What is the fundamental problem at the core of modern society? According to Alan Noble, it is a faulty view of what it means to be human. This dehumanization in modern society leads to stress, loneliness, and often despair. In this episode, Sean and Scott interview Dr. Noble to understand his diagnosis of modern society and learn how a biblical view of humanity can set us free.

About our Guest

Dr. Alan Noble is an Associate Professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University. He is the author of multiple books including Disruptive Witness and You Are Not Your Own. He is the Editor-in-Chief of the online magazine, Christ and Pop Culture and a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, Vox, Buzzfeed, First Things, Christianity Today, and The Gospel Coalition.

Episode Transcript

Sean McDowell: Welcome to Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture, a podcast from Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. I'm your host, Sean McDowell, professor of Christian Apologetics.

Scott Rae: And I'm your co-host Scott Rae, Dean of Faculty and professor of Christian Ethics

Sean McDowell: To have with us, Dr. Allen noble and associate professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist university. And he's written just a fascinating new book that I've really been looking forward to kind of unpack with him. And it's called You Are Not Your Own. Dr. Noble, thanks for taking the time to join us.

Alan Noble: Thank you. And may I just say that that was a very professional start. I've been on a lot of podcasts and that was just so smooth, the intonation, the delivery. Perfect. That was amazing. You're professionals. Thank you.

Sean McDowell: Well, we've been practicing it for hours to nail it the one time you came out. So we really appreciate you noticing. Well, since my quick streamline intro is gone, now let's dive into your book, which I thoroughly enjoyed. And let's get right into the meat of it. One of the things intrigues me is you claim that the deepest issues plaguing our society, and there's a lot of big issues today, are grounded in a particular understanding of what it means to be human. Tell us about that.

Alan Noble: Yeah. So the theory that I'm exploring is the idea that our environment that we're currently living in, contemporary society, is not actually designed for us, designed for us as God made us, because it's designed with an incorrect conception of what it means to be human, a bad anthropology. And then specifically what I have in mind is there's the assumption that we are fundamentally our own and belong to ourselves. And from that assumption come various consequences in the way we conceive of identity, we conceive of meaning, value, belonging, all kinds of things.

And I came to this, this struck me when I was considering, I can't even remember what the particular circumstance was, but it was something in the news several years ago, four or five years ago. And I thought of the Heidelberg first question and answer, "What is your own comfort in life and death? That we are not our own, but belong body and soul and life and death to Jesus Christ." And I thought, "Man, this one idea speaks to so many of the contemporary problems that our society is facing." And that kind of led me down this trail to explore, what does that mean? Is that true? Am I wrong? And that's the book.

Scott Rae: So Alan tell... I mean, you described society as being sort of this fundamentally dehumanizing system. Tell me what you mean by society being dehumanizing and give me some specific examples of that.

Alan Noble: Ooh, that's a great question. So I'm going to use a couple of data that I've come across recently. Recently in my hometown, there have been fast food places that take forever to get your food. Now let me pause and just say, I'm not saying you're waiting for a Whataburger for 30 minutes is dehumanizing. That's not my point, but I saw...

Sean McDowell: Now just for the record waiting for a McDonald's burger for 30 minutes might be dehumanizing. Keep going. I digress.

Alan Noble: So my son really likes this place. So I take him cause I try to be a good dad and a couple of days after this incredibly long wait, I read online on a local town message board, a manager at, I think actually that location saying, "Hey guys, if you've come here and it's taken forever, I apologize. I have about one quarter of this staff I'm supposed to. And there are only three veterans because of the coronavirus. Everyone was laid off and now there are new people and not everyone has come on." And it was interesting seeing the reactions because maybe people responded by saying, "Well, people are just lazy. They don't want to work. The government's giving handouts. And so nobody wants these jobs." And while I think there absolutely i economic questions about what a job is worth, what struck me was the fact that there was this assumption that all jobs are equally meaningful.

See, I get a lot of fulfillment out of my job because I get to, as a teacher, I get to work with students and mentor students and help them understand their faith better. And so to me, the summer months, which we're in right now are kind of terrible because I don't get to be with them doing this thing. So when I think of not working, choosing not to work, that sounds awful. But the difference is, is that not all jobs in our society meaningfully contribute to a community. Some jobs are actually detrimental to our community, detrimental to the environment, detrimental to our health. And you know that. And so when you go in, it's a kind of dehumanizing job. And yet we're guilting these young people, shaming them for not wanting to work for little pay for a job that is meaningless and kind of degrading.

So that's just one little tiny... Let me... Another... One more quick one. Recently I was driving from California, Northern California to Oklahoma visiting family. 40 minutes outside of Flagstaff, a mountain lion jumped in front of our van, which is... How does that happen, right? 10 o'clock at night, three small kids in our car, my wife's driving, airbags explode, lights go on, horn's going on, van ends up getting totaled. It was a disaster, right? And I'm sitting on the I-40, super busy freeway. And I'm thinking "I've got to get my kids out of here." I'm scared because I know if somebody clips our van, as we're stuck on the side of the road, it could kill us. Right? So I'm very concerned. Plus my kids are worried that the mountain line is not dead and is very angry, right? So I call a tow truck.

I try to call someone to get us towed out of there. And I didn't get to talk to a person. I had to talk to a computer system to get to a person. Now this was a line, I'm not going to name the company, but this is a company I pay for this service. So that in emergencies like this, I can just call them up. And they help me out. But still knowing that this is not necessarily nine 11 emergencies, but still for important things. They still made me go through a computer system.

Now these are tiny things. I understand they're not... But what I think is the case is that these tiny things add up. I think in the book, I described them as sort of a million little indignities that we face throughout the day. And each of them are examples of people not being treated humanely, humanly as God designed us. So the company decided it's much more efficient to make this person go through an automated phone system than having a human answer the phone because of efficiency. But I'm on the side of the road with my three small children in the middle of the night, right by woods. And there's a mountain lion and we're frightened. So I don't know. Those might seem like random examples, but they hit home to me.

Sean McDowell: You give a bunch of examples in the book. And one that hit me was, I speak in different states, and so I pay taxes in each state I speak in, and one state assessed the taxes I owe them as if all the money I make in the state I live in was due to them. So I wrote them a letter. They rejected it. I get this threatening letter. I get my CPA to send a letter, rejects it. They're doing a lawsuit against me. I'm like, "What is happening?" And I couldn't get somebody on the phone. And as I'm reading your book, it's like, we're constantly not able to just talk to human beings. And there's this system outside of us. And it just takes stress and dehumanizes us on so many different levels. That's what you're hitting at. Now. One of the things you go into as well is you describe how we have this need to define ourselves today. Everybody has to define who they are, especially through social media. And this leads to weariness, burnout, and depression. Talk about that a little bit.

Alan Noble: Yeah. So I'm using this concept from a philosopher named Zygmunt Bauman, who I chose, because his name is Zygmunt Bauman. And it's just so beautiful. I judge scholars by their names, like books by their covers. Anyway. So Zygmunt Bauman has this idea called liquid modernity. And he says that the society in which we live, almost everything seems to be, or feels fluid, and identity is one of the key ones. And I think this is the case. Most modern people feel like their identity is uncertain. It's precarious, it's undefined. And this is actually a very new idea. Historically people haven't always... Don't reach their teenage years and thought, "I have to discover who I am." You might need to discover your calling in life. You might need to discover, like Dante, you might just need to discover how to rightly follow God, but you wouldn't wake up and be like, "Who am I?"

This is a modern convention because our identities feel uncertain. Now there's historical reasons for that, that I don't have time to get into. But the result of that is if you feel like your identity is uncertain and the only way to correct that is to define it yourself, because you belong to yourself. You're the only one who can define yourself. Then you have to work really hard.

Now what makes that really difficult is that everybody else is doing the exact same thing. Everyone else is announcing to the world "Here I am. This is what I'm about. These are the things I'm into. This is what I'm like. This is my brand, my image." And so you're competing against this cacophony of people, screaming out into the void to announce themselves so that they feel that they are someone, that they have some substance that they are definite and specific. And so very often you get burnout. You get distraught, you get tired, you get frustrated, and you get depressed. And there's a perpetual feeling of inadequacy. My identity is not enough. I need to do a bit more. I need to do a bit more. And inadequacy always leads to addiction of one kind or another, feelings of inadequacy.

Scott Rae: And Alan, you also described how we all self-medicate. And that would certainly be one of the prescriptions for weariness,, burnout and depression. What are... I mean, I take it, I mean, you have a lot more in mind than some of the traditional ways people self-medicate, you have other ways in mind, tell us a little bit about what you mean by everybody self-medicates.

Alan Noble: Yes. And in one way or another, at one time or another, I think we all self-medicate and one of the reasons is, well, just what you described, Sean with the outside state, right? Making these absurd demands upon you. In the book, I talk about doing my taxes and this bureaucratic feat is soul sucking and exhausting and stressful. Because I want to do it right. I feel like I'm responsible as a Christian do it correctly.

And the system is not made for me to do it correctly because it is so arcane. It is so complicated and Byzantine and awful. And so what happens? Well you feel anxious, you feel weary, you feel tired, and if you add, I don't know, doing your taxes, and then if you have to make a call about a medical bill you're done for the day, right? And so how do you deal with that? Well, I remember a couple of years ago when I was writing the book, this situation came up and I walked in my kitchen and I ate some ice cream. I didn't overeat, it wasn't gluttony or something, but that was actually, I would say a benign way, a healthy way to remind myself that, "Okay, this is not all that there is, there are good things in this world. Like chocolate ice cream."

Scott Rae: It would have been better if you'd had a clump of broccoli though, instead of that.

Alan Noble: Well, and interesting. That's exactly right. Yeah. And so what can happen is, is that you also feel guilty while you're doing it. This is almost always how it happens, right? So you have... You experienced some dehumanizing scenario. You respond to that by coping to release your stress. Because again, you're not living in an environment that's made for you as a human, so you feel agitated. But that coping mechanism makes you feel guilty because you know that you should be doing better, which also can lead to more coping mechanisms.

I give the example of, what I would say is a benign or even I think can be a God glorifying, way of coping of responding. But there are many that are not. And I think of how many conversations I've been in with students who feel this tremendous pressure to be successful in college, just overwhelming. They get it from society and parents and from themselves. And they think that if I'm not successful, if I don't pick the right major, if I don't get the right grade, then my life's done. And what can happen to them is that they fold inward and they come and tell me, "I'm sorry, this assignment is late, but I spent 36 hours binge watching Friends."

And to me, which was so painful is they're not joyful about it, right? They're not like, "I just thought I was just going to have fun. I'm going to watch Friends for 36 hours." No, that's despair. They're depressed. And it's the same thing with scrolling through Snapchat or TikTok for five hours at a time. That's not the sign of a student who doesn't care about life and just says, "Whatever, I don't care." No, that's a student who cares so much that they are crippled with anxiety. And so they're coping the only way they know how, but that coping mechanism will only draw them deeper and deeper into the problem. And part of my argument is that society gives us more and more and more and more coping mechanisms, whether that's medication or whether that's entertainment or whatever, there's always more, and it has to provide those because the system is dysfunctional.

Sean McDowell: I think one of the ideas that I've been thinking about after reading your book for the past few days, prepping for this is how much time you spent on efficiency and how there's things more important in life than efficiency. And that really hit me because I'm a pretty efficient person. And I lay out my day, and I'm effective and probably pride myself in that too much. I read that. I was like, "Yeah, there's a lot of truth in this." So talk about why you would target efficiency. And clearly you're not saying don't be inefficient, but there's more important things to life than just being efficient.

Alan Noble: Yeah. So here, I'm working with this idea from a French thinker called Jacques Ellul, who is a Christian, a Protestant. And he wrote this book, A Technological Society, which is fantastic. And he argues in it that our contemporary society is dominated by technique. And by that he primarily means efficiency. Various methods of becoming increasingly efficient. His theory is that efficiency always ends up beating out other systems or in our contemporary society, we have allowed efficiency to beat out other systems. So yes, as you're saying, efficiency is not a bad thing, it's a good value. It's a good goal, but it's only one among many. And for Christians, it can't be the ultimate one. It can't be love of God and love of neighbor always have to be higher, always. And so there will come times where you have to say, "Okay, this would be more efficient, but it would also be unloving to my neighbor. So I can't do that." But we live in a society that pressures us to say, "No, no, you need to do the more efficient thing."

So an example, I've come across or I've seen many times is when companies are thinking about how they take care of their employees, often they'll frame it explicitly in terms of efficiencies. So they'll say, "Hey, well..." I found this recently with a post from someone I'm not going to say who was advertising that helping your employees get out of debt will actually make your bottom line better. And that was just fascinating to me, a fascinating claim, because on the one hand it was saying something really good, help your employees get out of debt. I was like, "Oh, wow. Yeah, please let's do that. That's a great thing for an employer to be concerned about." But in the end, what motivated it was not love of their employees, but the bottom line.

And what's scary about that, what happens when your employees being in debt is actually better for your bottom line? Because if that's really what's motivating, you can get yourself into a lot of trouble. And, in the book as you know, I bring up a few examples of this, where it's more efficient for companies to put their employees or to put customers in situations that are dehumanizing that are evil because it's more efficient. And if we allow efficiency to be the ultimate goal, then that's, what's going to happen.

Scott Rae: Alan, you describe in one of the chapters in the book that I think is quite provocatively titled How Society Fails Us, so really a two-part question on this. How are some of the ways in which society fails the average person? And then you make the pretty arresting statement that contemporary pornography is, as you put a quote "in your perfect reflection of society's failure," so help help us with both of those.

Alan Noble: Yeah. So let me see if I can answer that together. In the book, I try to argue that pornography is one of the ways that society tries to help us cope with its inhuman conditions. So for example, in the modern family, the demands put on working parents, and typically it is both working parents, are intense. There are demands for long hours, long working hours. There's a lot of social expectations to let's say, be physically fit and make sure exercise is a major part of your life. You're expected to take your kids to various things. In other words, you're incredibly busy and these are the pressures that are put upon you. And you're expected to be efficient with all this time. Here's the thing about love, about intimacy, and marriage. It takes time. You have to spend time with your spouse. You have to love your spouse. You have to talk with your spouse.

And so it's not uncommon. And I've heard this, I think actually from a couple of pastors, for married couples to get to the place where there is no more intimacy where just the busy-ness of life, the stress of life, the anxiety of life, really all the things that I'm trying to describe in this book, get them to a place where that vulnerability that's required in God's design of intimacy is too difficult to reach. And so they can kind of give up, which is really sad, but society provides pornography. And what pornography does is it allows people who don't have moral objections to it to say, "Well, I'm going to get this sexual fulfillment, or at least a version of it that I want without having to risk my vulnerability, without having to spend the time spending time with my spouse." In other words, it's more efficient, but it doesn't actually help us. It makes things so much worse.

It dehumanizes other people. It draws you further away from your spouse. It gets you addicted. And that I think is kind of the model for what we see in a lot of the ways that society tries to help us. It says, for example, with identity, which we've already talked about, "You need to create your own identity. Well, we're going to give you the tools to do that, AKA social media. Oh, but also you're going to get addicted to this because these tools will never be enough and you'll have to do more and more." And so society on the one hand creates these expectations for us that are inhuman and then provides us tools that claim to help us meet these burdens, these responsibilities of what I call self belonging, but the tools never do the job. In fact, they almost always get us addicted and they always draw us down and make us worse, feel worse and worse. So that's what I had in mind. I go on for quite a while with pornography in the book because I think it's... Yeah, I think it's important topic.

Sean McDowell: Well, I'm glad you talk about it because in some ways it's the elephant in the room. And a lot of people don't address it. In a book that talks about people being de-humanized I was thrilled you spent the time discussing it and unpacking it. Now, you're trying to reframe the question of identity for reader, and in particular Christians. Where you say, "The big question in the west has been, what am I, or who am I? But a better question is whose am I." Why is that a better question?

Alan Noble: Yeah. So if we start from ourselves, which is the idea of belonging to yourself, you have only yourself to start with. You only ever have yourself to start with. You can get suggestions from other people about who you are, but you're always fundamentally beginning with and ending with yourself. Okay. So if that's where your starting place is, and you're trying to build up an identity, it's like trying to pull yourself out of the ocean without any structure around to grab onto, without any shred of wood or a rock or anything, you'll never get out of the water. You'll always be paddling, always be pushing yourself out, never making movement. That's the problem with asking who am I? And this can happen a number of ways. I mean, one is if you've ever spent time being introspective and asking yourself, or trying to figure out who am I deep inside, you'll realize that that's not an exact science.

If you start looking inside yourself, you're going to find all kinds of things that are incoherent. That don't exactly make sense. That some of them you're going to want to reject some of them, you might identify... You think, "Okay, that's true." Or "that's good" It's not a clear thing it's murky. So this whole project of trying to find or discover or craft an identity is exhausting. And historically that has not been the question, the question has been to whom do I belong? And going back to Dante. I think Dante is a great example of this. Dante begins his quest, he's lost in the woods, but his lostness is not an identity crisis. Our contemporary crisis is always an identity crisis. Who am I? That's the story we tell in almost all of our popular stores, who am I? Got to discover my identity.

But for Dante, the question was never, who am I? He knew who he was. He didn't know how to rightly pursue God. So he had a spiritual crisis. He needed to understand to whom he belonged. And that, I think, is the question we need to be asking ourselves. We're assuming that we belong to ourselves. So we're not asking that question. And then we're just trying to figure out who we are, but we need to take a step back and reframe and say, "Actually to whom do we belong?" If it's to God, there are some clear ramifications of that.

Scott Rae: Alan, this idea that you are your own, the idea of individual autonomy has just shot through my own area of specialty in bioethics. And the notion that it's my body and my choice relates to abortion, assisted suicide, genetic technologies, reproductive technologies, maybe the clearest part of this has to do with the debate on assisted suicide and euthanasia because I mean, almost nobody is willing to contest the notion that "Hey, it's it's my life, it's my body. If I want to go out this way, I should be able to do that."

And so what I've been encouraging, my seminary students to do for example, is rather than addressing some of these issues head on per se, rather, you also have to address the cultural soil that is causing these things to flourish like they are. And the idea that you are not your own is so counter-cultural, even for people for whom their Christian faith is meaningful to them, it's important to them, that they've been well-educated in our churches. The cultural headwinds to make you think that you are your own are so strong. Now we can communicate this biblically I think pretty clearly to folks for whom biblical authority matters, but how do you communicate the idea that you are not your own to someone for whom, they don't care one wit about what the Bible teaches have no interest in following Christ? And though it's important. I think it's just as important for them to realize that they're not their own as it is for the believer. So how would you start communicating that to folks for whom I think it's a much tougher sell that you are not your own.

Alan Noble: Yeah. I you described it as counter-cultural. I think offensive is one way. When this book was announced on social media, I have some progressive Christian friends on social media, and one of them was very... He's a kind guy, he disagrees with me about a lot of things, but he said, "You know what, if anyone could write this book with... A book with this title, it's you Alan." And I thought "That was kind. Okay." But immediately all his friends piled on and said, "That title is deeply offensive. It's abusive. How dare you?" And he just got canceled. It was terrible to watch. He got piled on. So... And I know it's not only, counter-cultural, it's deeply offensive because it is so deeply ingrained. As you said, it's outside the church and is definitely inside the church, unfortunately.

To answer your question, I mean, that's what the book is about. I mean, I wrote this and I have no idea how well it's going to work, but I wrote this intending to make a case that would resonate with people inside and outside the church. Describing the failure of society. So if society is giving us this promise, "Hey, you're your own. If you embrace that and you work with the tools that we give you, you're going to have a great life." And I want to look around and point out that that's not working. It's not a great life. This is an inhuman environment. This is awful. So if that promise is failing, what are the alternatives? Could we consider something else?

And if so much of this dehumanization at its core rests on this particular anthropology, what's another anthropology? And my hope is that after going through the first section of the book, if people can resonate with some of the conflicts, some of the tension, some of the anxieties that I'm describing, by the time I'm offering that alternative, they'll realize, 'Okay, I'm open. What else do you got?" Because this isn't... You're right. This is not pleasant. So I don't know if that's going to be effective. It's a tough... Yeah. Like you said, it's a tough sell. I don't know. I hope it works.

Sean McDowell: Well. I think it's going to work, but let me ask you a final question. Say it does work and someone reads the book and takes these ideas seriously. How would embracing the identity of whose they are in Christ bring a kind of freedom that's not typically found of the person running the rat race of kind of the modern game? What would that look like?

Alan Noble: So this is also part of a tough sell. Is that what I'm offering at the end of the book is both freedom and responsibility, because I think those are natural outcomes of understanding that you belong to God. So let's just take identity as one of those... I talk about five major areas that have implications of this anthropology. If we take identity, well, if we belong to Christ, then our identity is always certain. Now that doesn't mean we always have a clear conception of who we are or where we should be going, or what career we should choose. But it does mean that there is somebody outside of us, someone who is eternal and knows us, absolutely who sees us, who knows our name and knows our face. And for him, we are a certain person. We are an absolute certain person. There's no question about our identity. It's not a slippery thing. It's not liquid. It's certain.

So the whole game of I've got to figure out who I am is nonsense. You can just say, "no." Now the difficult part about this is that having that mindset will help you. It'll give you some agency so you can push back against the lies that society is pushing, but society is still going to push those lies. And so you're still going to feel that pressure to be performative, to be expressing yourself, et cetera, et cetera. So it's still going to be a tough society, but you'll have some agency. The other part of this though, is that if you belong to Christ and he's giving you that identity, that means you have some responsibilities, some real meaningful, important responsibilities to God, to his church, to your family, to your community, to his creation.

And so I don't get to say, "You know what? I don't identify with my family anymore. I'm just going to decide to cut you off." Now, certainly there can be situations where there's some abusive things going on, but I'm talking about just in general, deciding "I don't want to identify with you," or "I don't want to identify with this community or this church." That's not an option. You are connected and you have a responsibility to love them because you're part of them. So it's freeing, it's a freeing answer, but it also comes with what I want to call right limits, right responsibilities, in line with what God has given us.

Sean McDowell: Well, I hope a lot of people read the book, take it to heart, share it. I told you, as we were chatting before we started that I read it twice. And some of that was just... You said some things about efficiency and competitiveness and identity that really struck a nerve with me. And I think it will with our listeners as well. So I would encourage those of you who are listening check out Alan Noble's new book is called You Are Not Your Own. Dr. Noble, thanks so much for writing a great book. And thanks for coming on and joining us on the Think Biblically podcast.

Alan Noble: Thank you guys.

Sean McDowell: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. The Think Biblically podcast is brought to you by Talbot school of Theology at Biola University, offering programs in Southern California and online, including the Institute for Spiritual Formation, where we explore in some depth, many of the issues we discussed today with our guest, Dr. Alan Noble. To find out more information, go to biola.edu/talbot that's biola.edu/talbot. If you enjoyed today's conversation, please consider giving us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. We thank you so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.