Book Review: Common Grounds

Lucke_commonGlennLucke recently emailed me to see if I would read and review the book he wrote with Ben Young, Common Grounds.  I was happy to do so since I have interacted with Glenn a bit through email and he seems to be a great guy, and have kept up with his blog.  Thanks to Broadman & Holman for the book.

Common Grounds is a "Platonic dialogue" with four characters all living in Houston. The first is Dr. MacGregor, a retired seminary professor who is kind and wise.  The second is Brad, an investment banker who is busier than a hive of bees and is always late or always needing to leave early.  He is a Southern Baptist modernist-type who has everything right on paper but is missing the heart of the beliefs he holds.  Lauren is the attractive young corporate lawyer who is a skeptic with many of the typical objections to Christianity, but a hot bod (hey, read the book for yourself). Jarrod is a sandal-wearing, former wake-boarder, grad student in philosophy who is always underdressed.  He attends a charismatic-type church and seems to care more about the Spirit than the Word.  All the characters fit a general stereotype from different extremes.

The latter three are buddies from college days who still meet for coffee every other Sunday night at the Common Grounds coffee shop.  They discuss and debate all sorts of things when they meet, much of it about Christianity, and so Brad decides one evening to bring Dr. MacGregor (who preached at his church recently) to join the conversation for a few meetings.

The rest of the book is filled with dialogue between the four of them, which progressively and somewhat naturally (not so much planned) moves through the attributes of God, God's providence (including a discussion on 9/11), and then general and special revelation.  MacGregor is the one with wisdom and insight who knows theology and can read people.

By the end of the book the three friends have wrestled with their personal issues in light of Scripture and theology.  They question their presuppositions and start to realize that they need a better understanding of God.  That said, no one is converted, no one enters full-time ministry, and no one changes the way they dress.  But their lives do seem a little better as they have become more active seekers of God and truth.

Lucke explains the two goals of the book in an email to me.

The primary goal of Common Grounds is to entice college students, twenty and thirty-somethings into learning the Christian story more deeply.

It's definitely written for this age range, though I’m not sure it will be as enticing for college students.  I hope I’m wrong. I think it will be most helpful for those who can identify with the characters.  And the characters are (for the most part) well-to-do, young, highly educated, attractive, single urbanites.

Does it help us know the Christian story more deeply?  I would be more comfortable to say it helps us know Christian theology more deeply.  Christ is the center of the Story, and there isn't much Christ in this book.  So it's not about the story, but about understanding systematic theology in dialogical form.

The secondary goal is to model gracious evangelism with a militant skeptic, and do so in a presuppositional way.

If I'm an SBC guy who thinks we drop the gospel on people's heads rather than through relationships, this book has a lot to offer.  I can think of people who need to read it and stop beating people up with truth.  MacGregor is a good example.

But I don't think the gospel is really in the book.  If anything, this is apologetical instead of directly evangelistic.  I only remember seeing the name "Jesus" once or twice (though it may have been more). Point is, this is not a gospel book.  It's not a Cross book.  It's not a Jesus book.  It's a systematic theology book, and that only in the areas mentioned above. Word from Lucke is that four more books are planned in this series, covering other topics.

The book does give some interesting bridges from everyday life to truth. Coffee spilled on clothes and being late for meetings becomes an opportunity to point to God’s providence as the meeting is cancelled and time pressures are gone. These aren’t tremendously complex bridges, but helpful for those learning to dialogue one issues of truth and theology.

To be honest, I felt the dialogue was a bit weak. It wasn't very realistic.  In my copy of the book I've written in at least a dozen places in the margin the word "honest," meaning, the dialogue doesn't ring honest/true to me. There are too many places where it's not the right question, the right answer, the right tone, the right attitude.  Views held are too easily shot down, brokenness comes too quickly, openness to talk about things is too open.

So here’s my recommendation...

I like the conservative and reformed theology of the book, and the effort made by the authors to not hold it arrogantly.  So I'm comfortable encouraging readers to embrace the theology taught in the book.

I think audience is pretty important.  If you get this book to the right people (young, ambitious, etc..), it will have its greatest effect.  If they have studied much theology or Scripture at all, it won’t be as helpful.  It's too basic.  But that's the strength of the book too, is as a basic intro to theology for a novel reader.

It may have some helpful apologetical (pre-evangelism) application with young adults, but I don't think that's a real strength in the book because the dialogue isn't honest enough.  There isn't enough real wrestling that will mirror what “seekers” will be wrestling with. And I’m afraid it will tell seekers that foundational issues are theological, not Christological.

If I use this book, it will be with young adults (not youth, but those out of school and in the workplace) who need a brief intro to theology. It might work well to go through as a group and see where the readers see their own struggles with the theological issues raised in the book.

Other takes...

Charles Colson: Breakpoint
World Magazine Blog
CCM Magazine