Review: Uncommon Ground

By Chris Robertson, reprinted from Made to Flourish.

At Made to Flourish, we often focus on the three flourishings. We argue that a flourishing pastor should lead to a flourishing church, and a flourishing church should result in a flourishing community.

We are living in a moment fraught with questions, uncertainties and fear. All of which do not often lead to the three flourishings mentioned above. The challenges of our current moment: a global pandemic, protests around systems that treat people differently because of the color of their skin, and economic struggles make me grateful for Timothy Keller, John Inazu, and a group of authors who came together to write the recent book, Uncommon Ground: Living Faithfully In A World of DifferenceThe goal of this book is to help Christians understand our cultural moment and what Christian faithfulness looks like in spite of pervasive differences.

In other words, Uncommon Ground helps us understand why so many of our communities are not flourishing.

We live in deeply divided, even antagonistic times. Americans today lack agreement about the purpose of our country, the nature of the common good, and even the meaning of human flourishing. These differences affect not only what we think but also how we think, as well as how we see the world. In light of these profound divisions, how can Christians interact with those around them in ways that show respect to those whose beliefs are radically different while remaining faithful to the Gospel?

Keller and Inazu assembled a team of thoughtful writers, theologians, entrepreneurs, songwriters, pastors and business owners to answer this question.

If there is one Scripture that embodies the spirit of this book, I think it is Ephesians 4:1-2: “Walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love.”

The genesis of the book came from correspondence Keller and Inazu had over a period of years. They sought to understand how people can find common good across deep and seemingly insurmountable differences. Conflicts have existed since the fall, though it seems they are only getting worse and are amplified every four years when there is a presidential election in the United States. This year is no exception.

The goal of Uncommon Ground is not a description of the gospel for this generation. It is, however, to reframe the gospel for a particular context. Before you can reframe, you must understand.

Keller and Inazu as editors chose stories as the guiding pedagogy for the book. Part one unpacks the roles through which we think about our engagement with others. Kristen Deed Johnson, a professor at Western Theological Seminary, helps readers understand the contributions of a theologian. Keller explores the role of a pastor. Tom Lin, president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship describes the adventurer, and Rudy Carrasco, program officer at Murdock Trust, the entrepreneur.

Part two presents the ways in which we speak to our neighbors in this cultural moment. Tish Harrison Warren, an Anglican priest, reflects on the role of the writer. Sara Groves, a songwriter; Lecrae, a recording artist, and producer; and John Inazu, a professor of law and religion write about how we can communicate with others through songwriting, storytelling and translating.

Finally, part three helps us understand our embodied engagement with culture. Shirley Hoogstra, president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, and Warren Kinghorn, professor of psychiatry and theology at Duke discuss bridge-building and caregiving. The book concludes with presentations regarding our roles as reconcilers and peacemakers by Trillia Newbell, an acquisitions editor for Moody Publishers, and Claude Alexander, Jr., senior pastor at The Park Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Each of these stories is rich on their own, giving the reader a window into the author’s story, and the ways in which they have approached their engagement with a world of difference.

Building Bridges: Four Principles

We are living in a highly divided moment. Politics, race, justice, education, church and so much more divide rather than unite our country and our churches. Hoogstra provides four essential principles of  bridge-building that apply to our cultural moment.

First, we must show respect. Respect starts with the understanding that every person is created in the image and likeness of God. This view allows for a high view of everyone regardless of their relationship with Jesus, or what their past. Respect is not the same as agreement, though it influences the way people disagree with each other.

Second, we must demonstrate humility. Anyone who seeks to remove divisions must be a learner. We should seek to understand someone from their point of view. Like respect, humility does not require agreement, but it does require patience, empathy, and a desire to listen. Humility builds on the foundation of respect for an individual’s imago Dei, by remembering the mercy and grace God shows us.

Third, we must show ourselves to be trustworthy. Trust is the currency of the realm. We will not break down barriers if there is not a foundation of trust. Hoogstra notes that trustworthiness is built by not talking about someone behind their back or seeking to malign their reputation. We build trust by demonstrating generosity and giving someone the benefit of the doubt.

Finally, we must show love. Building bridges is an act of love, but increasingly, we cannot show love in our own strength. We need the Holy Spirit’s power for any act, perhaps especially building bridges because of the real fear of failure if we do not do this well. Bridge builders must have the self-awareness to know if they are acting from a place of love or fear.

Uncommon Ground is full of stories of individuals building relationships with people with whom they differ. Whether it was Hoogstra building a bridge with a lawyer or Inazu working with an interfaith leader, they both adopted a bridge-builder mindset, seeking common ground across differences, advancing common interests and bringing people together.

If you are not satisfied with the Christianity you are normatively seeing online, if you are not feeling at home in either political party, if you are unsure about the best way to engage with the culture and love your neighbor in this unprecedented moment, if you care about the future of the church, this is a book for you.

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