A Feature Review of
The Sacred Overlap: Learning to Live Faithfully in the Space Between
Reviewed by Jamie A. Hughes
I don’t know about you, but I’ve spent the better part of 2020 feeling ripped in half. We have spent most of these twelve months screeching full blast at one another about who to vote for, the value of black and blue lives, and whether or not we should wear masks. The two perennially benign topics—the weather and people’s health—aren’t even safe for discussion this year. Better to stick to things like dogs and how much we all genuinely like Paul Rudd. All the rancor and contempt has left me discombobulated, but thankfully, J.R. Briggs’s The Sacred Overlap: Learning to Live Faithfully in the Space Between has provided some much-needed ballast.
Too often, the church has been willing to isolate our way to holiness, to embrace an us vs. them mode of thinking that has left us with a truncated version of the Good News. However, Briggs offers a better solution, a broader space in which we can fully live and breathe out what we believe. Rather than be downhearted or confused by the antipathy we feel pressing in around us, he sees it as an occasion for true witness. He writes, “If there is ever a time for the church to see a crucial opportunity to bring hope to our current context, this is it. The widening of extremes provides the church a fertile opportunity to live in the midst of the tension, to live in radical love and faithfulness between the extremes.”
This concept, which he dubs “the sacred overlap,” is what he spends the book exploring from a variety of angles. The first three chapters form the biblical basis for Briggs’s argument as he examines the life of Christ and the many ways our Savior embodied the kind of both/and living we are called to. In part two, Briggs turns his energies toward exploring what he calls “the Jesus way, which necessitates leaving behind the paved roads of either/or predictability” and instead choosing “off-roading both/and adventures.” And in part three, he concludes with five chapters focused on putting this new way of life into practice through evangelism and discipleship, practicing resurrection, living joyfully, and maintaining a posture of convicted civility.
While neither Briggs’s topic nor his approach is revolutionary, I found myself drawn in by his thesis, nodding in agreement and making notes in the margins. He writes in an honest and open style and incorporates a wide variety of theologians and critical thinkers as well as heartening narrative moments that help give his theological argument both a lovely face and real, dirty feet. However, his conversational tone isn’t just a charming veneer, a shiny topcoat that hides the fact there is no substance underneath. Quite the contrary is true, in fact. He brings in a goodly amount of relevant Scripture as well as some meaty theological topics such as shalom (“peace,”) hesed (“lovingkindness,”) and tsedaqa (“justice” or “rightness”) to make his assertions undeniable. Briggs makes it clear that he isn’t simply dolling out good therapeutic advice. These things aren’t optional or even aspirational; they are part of our biblically mandated calling, and in many ways, we aren’t living it out as we should.
The last four or five years have been personally challenging for me with regards to faith. Because of the overwhelming amount of scandal, moral compromise, and spiritual shortsightedness in the church, it’s been hard for me to continue loving God’s people, and I think this is why Briggs’s book struck such a chord with me. In great delicious gobs of detail, he describes a church I want to belong to, one that maintains good biblical exegesis while also practicing “cultural exegesis,” which requires “a keen awareness of culture and forces us to engage in dual listening, where we study and perceive Scripture as well as study and perceive culture. This requires listening to the Spirit and also listening to the culture with a sound mind and a discerning heart.”
For me, this is what church has been lacking—the willingness to step into the world, to love it as it is and lead it gently by the hand toward what it is meant to be. According to Briggs, when the church inhabits the sacred overlap, it embraces mystery and paradox. It is willing to dwell in tension in order to live out our beautiful faith in a winsome, tangible way. That intrigues people, draws them close and makes them want to come and see, to “get a fuller glimpse of Jesus…the only one who can fill all [the] longings of the human heart.” This in-between way of living is rarely tidy, and it’ll knock us clear out of our comfort zones. But man oh man, it is so much better than the alternative. “The last thing I want to do is be a part of managing the decline of the Western church over the next several decades,” he writes. “But when we submit ourselves to the creative Holy Spirit and seek to plot good kingdom mischief on his behalf, the triune God smiles in agreement.” Amen, sir. Amen.
As a musician, I often describe abstract concepts in terms of sound, and the best way I can define Briggs’s theory of sacred overlap is an unresolved chord. There is such tautness in the air when they are played, and they leave us anticipating the moment of cadence, when dissonance is resolved into consonance and we can again breathe deeply with the rightness of it all. But there are pieces of music that don’t give us that satisfying resolution. Instead, they ask us to live in the tension, to fold it up along with our dog-eared programs and carry it back out into the world beyond the concert hall with us.
One such piece is Samuel Barber’s masterwork, Adagio for Strings. It begins with a graceful, poignant theme unfurling up from the darkness and over the course of ten minutes, allows the listener to experience a thousand shades of pathos. After a lengthy pause, the opening theme briefly returns only to fade away on an unresolved dominant chord. It ends in rich, resplendent incompletion—both hauntingly beautiful and utterly maddening. That is what I feel at the thought of the sacred overlap. That is what we are called to share in as God’s people, that glorious ache that comes from living between two worlds: the one we know and the one that is to come.