There is an interesting story in Acts 23. Paul is on trial before the Jewish Sanhedrin. Things do not look good at this particular moment. Paul was well aware of what this group was capable of doing in the exercise of what they thought was their sacred duty to protect Israel from unrighteousness. But Paul also knew that this was a divided group. The Sanhedrin was composed of both Pharisees and Sadducees who didn’t see eye to eye on very much. They disagreed on politics, on scripture, and on key issues of theology. One key difference was in regard to the belief in the resurrection. The Pharisees believed in the hope of the resurrection while the Sadducees absolutely dismissed such a hope. So, with a bit of cunning, Paul throws a live theological hand grenade into the middle of the proceedings.
“It is with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial.” Resurrection! Not only did Paul happen to be telling the truth, he also knew that this word could not be said without causing a serious debate. And like a magician who disappears in the distraction of a puff of smoke, Paul manages to escape his trial because of the divisions between the two groups.
Today we have a lot of words that function in this way. These are hand grenade words; fightin’ words.
It is not particularly profound to point out that we live in very polarized and polarizing times. In fact, a recent study was done by smart people on how Twitter adds to this polarization. The image above is a map of thousands tweets and retweets. The red dots represent content that is right-leaning. The blue dots represent content that is left-leaning. What the researchers noticed is that we typically curate our social media presence so that we only interact with those who largely agree with us on most every tough issue. Those on the right rarely interact with the left and vice versa. This creates an artificial reality where it seems as if everyone agrees with you, and those who may disagree with you are regarded as outliers or often something much worse. And they are certainly not to be engaged with seriously or thoughtfully.
What is disappointing is that Christians – myself included – don’t seem to be much different in this regard. I don’t have data to back this up, but there doesn’t seem to be good evidence that those who call themselves Christians are doing a noticeably better job of avoiding this trap of hyper-polarization. If we are to be witnesses to the world – especially in this cultural moment – the Church must take seriously the task of building bridges when everyone else is digging bunkers.
So Brian Jennings’ new book Dancing in No Man’s Land is the right book at the right time.
Using the historical example of trench warfare during World War I, Jennings observes that it has become just sort of a way of life for us to hang out in our bunkers and lob missiles at those lined up against us on the opposite side of these difficult issues. Of course, this trench warfare seems brave and bold and risky, but it is actually motivated in large part by fear, pride, and anger. In other words, our confinement to the bunker is not motivated by the gospel of grace and truth. It is instead motivated by the worst parts of our carnal nature. Jennings encourages the reader to exit the trenches and choose to dance in no man’s land. Such a move is risky and even dangerous. It requires wisdom and tact; courage and humility. But such a move also seems to be the only move appropriate to a follower of Jesus who himself modeled this kind of life perfectly.
Jennings’ book is extremely readable and practical. Each chapter ends with a set of discussion questions which would work well in a small group setting. If you are a pastor looking for a book to recommend to your people on how to live in polarizing times, this is a book worth checking out. Or if you are a person who has grown sick and tired of the constant trench warfare that has become normalized in our culture, this book will provide a source of encouragement and challenge.