WORLD’s short list for 2018 Book of the Year in the Accessible Theology category. Noble notes that the sower in Jesus’ parable found some good soil not by chance but because he or others had cultivated it—and we need to do the same in a culture where the gospel is one of thousands of options, and buffered selves intensely adopt stances after seeing compelling viral images on Facebook.
Noble critiques worship services “that feel more like a concert and TED Talk than a sacred event. … The pastor paces the stage with a headset mic, skillfully weaving facts, stories, and dramatic pauses. … The cumulative effect is to give the impression that the Christian faith is something akin to a good motivational conference.” That’s clearly inadequate, especially when plowing is essential: “A plow’s work is violent, disruptive, and exhausting. It unsettles the ground. It softens by tearing up.”
Disruptive Witness explains why novels that make us uncomfortable may draw us more to God than saccharine art sometimes described as “Christian.” The following excerpt, published with the permission of InterVarsity Press, explains why we need disruptive, exhausting, unsettling evangelism. I once sat in church next to an old woman who did not like an emphatic preacher because he woke her up—but that was his calling. I hope smooth pastors who settle for icebreaker jokes will read Noble’s book and pray to become icebergs with jagged edges—they need to penetrate hulls to reach the hearts within. —Marvin Olasky
What if the vast majority of our conversations about Christianity are not really about our faith at all? What if we are so accustomed to thinking about our beliefs in terms of personal preferences, like sports teams or our favorite brands, that when we try to share the gospel with someone, neither of us are actually thinking about the existence and lordship of a loving God who died on the cross for our sins? Even if, by some chance, one of us does manage to envision the idea of a transcendent God, it is only for a moment, because we just got a text message from our spouse about what to have for dinner tonight. Then we check Twitter, and then we read an article, and then—it’s gone.
What if our most passionate and articulate conversations about the gospel with our unbelieving neighbors are actually orchestrated social games, which both sides leave without having wagered anything? We walk away satisfied that we scored some points, and then unlock our phones and forget it ever happened. We may genuinely believe we “shared the gospel,” but all we did was participate in a kind of rhetorical dance that didn’t haunt or unsettle our neighbor at all. Our neighbor knows there are other beliefs out there, other religions and philosophies to choose from. And besides, there are so many more interesting and distracting things for them to do than to reflect on the gospel. So they leave the conversation untouched by our words, and we leave feeling vaguely pleased with ourselves.
The work of conviction and calling is the Holy Spirit’s, but different times and cultures present different barriers to hearing and comprehending the good news. Identifying, understanding, and overcoming these barriers with God’s grace and wisdom has always been the Christian’s holy task, whether our neighbors are devout Jews, Greeks worshiping an unknown god, or contemporary Americans. And I believe the convergence of two major trends in our own time calls for a new assessment of the barriers to faith. This assessment involves much more than how to overcome objections to faith, but also the extent to which the church in America has accommodated ideas and practices that make it difficult for us to bear witness.
These two major trends are (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. One result of these trends is that, as evangelicals, when we speak of Christianity we cannot assume that our hearers understand the faith as anything other than another personal preference in an ocean of cultural preferences. In such a world, the work of witnessing and defending the faith must involve rethinking how we communicate.
The electronic buzz of the twenty-first century combined with the proliferation of personal stories of meaning (what I call “micronarratives of justification,” as opposed to “metanarratives”) has helped create what we may call distracted, buffered selves. The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor coined the term buffered self to refer to the way modern people imagine themselves to be insulated from forces outside their rational mind, particularly supernatural or transcendent forces. The buffered self is a particular result of living in the closed, physical universe (Taylor calls it the “immanent frame”), in which everything has a natural explanation. Nearly all contemporary Western people, including Christians, use this frame to interpret the world.
Our pervasive culture of technological distraction dramatically exacerbates the effects of the buffered self, which in turn feeds the demand for technology of distraction. It is not a coincidence that these two forces have arisen at this point in history. The rise of secularism has inspired a view of technology and fullness rooted thoroughly in this life and established and chosen inwardly, which I believe has helped to justify the creation and adoption of technologies that are not directed toward human flourishing but instead help us project our identity and remain distracted. Outside of a culture of virtue grounded in an external source, science, technology, and the market have been driven to produce a society that prioritizes the sovereign individual.
The modern person experiences a buffer between themselves and the world out there—including transcendent ideas and truths. The constant distraction of our culture shields us from the kind of deep, honest reflection needed to ask why we exist and what is true. The value of individual choice and the multiplication of micronarratives shield us from committing to a consistent and coherent worldview. This allows the modern person to debate religion and politics freely, without any anxiety about what is at stake—because very little is at stake. Between the buzz of our lives and the fluidity of our narratives, there’s no reason any truth should ever threaten our understanding of the world or ourselves. Perhaps as a result, Christianity and atheism have never been as debated as they have in the last decade. But because of our buffered selves, what is at stake in such debates is a sense of superiority or social accolades, not whether we must sell everything we have, give to the poor, and follow Jesus.
Speaking to the kind of culture I’ve described requires a different kind of rhetoric than what we may be accustomed to. Often, direct conversations about God, sin, and salvation can be easily co-opted into one of the hearer’s narratives without any real obligation on them. I witnessed a moving example of this phenomenon when I worked as an English tutor at a camp for high school felons. Most of the felons came from communities defined by gang culture. Their uncles and fathers and brothers were all in the gang, and so it was natural for them to join that lifestyle too. If given the freedom, the boys loved swapping stories of violence, drug and alcohol abuse, or sex. What fascinated me was that a good number of them also believed in God and were open to hearing about the gospel. They would speak contritely about their sins and their desire to change, but ultimately most of them would conclude that they were stuck. They knew they were sinners. They knew their lifestyle would kill them and make their mothers cry and that God would condemn them, but it was too late to change, they would insist.
It took me a few months to realize that for many of these youths, Christ dying on the cross for their sins and rising again was not a reality. It was just another character or plot point in the drama of their lives. The narrative of a violent criminal who knows his sin and yet can never fully leave that lifestyle is much more tragic and moving than the story of a man who is unquestionably reprobate. There was an element of Greek tragedy to their view of God. They were tragically caught in a life of defiance against God. When I spoke to them about the saving power of Christ, I conceived of it as a reality with its roots in historical past, its implications for the present, and its hope for the future. But they saw it as a foil in their own, more immediate and satisfying drama of life. And maybe the way I presented the gospel made it hard for them to imagine Christ as real. In a culture where the gospel can be so easily co-opted into individual narratives without any honest spiritual response by a person, how can we witness to the truth of the gospel and defend it so that it goes beyond the hearer’s buffer?
The first and most important answer to any question about effective witness and apologetics is reliance on the Holy Spirit. God is the one who works his will, and he will call people to himself. But we are still obligated to plant the seed; moreover we are obligated to plant it well. So, the question for modern evangelicals in America is, How can we plant the seed of the gospel deeply into the soil so it might take root?
We need to plow. One of Christ’s most well-known parables is the parable of the sower in Matthew 13:3-9, in which Jesus describes how people receive the gospel. Some seeds fall on a path and are eaten by birds—representing those who do not understand the Word. Some fall on rocky ground and soon wither—representing those who receive the Word but abandon it when suffering comes. Some fall among thorns and are choked—representing the deadly cares of this world. Finally, some fall on good soil and produce a hundredfold—representing those who hear and understand the Word. If you have spent any length of time in the church, this parable is very familiar to you, so familiar, perhaps, as to become trivial. But have you ever thought about this good soil? How did it become good?
Imagine the sower going down a path to his field to sow the season’s crops. As he reaches the edge of the field, he begins spreading the seeds, and because he has just stepped off the path, some of those seeds unintentionally fall on it. But what is the field itself like? Are we to think that our sower walked to some vacant field and began casting seeds, willy-nilly, indifferent to the quality of the soil? No good farmer would plant this way. Before the action of Christ’s parable begins, the sower has been to this field. He has worked it, maybe for days, plowing the ground, pulling weeds, moving rocks. The sower can’t remove every rock and weed; some seeds will inevitably wither or be choked. And no sower can guaranty the yield of the crop, but by cultivating the ground, the sower can help the seed take root.
Unlike the gentle act of sowing seeds, a plow’s work is violent, disruptive, and exhausting. It unsettles the ground. It softens by tearing up. When a field has been plowed it no longer appears the same. The hard surface has been broken to reveal the vulnerable but fertile womb of the earth. It is much easier to simply cast the seeds and hope for a harvest, but a good farmer knows that the ground needs cultivation. This is the work of witnessing in the twenty-first century. We need to focus on what takes place just before the parable of the sower begins. Our task is to communicate our faith and the truths of our world in such a way as to disrupt our buffered and distracted culture.
From Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age by Alan Noble. Copyright ©2018. Published by InterVarsity Press. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.