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  • Aarik Danielsen

Pages of the Possible

Good writers seize the words we know and use every day and bend them into new shapes. Phrases printed across a page become three-dimensional, “the reality of what is hoped for,” the proof of lives just beyond our reach.

This summer, page after page of possibility captivated me—especially in nonfiction books describing the world as it is and is so close to being. Here are three such titles that will hold appeal for Fathom readers:

Doug Bursch’s new book proposes a fresh spirit and forward-moving steps. Bursch comes to digital matters with a soft, pastoral heart and clear eyes.

Douglas Bursch, “Posting Peace: Why Social Media Divides Us and What We Can Do About It” (IVP)

My sympathies perpetually lie with anyone trying to escape social media for stiller waters, healthier pastures. Ultimately, two concerns keep my feet planted on such unsteady soil. Social media allows me to learn about and from all kinds of people in all manner of places; stepping away requires real purpose to recoup those interactions and that information.

Also, while I recognize social media isn’t a neutral space—some magical digital tabula rasa—I believe its billows only breathe upon existing sparks. “The true social media is the inner social media,” David Dark has said. Twitter is just a microphone for who we are; Facebook, a stack of Marshall amplifiers.

Thankfully, Doug Bursch’s new book proposes a fresh spirit and forward-moving steps. Bursch comes to digital matters with a soft, pastoral heart and clear eyes. Naivety never weakens his vision of what social media is—early on, he deems it “one endless angry talk show”—or might one day be.

As Bursch faithfully describes our identity as social creatures—and the implications of our social-media collisions—he grounds his expectation for change in the practice of peacemaking. Chesterton’s words about true Christianity might apply to the work Bursch describes: it hasn’t “been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.”

“We know we have a problem that will not be solved by increased ideological or behavioral entrenchment,” Bursch writes. “Instead, we must face the dire realities of our cycles of polarization with aggressive, habit-changing hope.”

“Aggressive” is a key term, one enabled by a sanctifying Spirit, Bursch believes. And he clearly delineates peacekeeping and peacemaking; the former is passive, brokering cheap unity through conflict-avoidance and compressing experiences. The latter seizes every possible opportunity for reconciliation and restitution, both online and offline.

“When reconciliation becomes the ‘why’ behind our social media communication, the advancement of Christ’s kingdom becomes the fruit of our online activity,” Bursch writes.

Can you imagine? I can, in part, because I see Bursch practice what he writes on social media. Both deeply practical and shaped by a cruciform vision, his writing will have readers eager to rehearse a promising new online liturgy. Peace be with you. And also with your tweets.

The essays within masterfully unite rigorous reporting with the sort of intimate (and sometimes inscrutable) language that makes religious people come alive.

Costică Brădățan and Ed Simon, editors, “The God Beat: What Journalism Says About Faith and Why It Matters” (Broadleaf)

Anyone who knows (or reads) me at all knows I see little separation between my purposes as a Christian and a working journalist. So many practices overlap: shedding clarifying light, naming injustice, encouraging flourishing through neighbor-love.

To those who perceive ignorance of religion and religious people in the press, I commend “The God Beat.” The anthology doesn’t exclusively center Christianity or elevate any faith’s practices above reproach, which always disappoints some.

But the essays within masterfully unite rigorous reporting with the sort of intimate (and sometimes inscrutable) language that makes religious people come alive. Editors Brădățan and Simon assemble some of the great writers of our day—Emma Green, Kaya Oakes, Tara Isabella Burton, Daniel Jose Camacho, Meghan O’Gieblyn—to turn over the bedrocks of 21st-century faith, and their antecedents, from numerous angles.

We examine the very act of writing about religion with Briallen Hopper; work out a definition of cults—and examine our own fantastical beliefs—with Burton, and follow Rob Bell through modern gurudom with Brook Wilensky-Lanford. Several authors lament synagogue shootings while going one step further to study Jewish notions of martyrdom; others wrestle with the Catholic Church’s abuse scandals; and Joel Looper wades into Bonhoeffer’s political theology—waters his descendants have muddied.

Other outstanding contributions include Oakes’ essay on the stickiness of forgiveness and necessity of empathy; and Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s piece on the proliferation of writing that claims to follow in the tire treads of Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”

Individually and together, these works uphold a proud, necessary tradition of journalists as authorities—the curious studying someone or something so closely they can speak on its behalf. The writers Brădățan and Simon selected also convey true respect for their subjects, even those who practice a devotion they can’t personally abide. This quality often feels missing to people of faith as they read reporting about themselves, but is in abundance here.

In one essay, Nat Case praises the shape of religious faith, if not the substance: “I do not believe in God, and I am bored with atheism. But these stories, this magic, and their presence in my heart, they don’t bore me—they are alive. Even though I know they are fiction, I believe in them.”

However that passage strikes people cut from devout cloth, the way it reads in context—and the sobriety and affection which mingle throughout the book—tells me that, in these writers’ hands, both faith and journalism are held fast.

Every degree by which two people, two faiths, turn toward each other is hard-won yet truly satisfying.

Rachel Pieh Jones, “Pillars: How Muslim Friends Led Me Closer to Jesus” (Plough)

Lyrical yet fulfilling the term “lived-in,” Jones crafts a spiritual memoir in distinct measure. While some cousin books prefer to cut across a life length-wise, Jones prefers to burrow deeper into detail. “Pillars” chronicles her days in Djibouti and Somaliland, lived primarily among devout Muslims.

Lesser writers and more amateurish theologians might flatten Jones’ experiences and those of her cohorts, arriving at the conclusion that all world religions share the same essence. Instead, Jones writes a more complicated—and rewarding—story, clinging to the person of Christ while celebrating the beauty in particular practices of a particular faith.

“This wasn’t mashing religions together, picking and choosing which parts were meaningful,” she writes late in the book. “It was treating the faith of another with dignity and respect. ... It was sitting with a friend over coffee and asking ‘What do you love about being a Muslim?’ and her surprised joy that we could start there, that we could acknowledge each other’s belief and nudge one another into deeper faith through sharing delight.”

Jones identifies these glorious nudges without ever canonizing her neighbors; she rightly casts them as fellow seekers and sojourners. They unknowingly live out the parables of Jesus before her; their invocations spur her to steep in the many names of God; their steadfastness expands Jones’ own definitions of words like pilgrimage, community, and home. As she keeps her faith and grows in the light of theirs, she lives out shades of Paul’s desire to “become all things to all people.”

And yet Jones never shies from the reality that these “two religions—the one I loved because it had formed and sheltered me, the other I was grateful for because it challenged and welcomed me” can and do act, at a granular level, “like magnets constantly repelling each other.” Every degree by which two people, two faiths, turn toward each other is hard-won yet truly satisfying.

A stirring testimony to common grace, Pillars puts flesh on the bones of that doctrine in ways I’ve never witnessed. So often I extol the virtues of mercy and truth threaded through art, literature, and music—which I love ardently, but so often experience passively. Jones has lived what I have only preached.


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