Breaking Ground, Anne Snyder and Susannah Black. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing 2021.
Summary: A collection of essays written through four seasons beginning in the summer of 2020 on what it might take to restore common ground for the common good in a society deeply divided by the pandemic, race, economic, and political divisions.
The summer of 2020 came in the depths of the pandemic, punctuated by the police-involved death of George Floyd, painfully caught live on camera, resulting in massive demonstrations and disorder in many cities. Two magazine editors, Anne Snyder of Comment, a Canadian-based magazine, and Susannah Black, at the Bruderhof sponsored publication, Plough Quarterly came together to invite a number of Christian thinkers engaged in public square discourse to write articles that attempted to analyze what was happening in our society, draw upon the past, and think imaginatively about the future, renewal, and the role followers of Christ might play in fostering a hopeful future drawing together a fragmented body of Christ and wider society.
The collection brings together an impressive list of thinkers whose essays were written over the four seasons beginning in the summer of 2020 through the spring of 2021. Some of the better known contributors include Mark Noll, N.T. Wright, Marilynne Robinson, Michael Wear, Jeffrey Bilbro, Doug Sikkema, Amy Julia Becker, Oliver O’Donovan, Peter Wehner, and Jonathan Haidt. All told, there are nearly fifty essays in this collection.
The discussion ranges from Mark Noll’s analysis of epidemics past to essays exploring the breakdown of public trust to an interview between Cherie Harder of The Trinity Forum and Marilynne Robinson ranging from Calvin to the common good. Michael Wear, an adviser in the Obama White House surveys our political landscape and profiles Joseph Lowery, one of the last survivors of the Civil Rights movement, who walked with King under the shadow of death, and our call to walk with Jesus even as we engage all the perils of the political in this time. Oliver O’Donovan explores politics and political service.
The essays talk about the importance of place, the local, and the spiritual practices that sustain us. Amy Julia Becker talks about how congregations like hers may fight racism at the local level. Anthony M Barr contributed some of the clearest thinking on the nature of policing and police reform that could be a starting point for many local conversations. Irena Dragas Jansen offers one of the more interesting essays describing what our country looks like through the eyes of a new citizen. Katherine Boyle, an entrepreneur describes the death of Silicon Valley–the eco-disasters, the hopelessness that claims more lives than COVID, the failure of the tech world to save us, and yet the way of being it has promoted as Silicon Valley becomes everywhere.
Aryana Petrosky Roberts describes coming home to the political conflicts in her own family, the inability to hear one another and the breakthrough of praying together, inviting Jesus into the political mess. Stuart McAlpine takes us deeper into prayer, into the prayers of repentance and lament we desperately need to engage and are so hard for us. Michael Lamb explores the implications of Joe Biden’s call for an Augustinian Concord in his inaugural address.
The book includes interview transcripts, some of the best from interviews with Cherie Harder of The Trinity Forum, one of the organizations that joined the Breaking Ground project. One of the very best of these was with Jonathan Haidt and Peter Wehner on “Arguments of the Sake of Heaven.” They explore our contemporary epistemic crisis and polarization, recall the passion of the Inklings for truth that led to vociferous argument, and what is required to foster good arguments in our public squares. Duke Kwon and Gregory Thompson combine to contribute an essay on the call of the American church to own its own responsibility for our nation’s racial history–our love of gain and our failure to make recompense for slavery’s injuries. Charles C. Camosy explores the horror of our nursing homes which the pandemic revealed and the challenge of an ethic of life that includes dignified elder care.
Amid the serious and important conversations, Tara Isabella Burton’s “On Good Parties” comes as a ray of light. Tara loves parties and sees good ones as “a practice for living.” They teach us how to love well and see ourselves as part of a community, they celebrate events in our real lives and the appreciation of one another. She made me look forward to good parties once again.
Even with all that I’ve written here, I’ve but skimmed the surface of all the good and imaginative thinking in this collection. I’m impressed with the wide array of people from police officers to theologians who contribute to this collection. But isn’t this what is needed in our communities across the land–for a coming together of a wide array of people who care about the rents in our social fabric who talk and listen and pray and think and imagine what could be?
I would not only commend this book but at least three of the organizations mentioned here whose publications and initiatives are worth attending to and supporting as we seek to pursue Christ for the glory of God and the common good:
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.
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