[I want to thank Glenn Lucke and Broadman & Holman Publishers for providing me with a review copy of Common Grounds. Visit their blog at Common Grounds Online.]
Who would have thought that one of the most loved or loathed words in evangelicalism would turn out to be “conversation?” Conversation is among the most popular metaphors for a way of doing theology, education and evangelism. While the word has been mostly attached to the emergent church- which describes itself as a “conversation”- it is clear that the usefulness of the idea has moved out of twenty-something Christianity and into the larger evangelical stream. (I recently found myself inviting students to have a “conversation” about Jesus with evangelistic counselors during a spiritual emphasis week service.)
Perhaps the iconic “conversational” image for many twenty-somethings is the coffeeshop in the television program “Friends.” Such scenes have become the stuff of real life, as coffeeshops and conversations are part of the real world of many younger people looking for community and informality in a social setting, but not wanting the local pub to be their primary social outlet.
Evangelical writer Brian Mclaren has taken the conversational medium as his primary tool in books promoting “A New Kind of Christian.” Using the narrative structure of a thoughtfully troubled pastor having conversations with his postmodern Christian mentor, Mclaren has started an entire conversation of his own. Whatever one thinks of Mclaren’s theological ideas, he is indisputably effective in drawing readers into the books and communicating theology as something more existentially human adventure than academic dogma.
Ben Young and Glenn Lucke enter this medium with their book Common Grounds. (Broadman and Holman, 2003) Using the narrative structure of three twenty-something friends coming under the mentoring influence of a Socratic seminary professor, Young and Lucke take the “coffeeshop conversation” and turn it into a discussion of basic Christian apologetics.
Evaluating a book like Common Grounds is really a matter of three questions. First, how well does the narrative structure succeed? Secondly, how effectively is Christian theology communicated in the conversations? And finally, what is the reviewer’s recommendations regarding the book.
The narrative structure of Common Grounds is precisely aimed at a twenty-something audience, so the characters are drawn to appeal to twenty-something professionals. There is a lot of excellent detail for each character. In my English classes, we often develop characters as a writing exercise. The characters in Common Grounds are excellent. They will interest readers, especially those who will recognize themselves in the worlds and experiences described. One character’s philosophy graduate degree seems somewhat out of place and undeveloped in the story, but all in all the youthful characters are strong and well portrayed.
The character of the mentor, Dr. Macgregor, has fewer unique contours, but the compensation here is this character’s skill at working the quest for the truths of faith into the life journey of his conversation partners. You want to know more about the professor, and perhaps a future edition could expand his background a bit. (It is odd how I felt that Dr. Macgregor was probably the kind of Southern Baptist that was more likely to turn up at a Founder’s Conference than an SBC Revival meeting
The narrative plot in the book is very light, and is present primarily to create interest initially in the interaction of the characters. An encounter between “friends” fuels the question of why a Christian would not pursue a romantic relationship with an unbeliever. This is a very interesting premise, and it provides the “arc” that holds the story together. No major narrative events unfold in the main body of the book, however. The narrative events serve more as premise than as structure for the entire story. More narrative events could possible have added more interest.
It seemed obvious to me that certain editorial constraints were present regarding descriptions of typical sexual behavior. I am not talking about details of groping, but the implied sexual activities of one character seem oddly constrained. I would have found the book more believable had the book been slightly more straightforward about the sexual thoughts and behaviors of twenty-somethings. I also recognize, however, that the authors were probably fortunate to say what they were able to say.
How effectively is Christian theology communicated? It is clear that the authors of Common Grounds had certain territory they wanted to cover theologically. Those wanting a full systematic theology will find that the book does not explore the totality of Christian belief, but focuses on issues the characters have discussed in their conversations. These are primarily the consistency of various versions of God as they relate to his attributes, the problem of evil and soveriegnty particularly, and the plausibility of special revelation. The book is extremely strong in dealing with the inconsistencies in the popular view of God as “tolerant” and “nice,” but not sovereign or holy.
This discussion, interestingly, affects not only the objections of the unbeliever in the story, but the believers as well. This is quite appropriate, since many Christians are woefully ignorant of the implications of their “Oprahesque” view of God.
The authors also take the discussion in the direction of affirming the necessity and role of the Bible in Christian revelation. The conversations arrive at the importance of special revelation, but do not attempt to explore it in detail. The goal is to open up the possibility of knowing the God of the Bible.
The theology of the book is solid and well cexplained. The book stays close to the questions of “What is God like?” and “How can we come to know Him?” This may mean that the book is more appealing to some readers than others, but for anyone wanting to start a basic conversation on “What is God like?” the book is excellent.
I believe Jesus could have been more prominently discussed in these conversations and the book would have been enhanced as a result. Discussing the Bible as special revelation or discussing inspiration is important. My own apologetic method would center on the Biblical portrayal of Jesus as our window to understand God. It seems to me that discussing the attributes of God without clearly relating this God to the Father of Jesus Christ is taking the long way around the apologetic discussion.
Finally, I would recommend Common Grounds to anyone working with young adults, particularly if they would like a book to use as a conversation starter or as material for conversations. The model for conversational fellowship and “Socratic evangelism” in the book is excellent, and its best use may be in imitating that method. I particularly was impressed with the way Dr. Macgregor’s apologetic and pastoral concerns are equally important, and this is very much needed in apologetic/evangelistic work with young adults.
At the end of the book, no one is converted, but there have been important changes that any young adult- Christian or not- should consider. If you work with young adults, and want to engage them in conversations about God, I recommend Common Grounds without reservation as a fine tool.