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.”


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

Review: Faith for This Moment

Faith for this Moment

Faith for This MomentRick McKinley. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018.

Summary: Explores what it means to live as a Christian in a polarized and secularized society, drawing on the idea of exile in scripture and proposing practices that sustain faithfulness in exile.

Rick McKinley, like many Christians, wrestles with what Christian faithfulness looks like for the church he pastors in Portland, Oregon, amid a secular and highly polarized American society. We can look for who to blame, resort to denial and despair, or recover an idea of understanding our situation upon which Jews and Christians have drawn through the centuries–the idea of exile.

McKinley traces the idea of exile through scripture, from the first exiles from the garden, down through Abraham and Sarah, Israel in Egypt, the Jews in Babylon, and the church scattered through the Roman empire. McKinley lays out the alternatives of how exiles live:

“[T]he way in which the people of God navigated their faithfulness to God in exile was not to burn Babylon or to baptize Babylon but to find distinct ways to bless and resist Babylon.”

He argues that our calling as exiles is both to bless and resist our “Babylons.” We need to recognize both windows of redemption, places where we can engage the culture around issues of shared concern such as the arts or the environment, and windows of opposition, such as our consumer culture. To be people who know where to bless and resist, we need two critical skills–the discipline of repentance and the practice of discernment. In repentance, we acknowledge our indifference to God and to our society and are converted by God to people who begin caring about the things God cares about. Discernment helps us know what faithfulness looks like in particular situations such as becoming a reconciling presence in a polarized society.

McKinley contends faithfulness is empowered and lived out through five critical practices:

  1. Hearing and obeying–the centering practice that holds the others together.
  2. Hospitality: overcoming fear to welcome the stranger
  3. Generosity: repenting consumerism to recognize money and time are gifts and not possessions.
  4. Sabbath: turning from busyness to embrace rest and relationships
  5. Vocation: moving from the drudgery of jobs to the holy joy of living out a calling.

McKinley’s vision is for the church as a healing presence in a divided society. He writes:

“The move I am suggesting is what Miroslav Volf called a move from exclusion to embrace. What if we began to envision a nation in which we didn’t simply tolerate our differences but engaged one another around those deeply held convictions? What if we moved beyond polite disagreement to demanding safety for those with whom we disagree and defending the rights of those who hold convictions other than our own? What if we truly believed that each of us bears the image of God and has something to offer the other? What new types of civility might emerge among us? This new kind of relating could create new possibilities of understanding, out of which relationships could be born and change could become tangible.”

Oh, that it were so! Beyond this healing vision, what I like about McKinley’s book is that it both reflects insights of the likes of Volf and Newbigin (I also wonder if he has read Charles Taylor, James K. A. Smith, and other who have wrestled with secularity), and distills the best of these into a readable and practicable book for the rest of us. Others have written about Christians as exiles, and about formative practices, but I have not often seen all this thinking summarized so succinctly and translated into the real-life practice of a church.


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


The Evangelical Penumbra?


NASA Goddard Space Flight Center [CC BY 2.0] via Flickr

Ross Douthat, in an op-ed piece in the New York Times titled “Is There an Evangelical Crisis?” proposed that evangelical intellectuals and writers and their friends might be part of an “evangelical penumbra” that has overestimated the role of serious theology (and thought in general) to evangelicalism’s sociological success. He raises the question in light of the 81 percent who voted for President Trump whether this “penumbra” might leave evangelicalism, and what this would expose about the movement that is left, one predominantly white and racially segregated, and perhaps more committed to American greatness than the kingdom of God.

In case you are wondering, a “penumbra” is the outer region affected by an eclipse, that is only in a partial shadow or weakened light. In the recent eclipse that crossed North America, central Ohio, where I live was in the penumbra of the eclipse while areas to the south experienced total eclipse. As it happens, I also live in the penumbra Douthat writes about and I deeply resonate with Douthat’s concerns. I’ve lived in a world where we read the Bible cover to cover and discovered a gospel that transcends racial, economic, gender, and national boundaries and a God who loves the world he created and wants us to love and care for it as well. I’ve lived in a world where the transforming work of Christ calls me to not only personal but social holiness–a life pursuing personal integrity and justice in society. I find myself far from perfect in all of this, but unwilling to rationalize my imperfections or the ways our communities of faith fall short. I’ve lived in a world of “taking every thought captive to Christ,” where knowing Christ leads to a kind of intellectual renaissance in which every intellectual endeavor is immeasurably enriched by knowing it is shot through with the glory of God.

It stings to wake up and find that what one assumed to be authentic evangelical Christianity is in fact marginal to much of this movement. No wonder so many of my friends are disenchanted and have decided either to drop the name or leave altogether. I find myself wrestling with what to do about that myself. It seems like a futile thing to say that the evangelicalism of Jerry Falwell Jr., Franklin Graham, and Robert Jeffress is not really evangelicalism when it appears that a majority of white evangelicals identify with that evangelicalism. Yet what disturbs me more is that if I am living in the penumbra, to pursue Douthat’s analogy, then these folks are in the umbra, the place of darkness. I have to admit that it really looks dark to me–politically captive as opposed to being captivated by Christ, considering national greatness more important than the kingdom of God, willing to perpetuate and deepen our racial wounds rather than to heal them, and turning a blind eye to sins they would preach against in their own churches to advance a narrow political agenda.

Dean William Inge is perhaps most famous for his remark that “Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.” I tremble when I consider what is happening right now because I see a movement that is destined to be a bereft widow–abandoned both by the young and the powerful in the years to come. I also haven’t got a clue what will awaken those I see pursuing this destructive path, apart from a Damascus road-type encounter with the Lord himself. It seems this group has no interest in listening to those in the “penumbra.”

So what does one do? Yesterday, I reviewed a book titled Faithful Presence, and I think the author is onto something. I see many local congregations (including my own) that embrace the beliefs that have been a part of my life, who are practicing this kind of faithful presence where I live. They’ve neither departed from an evangelical faith, nor embraced the truncated version of that faith about which Douthat writes. I don’t despair when I look at them. They aren’t trying to wield political clout or stack “the court.” They are too busy feeding the hungry, visiting prisons, finding ways to collaborate with our state’s leaders in addressing our opioid crisis, and forging relationships across racial and economic lines to engage in such stuff. They are too busy thinking about the nations of the world to think about making only one nation great. And they still believe that the good news of Christ’s redeeming work is far more important than the latest “tweet.”

One thing that must also be observed. The people I’m talking about are often part of neither the intellectual or media “elites” within evangelicalism nor the “court” evangelicalism about which Douthat is concerned. Many are thoughtful people who are less interested in writing or talking about their faith than simply living it in their congregations, communities, and workplaces. My hunch is that if anything will endure the winnowing (and widowing) of evangelicalism, it will be these people, who quietly have been the presence of Christ in their communities. And that’s where I think I must remain.

Review: To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World

To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World
To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an important book! James Davison Hunter challenges the rhetoric (and hubris) that often comes with the idea of “changing the world” that is embraced by many Christian ministries and movements. He argues first that we often work from inadequate assumptions about the nature of culture change. Secondly, he argues that either in our embrace or rejection of political power, we wrongly attribute too much to this kind of power. Third, he would argue that the proper stance for the church is one of “faithful presence.” These three points are more or less the theses of the three “essays” that comprise this book.

In his first essay, he begins by challenging what he sees as the shared assumption of many movements that “world-change” happens as you change the hearts and minds of individuals through evangelism, political, and social efforts. Related to this is often a version of a “great person” theory of culture change. Hunter argues that this view, based on getting individuals to think better and do better, is mistaken because of an inadequate understanding of culture and culture change, which he articulates in the form of eleven propositions. He would argue that culture is embedded in overlapping institutions of cultural power as much as in ideas and that culture changes as elites within overlapping networks work toward shared ends. Hunter observes that part of the failure of Christians despite some political heft and media presence to effect the changes they hope for in American culture is their absence from these elites. He also looks at the history of Christianity and notes how their influence extended into the culture when they represented the elites of education, the arts, social institutions, as well as politics. William Wilberforce, for example, was not simply an individual reformer but part of a network of politicians, educators, landowners, and industrialists who, together, helped form a social consensus against slavery. He concludes the essay with warnings about hubris as well–change often has unintended consequences.

The second essay explores what Hunter sees as a Christian embrace of the postmodern politicization of power and its reduction of all of public life to politics. One of the things he also notes in this analysis is the phenomenon of ressentiment, the narrative of injury that often drives the postmodern striving for power–whether it is the anger of the decline of values, the inequalities of society, or the disdain of politics. What he then does is apply these insights to a description of efforts of Christians on the political right, left, and the neo-Anabaptists and their apparent disdain for political engagement. Hunter would see all three as participating in the conflation of all public life into political life either by their embrace or disdain of that life. All miss the “something more” that he believes is part of the calling of Christians in the world.

That “something more” which he calls “faithful presence” is what he elaborates in the third essay. He argues on the basis of the incarnation and servant ministry of Jesus that our faithful presence is not one of grasping for power but rather of seeking the shalom of our human society through a full participation in all the dimensions of human life. He contends that Christians often lack an adequate sense of calling to living out their faith in every day life in the world, and that this is what constitutes Christian faithfulness. He also notes the struggle of this, that we participate, and share in imperfect institutions that we might make a bit better through our presence in the way that heralds the coming kingdom.

I call this an important book because it challenges thoughtfully our inadequate assumptions about culture change, it diagnoses our absence in many of the powerful centers of culture, it names what has been wrong with so many of our political engagements, and it proposes an alternative deeply rooted in the person and work and mission of Christ. Some will no doubt contend with his characterization of the Christian Right, Left, or neo-Anabaptism. What I am concerned with is the question of whether “faithful presence” and a de-constructing of the rhetoric of world-change might lead to a vision of making the world just a little better, but discourage the more drastic but sometimes needed efforts like those of a Wilberforce, or a modern day Gary Haugen in fighting human trafficking. Would those committed to “faithful presence” see an outrageous wrong and move beyond what I would call mere presence to active belligerency that engages the overlapping networks to address something that prevents human flourishing? I think that Hunter’s idea of “faithful presence” is probably robust enough to include this, but I wonder how the language would translate into everyday church circles. I suspect it could easily turn into a response that says, “we should not resist evils like this but simply be faithful to the Lord.” Will “faithful presence” be understood in the terms Andre’ Trocme and Le Chambon understood it in hiding Jews escaping Nazi Germany? Or could this simply support the thin, privatized faith that goes along with tyranny?

That said, I think this one of the most important works written about Christian engagement in public life and one that deserves more attention and discussion by all who care about public life and how Christians engage the wider culture.

View all my reviews

I would also call your attention to an earlier post on this book and two review essays I learned of through comments on the post:

To Change the World

Revisiting “To Change the World” by James Davison Hunter, Andy Catsimanes

How (Not) to Change the World, James K.A. Smith