“…If we believed that even a little tree in our front yard is a miracle, we’d have to spend all day in gratitude to God. We’d have to pray without ceasing.” —Alan Noble
Alan Noble, founder of Christ & Pop Culture, professor at Oklahoma Baptist University and author of Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age, talks about how technology distracts and prevents us from dwelling on the reality of a transcendent God—and recognizing the inconsistencies in our own hearts. He is currently working on a new book for IVP called You Are not Your Own.
Does it feel funny to be the editor of a website that (presumably) needs clicks as much as any other website, while writing about the distraction of technology? How do you deal with that?
A few years ago we started Christ & Pop Culture because we felt there was a vacuum, a need for thoughtful Christian cultural analysis and commentary. Plenty of people were doing it at the academic level… a number of groups and publications were doing it at a more accessible level. But those tended to be less thoughtful. Counting curse words, these sorts of things. Discovering the worldview of the film, and then casting it aside if it wasn’t the right one.
So that was the mission. At the time we started, I don’t know that Netflix was streaming anything yet. A lot of entertainment options were available to people, but things have changed a lot in 12 years. A couple of years ago, maybe inspired in part by the research from my book, we reviewed our vision and said there are other Christian sites now that are doing thoughtful analysis—quite a few, in fact. So we don’t necessarily have to be bearing that load. And maybe we need to write pieces reminding people that they don’t need to consume stuff. Because there is so much out there, and people experience this sense of missing out.
It has been a shift [on the site]. One of the things that we want to do is not make people feel that sense of missing out. When we talk about a great film we don’t want to give the impression that to be a cultured Christian, you have to watch that film. We don’t want to feed into an entertainment culture that will eat your entire life if you let it.
Explain cognitive dissonance and how you believe the modern mind deals with it.
Cognitive dissonance can have different applications, but in Disrupted Witness, I’m referring to our ability to believe something or say we believe something on one level, but then live our lives in conflict with those beliefs.
This happens to everyone to some extent because we’re not perfect people, we don’t live entirely coherent lives. Christians sin. That is not in keeping with our beliefs. But that’s because we’re fallen creatures. But hopefully we repent and we turn away. Cognitive dissonance is when you believe something and you also believe something contrary and you don’t do anything to fix it… it just says that way.
For example, maybe I care about animal rights, but I also love this pair of Oxford shoes that are made of leather. I’m a vegetarian but I love these shoes and am able to enjoy them and hold a belief in animal rights without much cognitive dissonance, because we live in such a fractured world. Everyone holds a hodge-podge of beliefs and values. That allows us to lead incoherent lives.
Entertainment culture contributes to this because you have to have time to think for cognitive dissonance to nag at you and force you to change. If I’m constantly plugged in and doing something, it’s hard for me to be convicted that my pro-life ethic doesn’t apply to both euthanasia and abortion.
So cognitive dissonance doesn’t cause the incoherent belief, it causes us to think about something else. Is that right?
That requires an awareness of an incoherence. But if you don’t have space and quiet to think, you might just not experience cognitive dissonance. I think this is true for a lot of people. They skim through life but don’t feel it, and if they don’t feel it they don’t have to address it. Technology distraction is a way of coping rather than addressing that anxiety of cognitive dissonance.
You write about how our age is distracted by so much technology. What if we are just listening to/watching/absorbing the wrong things? (Shopping malls aren’t likely to get rid of all their speakers, but what if they played classical music instead of pop music?)
It’s a both, and. Some artifacts don’t have any redeeming value. They reveal very little about God’s world and don’t reveal our own natures. They also don’t help us delight in goodness itself. I think laughter is a way of doing that—just delighting in creation. Good comedies can do that. I’m not saying that everything you consume needs to be high-brow. There’s a place for pop music, but not all pop music is the same. Some of it is just vacuous. Some of it isn’t going to benefit you and make you a better person. Some of this stuff we just need to say, I need less of this in my life because it’s just not good for me. Some of it we just need to say, I need to replace this with stuff that actually is good and it’s not beneficial.
The reason it’s not enough to just swap is that we do need space for quiet and reflection, and if we just swap, we’ll still live lives where we leave no space for contemplation and reflection, which means no space for repentance and growth.
So I’m thinking of someone trying to cut back on technology… is it enough to just sit there in a dark room with your thoughts? Is it impossible to contemplate God if you’re not doing it in creation or some kind of aesthetic living?
Most of us have so far to go on this that we have some really low-hanging fruit. It’s difficult for people to walk up stairs, ride a car, go to the bathroom, without taking out their phone and doing something. Podcasts while doing dishes. I think that contemporary technology has allowed us to fill all those spaces in our lives where we’re alone with our thoughts. We don’t resist the culturally conditioned urge to be constantly productive.
What about those people who are in a season when technology—like that podcast during the dishes—might bring most of the human (adult) contact in a day?
This is something I will be addressing in my next book—I don’t think I entirely captured all of the reasons why we are attracted/gravitate toward technology that sort of fills that space. A lot of us are just trying to get through the day. Trying to cope. For stay at home moms, because our community is broken and moms don’t get to communicate with other moms daily, that’s a disordered way of living. You end up feeling alone. My wife has definitely gone through this. Sometimes for them social media is actually intellectually stimulating. Especially listening to podcasts.
There are some real needs created by our contemporary culture that we’re addressing, often by self-medicating through technology, and I do this as well—it’s good for us to criticize the dangers of these flipping mechanisms, but we also need to address the underlying societal problems. There are days when I should walk home without headphones on to listen to whatever nature I can over the roar of cars. But a lot of days I don’t, because I’m physically exhausted, and this is what I need to get through the day. I think we need to have grace for that, and have conversations about how to address these societal problems.
As you note in Disruptive Witness, stories are how we process the world. What’s the difference between a story competing for our attention (like a commercial, Twitter account, movie… basically every brand telling a story), and a story that opens up the spiritual imagination?
Stories open up the imagination when they unsettle us to some extent. When they surprise us. Not that twist endings, but reveal something about the world that we didn’t quite understand or anticipate. That’s one of the biggest ones.
I think we can usually tell when stories have a kind of thinness to them. When a sitcom is running on tracks that have been laid by a thousand other sitcoms. I can’t watch the vast majority of television. I don’t have the patience for it. I really enjoy Better Call Saul. That show is a great study of human nature—the desire for family and belongingness. I feel like I’m learning something about my neighbors by watching it.
We tend to be attracted to stories that confirm our perceptions of the world. Good stories will stretch us by showing us there are other ways of understanding the world. That doesn’t mean they’re right, but understanding how other people perceive the world is a valuable part of loving your neighbor.