How a Book of Essays Took Me Back to the Gospel

Tiya Thomas-Alexander   |   July 31, 2023 

Recently I panicked that I had become a cultural Christian. The transformative work of the gospel seemed detached from my everyday life. I didn’t feel a part of a bigger redemptive story like I once used to. My life felt compartmentalised, lacking wholeness and meaning.

It was in this context that I began to read Uncommon Ground which is a book of essays edited by Tim Keller and John Inazu. But really, it’s a book of stories. Each chapter is written by a Christian captured by the gospel story, retelling it from places they are called to. “Living faithfully in a world of difference,” the book’s tagline read, accurately speaking to my struggle.

From songwriters and doctors to pastors and entrepreneurs - the book includes voices from across the field of gospel work. It’s personal, relatable, and simple storytelling.

I laughed out loud when reading the essay “The Storyteller” by the American rapper Lecrae, who said, “I almost always find myself checking out of lectures and sermons and daydreaming until a story is being told.”

He explains that people connect with stories because “our meaning comes from some kind of master narrative.”

Listening to the stories in this book reeled me back into the big gospel narrative. God pursues our wandering hearts in many ways. What an incredible mercy to be refreshed by His nearness.

The book also helped affirm that the gospel is for our whole selves, not just our church selves. It gets to work on the ground of hearts, our workplaces, our families, and cultural institutions. Bringing these disparate things together doesn’t always look possible, but the gospel can permeate anything.

In fact, the book’s cover is an illustrated image of apples and oranges growing intertwined on the same leafy branch.  It’s a play on the phrase to describe incompatibility “like apples and oranges” and hints at finding intersections in unlikely places, because of the gospel.

As the essay writers told their real-life stories, they constantly borrowed images from the Bible. The first was Kristen Deede Johnson in her essay “The Theologian” who used the image of trees. She said that trees have the capacity to take in potentially harmful gasses and give out “life-giving” oxygen to the world in return. They give this out “not just to their own kind”, she added, as she encouraged Christians to seek the welfare of everyone around.

The next one was the scripture analogy of salt, cleverly refreshed by Tim Keller in his essay “The Pastor”. He talked about salt not being meant to remain in a saltshaker–a nudge to not hide away from the world in our comfortable Christian circles. Salt was there to flavour the meat, he said. In the same breath though, he clarified that salt could only flavour the meat if it continued to remain salty. We need to hold on to our Christian identity firmly as we live out the gospel freely.

Building on this, the writer in the chapter called “The Entrepreneur” draws on an analogy from theologian Anthony Bradley. Bradley found that the ancient world Jesus was speaking to, actually understood salt as a fertiliser.

What this means for us is that, if we are to be like salt, we must go beyond preserving and flavouring our surroundings, and actually work to improve it. The essay elaborates: “Christians are not just here to merely season or preserve the world from decay. The followers of Jesus Christ are sent on a mission to stimulate growth in parts of the world that are barren and to be mixed into the manure piles of the world so that God can utilise that fertiliser to bring new, virtuous life.”

Some other analogies that came up in these pages were that of the mustard seed, that of exiles, and also of being like children. Of course, none of these were really new. They were all images originally used by Jesus.

He constantly told stories, using analogies from the real world as he drew people in. “I will make you fishers of men,” he told the fishermen, as he invited them into His redemptive work. He names things as they are but doesn’t leave them as they are. That’s the grip of the gospel - whether through an old story or new. Meanwhile, the stories are active, being lived out, in different corners of the world. There is a bigger narrative; we are not alone.


Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

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Tiya Thomas-Alexander

Tiya is an Indian journalist and writer based in London.

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