Review: Uncommon Ground

uncommon ground

Uncommon Ground: Living Faithfully in a World of Difference, edited Timothy Keller & John Inazu. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2020.

Summary: Twelve individuals from different walks of life discuss what Christian faithfulness and the pursuit of the common good looks like in a deeply divided culture.

How are Christians to live in this time where we seem deeply divided about everything from wearing masks to the status of an embryo in the womb to the seriousness of the changes we are witnessing in the world’s climate? Not only are divisions around these and a host of issues deep, but engagement between those who differ seems nearly impossible. So what is a Christian to do? Many have decided that the only options are to “go to ground” and talk about vacations and share cute cat memes. Others have concluded that you must side up on one side of the divide and “unfriend” all those one disagrees with. How is a Christian to live if one cares about the common good and about faithfulness to a kingdom-of-God-shaped life that anticipates the peaceable kingdom and beloved community of the world to come.

These are the questions addressed by the twelve people who contributed to this book edited by Tim Keller, whose Redeemer Church has had a redemptive influence in New York City, and John Inazu, a law professor from St. Louis engaged in a program called the Carver Project whose stated mission is framed in these terms:

We empower Christian faculty and students to serve and connect university, church, and society. We work toward uncommon community, focused engagement, and creative dialogue.

Joining them are theologian Kristen Deede Johnson, InterVarsity/USA president Tom Lin, social entrepreneur Rudy Carrasco, writer and Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren, songwriter Sara Groves, rap artist Lecrae, Christian college network leader Shirley V. Hoogstra, psychiatrist Warren Kinghorn, African American community engagement leader in the Southern Baptist Convention Trillia Newbell, and Pastor Claude Richard Alexander, Jr. a peacemaker in Charlotte, North Carolina, leading a multi-site, socially engaged church, The Park Church.

Some essays are more inward looking as is Tish Harrison Warren’s describing her discovery of a calling as a writer, that of naming reality through words. Tim Keller traces his calling from a rural pastorate to New York City and his sense that the gospel critiqued both rural conservatism and urban secular culture, and the sense that in planting a church, Redeemer was called to be salt and light in the city, citizens both of an earthly and heavenly city with the latter taking priority.

Others think more about the terms of engagement of Christians with a divided and pluralistic society. John Inazu advances the virtues of humility, tolerance, and patience as he seeks to translate between the church and the university. Warren Kinghorn talks about walking with the psychologically wounded. Both Trillia Newbell and Claude Richard Alexander, Jr. explore what it means to be reconcilers, peacemakers in a racist society.

Keller and Inazu tie up the strands of the different essays by calling attention to one of the most significant works on Christian engagement written in the last thirty years, James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World. They single out Hunter’s idea of faithful presence and articulate four themes from the essay of what it takes to find “uncommon ground” in our culture while living faithfully to Christ:

  1. Christians should not overidentify with any particular political party or platform.
  2. Christians should approach the community around them through a posture of love and service.
  3. Christians should recognize that the gospel subverts rival stories and accounts of reality.
  4. Christians should reach out to others with humility, patience, and tolerance.

My one hesitance with the language of faithful presence is that it needs more definition to avoid being reduced to a life of service, integrity and niceness. Particularly considering the issues of justice roiling our culture with women, people of color, immigrants and more, is there something more to be said about Christians stance with those on the margins? Perhaps that is implicit in the idea of a subversive gospel. Several do touch on this. Lecrae talks about the narratives that color our perceptions around race and the necessity of telling different stories. Claude Richard Alexander, Jr. gets closest to “edgy” in stating that “[m]aking peace and striving for justice are intimately intertwined.”

I’ve always wanted to be in the place of reconciling differences, of finding the common ground, even if it is a third way shaped by the gospel. What I wrestle with is knowing when it is not possible to find common or uncommon ground. Are there things with which we cannot reconcile–for example white supremacy? Are there “brightline offenses” that must be called out and resisted without equivocation? What does it mean to love across these kinds of differences? How does one do this without becoming a partisan?

At the same time, the writers cast a vision for being very different Christians from what the world expects, and what is often portrayed in the media. The use of personal narratives helps us identify different examples of what it looks like. Yet this is not engagement “lite.” Most of the writers couple theological frameworks with personal stories, offering us rich fare for thought and community and life. Keller and Inazu not only contribute substantive essays but set up the collection and tie it together well. Even more, they created a conversation among the contributors, who often play off each other, giving the work a coherence not often found in a collection of essays. This was an “uncommon” conversation on “uncommon ground.”

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

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