Timothy Keller and John Inazu—along with 10 other contributors, ranging from Tish Harrison Warren to Lecrae—have put together a book that describes “how Christians can engage with those around us, while both respecting people whose beliefs differ from our own and maintaining our gospel confidence” (xi). They are looking for a way forward for the church in a society where people don’t agree about things as basic as “the nature of the common good” and “the nature of human flourishing” (xi).
What is this book about?
In Uncommon Ground: Living Faithfully in a World of Difference, the contributors build upon John Inazu’s work in Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference to argue that the civic virtues of humility, patience, and tolerance (and courage, as Tim Keller adds in his chapter) “are fully consonant with a gospel witness in a deeply divided age. In fact, they not only make space for the gospel but also point, respectively, to the three Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love” (xiii).
Tim Keller adds an important point to this argument in his chapter when he notes that
“Some critics of John [Inazu]’s book have pointed out that our cultural institutions no longer form people with these traits [of humility, patience, and tolerance], and so such agents of civility and reconciliation will be scarce. That may or may not be true, but the church, using the gospel, can and must form people with these habits of heart, including a fourth one: courage” (29-30).
Why does the church need to step up and produce humble, patient, tolerant, and courageous people? Keller is convinced that it’s for the good of the church and the world.
“These are four habits of the heart, then, required for a peaceful, mutually beneficial exchange of ideas between people who are deeply different. The same four traits are also necessary for any fruitful sharing of the faith with nonbelievers. The four major reasons for evangelistic unfruitfulness are a lack of humility, of hope, of love, and of courage. The gospel supplies all these things, if it is truly believed, understood, and rejoiced in. Pastors need to teach, apply, sing, and pray the gospel into hearts until these habits and traits grow” (31).
The good news of Jesus Christ, then, is both the engine and the goal of the church’s embodiment of humility, patience, tolerance, and hope in today’s divided and divisive age.
This is the “through-line” of the book that ties its 12 chapters together, and it emerges most clearly in the introduction, in Tim Keller’s and John Inazu’s chapters, and in the conclusion, where the editors offer four practices for the church to embody “faithful presence” in the world.
A dozen contributions take this basic argument and illustrate it from the perspective of the authors’ various roles, with the overall structure of the book moving from how we think (Part I) to how we speak (Part II) to how we embody (Part III) our engagement with others in our pluralistic society.
Strengths and weaknesses: should you read Uncommon Ground?
Given Anglican Compass’s focus on clarity and charity, I was excited to read a book that shared our vision and illustrated it in various spheres and vocations. Because my own experiences can only take me so far, I wanted to learn more about “living faithfully in a world of difference” (the book’s subtitle) from a theologian, a pastor, a song-writer, an entrepreneur, an educator, etc.
The bottom line of my review is that, if you resonate with Anglican Compass’s clarity and charity vision, and you’re curious about what that vision would look like when applied to more than just the Anglican tradition, then you should read this book. The editors and contributors are definitely “like-hearted,” and this book can enrich your imagination of what kind of clear and charitable postures are possible for Christians today.
That being said, although this book’s diversity of contributors is admirable, as with almost any edited volume, the chapters are uneven—especially in terms of theoretical vs. practical content. They all offer vignettes of “living faithfully in a world of difference,” but the roles and perspectives are so different from chapter to chapter that it was hard to keep track of the book’s through-line in many places. Furthermore, because most of the chapters weave together thought, speech, and practice, I didn’t find the 3-part structure of the book particularly helpful.
So, don’t expect this book to provide a “how-to manual” list of instructions. Instead, expect to hear stories from a dozen different people about how they’ve had to grapple with the challenges of clarity and charity in a divided and divisive world.
Nevertheless, for those with ears to hear, there are plenty of insights and takeaways in this book. For example, I was challenged by several of the contributors’ reminders of the importance of the church’s self-critique when it comes to issues of race. This theme is something that the editors note in the introduction: “Christians are unlikely to find a way forward in our pluralistic society without more honestly confronting the issues of race that divide us and the society around us” (xvi).
For me, other highlights included:
- Kristen Deede Johson’s image of the branches of deeply rooted trees eventually overlapping (pp. 16–17).
- Tim Keller’s narrative of being a pastor in both “Christendom” and the “Secular City” (pp. 23–29).
- Tom Lin’s emphasis on the importance of “entry posture”—“the mindset from which we approach our new location or a changing culture” (pg. 35).
- Rudy Carrasco’s recommendation of an entrepreneurial approach—even a reluctant one!—to Christian engagement with the world (pg. 68).
- Tish Harrison Warren’s description of the power and the limits of words (pp. 76–77).
- Sara Groves’s distinction between truth and propaganda (pg. 97).
- Lecrae’s reminder that “there are seldom pure heroes or villains” (pg. 105) and that “the one true hero is Jesus” (pg. 110).
- John Inazu’s emphasis on how being a good translator requires humility, patience, and tolerance—forged in relationships (pp. 119–31).
- Shirley V. Hoogstra’s story of building bridges across divides regarding human sexuality (pp. 144–47).
- Warren Kinghorn’s critique of “the gospel of achievement and competence” (pp. 151–60).
- Trillia Newbell’s practical advice regarding reconciliation (pp. 183–85).
- Claude Richard Alexander Jr.’s call to the importance and the challenges of peacemaking (pp. 189–91).
Of course, there’s much more to this book than just those dozen highlights to whet your appetite! If you’re serious about the “clarity and charity” vision, and you’d appreciate some inspiration from brothers and sisters in Christ in various roles around the world, take up and read!