IVP | 2021 | 232 pages (hardcover) | $22.00
Lately, the use of apologetics has fallen on rough times. To be sure, classical, empiricist, and presuppositionalist apologetics are still useful schools of thought and their arguments are no less important. But those who are ready and able to wax eloquently about them, the ones who are waiting to give a defense of the faith, find themselves all dressed up with nowhere to go. The questions about causality, teleology, and ontology, however important, are not being asked by my generation to the same degree they historically have.
Instead, the average Millennial and Zoomer is occupied with different phenomena. Our eyes are glossed over, strained from watching funny cat videos one second to watching citizens being bombed in Ukraine the next; our senses are partly numbed from scrolling in between memes and news about another mass shooting. What is wrong with the “kids these days”? Perhaps it is this:
A defining feature of life in the modern West is our awareness of society’s inhumanity and our inability to imagine a way out of it. This inhumanity includes everything from abortions, mass shootings, and widespread coverups of sexual abuse to meaningless jobs, broken communities, and TV shows that are only good for numbing our anxiety for thirty minutes. (1)
Or so says Alan Noble, professor at Oklahoma Baptist University and author of You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World.
Polished syllogisms and arguments for the existence of God are not always crafted toward animating jaded imaginations bent toward nihilism. If you find such a bleak assessment hard to believe, then I invite you to read Noble’s latest work to discover not only the burdens of modern society but also the hope that imbues our lives in an inhuman world.
Noble’s remarks about the inhumanity of modernity may sound melodramatic to some, but he doesn’t write to wallow in the woes of society. Unlike other works that are critical or polemical, Noble takes no pleasure in pointing out what is killing us. Like the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, Noble merely acknowledges and points out the helpless modern estate. Amid the existential plight of the West, Noble examines one of its key myths with which it soothes its citizens: that “I am my own and belong to myself,” which “means that the most fundamental truth about existence is that you are responsible for your existence and everything it entails” (3–4). The “lie of self-belonging,” as Noble calls it, is the creed of modernity.
While Noble is not writing as an apologist, this book functions as what Tim Keller calls a kind of Christian high theory; that is, a theory that critiques the myths and systems of secular modernity. Noble doesn’t merely poke holes in the claims about the self, morality, and spirituality encountered in the West; instead, he follows the logic of its doctrines:
The freedom of sovereign individualism comes at a great price. Once I am liberated from all social, moral, natural, and religious values, I become responsible for the meaning of my own life. With no God to judge or justify me, I have to be my own judge and redeemer. This burden manifests as a desperate need to justify our lives through identity crafting and expression. But because everyone else is also working frantically to craft and express their own identity, society becomes a space of vicious competition between individuals vying for attention, meaning, and significance, not unlike the contrived drama of reality TV. (4)
For those born into the mythos of self-belonging, belonging to a God who calls us to be a part of churches, keep ethical laws, and “die to ourselves,” sounds suffocating. Jesus’ yoke and burden can be as easy and light as he wants them to be, but it’s still something you have to hitch yourself to.
Throughout the book, Noble describes how the promises of belonging to oneself and expressing oneself play out in society. Noble summarizes: “[Our] society is a constructed environment built for humans who are their own and belong to themselves. Each of [its] elements, like the pagan gods of ancient Rome, promises to aid us in living a good life so long as we pay them proper devotion and tribute” (69).
Christians do well to take note of the hopeless logic given by self-belonging, but they should also see what Noble is doing in his work: he is not rallying people to “look out” for these slogans, nor is he fearmongering to gain an audience or attention. Rather, his work is one that lets the myths of the modern West crumble under their own burdensome weight. At the end of his introduction, he does not give a thesis to the work as much as set a tone and posture for the journey we have ahead of ourselves:
I did not write this book as a critic positioned safely outside of society. It is very much the product of someone . . . affected by the same problems, tempted by the same desires, and burdened by the same anxieties I describe. . . . Follow Christ. Follow in the footsteps of the wise, righteous elders in your life. And have grace for everyone. Lord knows we need it. (vii)
In a cultural climate where existential cynicism swallows up reasoned argument with a fog of apathy, this might be the best strategy for apologetics today.
So what must we do in a society of self-belonging? Noble says we respond to our modern habitat often in one of two ways: the Way of Affirmation and the Way of Resignation. The difference between these groups can be described as the difference between those who see Sisyphus’s boulder and believe they’re able to win its game and push it to the top of the mountain, and those who give up before ever trying. Some believe that with the right productivity, guru’s advice, app, and meditation practice, they can game the system. This is the Way of Affirmation. Others, however, take a “sunk cost fallacy.” “They don’t choose to tap out of life because they think winning is meaningless. They tap out because they are taught that winning means everything and they cannot envision any path to winning” (82).
The ever-eroding dread of working a dead-end job while having student loan debt, the constant anxiety to optimize your life, feeling so burned out that texting seems like an insurmountable task, and the surest way to cope with life’s stressors is by binging another season of the show you’ve already seen a hundred times on Netflix. This is the Way of Resignation.
There is something to the idea that younger generations are not as resilient as former generations; but instead of making the same tired jokes about participation trophies, Noble’s work acknowledges that the kids and grandkids of those who helped build the world of self-belonging are the ones killing themselves in record numbers. We need something deeper than mantras about washing our faces and picking ourselves up by our bootstraps, and something better than shame-filled tirades. Noble points out,
Humans are incapable of completely, unreservedly desiring the good of someone else. . . . Sometimes we only recognize how we have sabotaged ourselves long after the fact, when we can no longer protect ourselves or change our fate. We are uniquely capable of self-destruction and self-abasement. (126)
But the modern plight doesn’t need to end in what we and society are incapable of doing. As that old catechism reminds us, we don’t have to belong to ourselves. “We need to belong to someone who is perfectly able to desire our own good while desiring their own good, someone for whom there cannot be a conflict between our good and their good. . . . We need to belong to Christ” (126).
It’s this subtle candle flicker of hope that makes Noble’s work so striking and compelling. These sad discoveries do not extinguish Christian hope. The shining glimmer of You Are Not Your Own is how ordinary obligations in an inconvenient church community can provide us a means to live the good life amid a dark world.
For those who wonder how to respond righteously to “the crisis of our time,” You Are Not Your Own may not supply pristine syllogisms or a laundry list of action steps—such a list would make us like Sisyphus again—but it offers words of wisdom from a fellow traveler who will help ready you on your way.
Caleb Wait (MA Theological Studies, Westminster Seminary California) is the associate producer of Core Christianity and White Horse Inn.