A Feature Review of
Stuck Together: The Hope of Christian Witness in a Polarized World
J. Nelson Kraybill
Reviewed by Todd Edmondson
In the middle part of the twentieth century, social critics like Roland Barthes reflected on the nature of myth in the modern world. In his work Mythologies, Barthes focused on the ways that our texts signified our ideologies, understanding texts not just as political treatises, pamphlets, or position papers, but a wide range of other artifacts developed and consumed by individuals and communities. The films we watch, the vacation spots we frequent, the toys our children play with, even the detergents we use—all of these mean something, not just about what we like, but about who we are, and what we believe at the most fundamental levels. Sixty years after Barthes’s musings on mythology, it’s hard to deny that his work was prescient in its understanding of how culture wars take shape. The arguments that rage, particularly in online spaces and cable news forums, about what beer we should drink, what stores we should boycott, and what summer blockbusters deserve our fandom are amplified echoes of the now quaint-seeming debates that Barthes litigated in his work, and because of their ubiquity, these arguments make their way into the conversations and conflicts of people who have never heard of French structuralist thought.
It’s fitting, then, that J. Nelson Kraybill opens his recent book Stuck Together: The Hope of Christian Witness in a Polarized World with an anecdote involving one of the most politically charged and contentious “texts” of recent years: the mask. Kraybill shares a personal story of a recent trip to the dentist that culminated in a heated exchange with an unmasked hygienist. In doing so, he is able not only to shine a light on the kind of rancor that shapes so much of our discourse, but also to look inward, asking (with the help of a counselor friend) honest questions about how he might have handled the situation differently, and what his response says about his Christian witness. This anecdote, and Kraybill’s introductory remarks about tribalism in our culture and in the church, serve to frame the book’s argument: Given that we live in a divided world, how might Christians be effective witnesses for truth and grace, engaging those with whom we disagree in a manner that tends toward reconciliation, rather than contributing to further tribalism and polarization?
On the one hand, Kraybill’s aim here might seem like a modest one. As he states early on: “If Christians do no more than engage those with whom we disagree with gentleness and reverence, it will make a difference in the world.” But as anyone who has attempted to navigate a difficult conversation about cultural, social, or political issues—either in a Sunday School class, a Twitter thread, or around a dinner table—can attest, this goal, while modest, is certainly not easy. For Christians committed to the virtues of truthfulness and peace, it can sometimes seem a gargantuan task not to lose one’s convictions at the first mention of a political candidate or a divisive topic. Guidance is needed, and Kraybill serves to point committed and concerned Christians toward principles and perspectives that can help to transform our conversations.
To this end, the primary strength of Kraybill’s book is its reliance on an incisive reading of scripture. After all, for believers struggling with the hardest questions, the wisdom found in our biblical past, encompassing both positive and negative examples, is the best place to turn. Refusing to treat the narratives and instructions of the Bible simplistically, Kraybill explores what our biblical ancestors had to say about boundaries and signifiers in their own day with an eye to tensions and counterpoints that appear in the texts at hand. From Ezra’s difficult declarations about foreign wives to Jonah’s and Ruth’s more open approach to other nations, Kraybill uses the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures to demonstrate how a multi-generational conversation about contentious issues might unfold. Further, Kraybill engages New Testament approaches to the polarization of the time by looking at Jesus’s conversation with Nicodemus and his relationship to factions of his own day, such as the Sadducees, the Herodians, and the Zealots. He also unpacks Paul’s debates on the Jew-Gentile divide, and the ways that the churches of the first century dealt with differences of opinion and diversity of gifts and perspectives. Throughout, Kraybill’s reading of scripture serves to paint the world of the Bible as having more in common with our current situation than we might sometimes allow.
Nevertheless, Kraybill understands that the approaches to conflict and divisiveness found in the Bible can serve as models for our contemporary debates, without necessarily providing a 1:1 correlation for all of the issues we face. He avoids the trap of assuming that our world, and our political commitments, are identical to those of our spiritual ancestors, and makes room in this book for numerous recent examples that aim to demonstrate faithful application of biblically sound approaches. Kraybill draws on histories of systemic racism, the treatment of indigenous peoples, and debates about gender and sexuality. He shares his own experiences as a leader within various movements associated with the Mennonite church. And he employs examples of individuals and groups who have been willing to humble themselves and wade into difficult conversations with those on opposite sides of the aisle, all in an effort to show that it is possible for Christians who disagree to do so with a measure of love that aims toward peace without forsaking truth and which fosters harmony rather than fanning the flames of enmity among those who share a commitment to the same Lord. In addition to these concrete examples, Kraybill also provides discussion questions for reflection, inviting church communities and other groups to put into practice the principles he advocates.
Admittedly, a book like this can’t accomplish everything, and certainly some readers will disagree with some of the choices that Kraybill makes about which issues are worthy of sustained attention, and which get left out. In a world as divided as ours, it is impossible to make everyone happy, a fact that Kraybill understands as well as anyone. But for Christians wrestling with the problem of how to engage in conversations about difficult issues without attacking or excommunicating their brothers and sisters in the faith, and how to look to the cross in a world full of competing signifiers, Stuck Together serves as an excellent place to start.
Todd Edmondson is a pastor at First Christian Church in Erwin, Tennessee, and Associate Professor of Humanities and Composition at Milligan University. He lives in East Tennessee with his wife, three kids, and a golden retriever.
Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith
"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
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