How to Have Conversations in Divided America—“The Bridge” Book Review and Giveaway

The Bridge is a social experiment to find unity in a pluralist society.

GIVEAWAY: You have a chance to win a free copy of “The Bridge” until 1pm ET 1/27. See details at bottom of page.

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When’s the last time you had a conversation with the other, someone unlike you?

Not just sent a text message or said a brief “hello”—actually sitting down with someone from a vastly different personal history, religious tradition, race, generation, socioeconomic class, or education level?

What about someone who may look unfavorably on what you believe, the people you associate with, or causes you support? It’s not hard to think of public figures, friends, or family members with whom you drastically disagree.

A House Divided Cannot Stand

The American public remains fixed on the questions of why the nation is so divided, and what is necessary to address the heart of that division. With the brutal election cycle of 2016, polarization of political agendas, fragmented social classes, escalated tension between African American communities and police, antagonizing religious teachings, and politicization of immigrants, LGBT people, and religious and ethnic minorities, many are justifiably fed up with today’s social climate.

What would it take to change it?

One new book addresses the cost and the cure for division in America’s public and personal spheres. Coauthors Tony Scott and Aron Railey recently released The Bridge: A Cross-Generational Conversation on Church, Race and Culture (December 2016) to advocate for unity and challenge people of faith in particular to build connections with people different than themselves.

*Disclosure: I received this book at no cost from the authors in exchange for writing this review.*

Seek to Understand or Be Understood?

How many of our conversations on Facebook and Twitter are predicated upon our instinctual desire to convince someone else to think like we think or to act like we act?

What if you could set aside that instinct to prove your points and persuade the other to adopt your worldview, and instead, you approached the interaction with a desire not to be understood, but to understand? It would require humility, a sincere desire to exercise active listening, and a willingness to develop empathy by hearing of the needs, struggles, and pains of the other.

“We can build each other up through these exchanges and create mutual understanding and respect.”

That’s what Tony Scott and Aron Railey attempt in The Bridge, which they call “a social experiment.” Scott is a marketing professional in his late 40s, with experience in administrative ministry and faith-based films, while Railey is a Southern Millennial who’s worked in ministry and has lived in various cities around the U.S. before settling in my city, Greenville, South Carolina. (I’ve enjoyed a few in-person conversations with Aron, and his passion for personal and cultural progress is obvious.)

We Can Learn From Each Other

The format of the book is essentially a transcript of a series of conversations Scott and Railey shared. As such, it feels a bit disjointed in transitions from point to point and chapter to chapter, but the overall conversational focus fits their goal directly. They explain:

“Imagine yourself sitting across the table with these two very different individuals and join in on their dialogue and look at doing the same with people in your own community.”

If we’re to live in healthy connection with others in a pluralistic society, filled with a cacophony of ethnic backgrounds, splintered economic classes, generations, religious worldviews, and personal expressions, we’ll need to buckle down and get comfortable with our differences. At the very least, we can acknowledge the tension and even agree to disagree—but that doesn’t preclude us from the necessity to respect and listen to others.

Here are a few excerpts to give you a feel for where the authors take the conversation.

On learning from older—and younger—generations, Railey says:

“Building church culture has got to be more than a business decision. We’ve got to listen. Not just to God, but my generation also needs to listen to the older generation.”

On embracing change and people as they are, Scott writes:

“Change is inevitable, so being able to embrace change as it comes will have a positive impact on the church’s future.”

Seek to Change Yourself, Not Others

A vital subpoint of such conversations is the need to accept that differences are not the enemy. Our job is not to change people, but to learn more about them and create opportunities for shared respect and empathy. Railey says in the book:

“Connecting different churches and cultures allows people to remain distinct and unique, yet build unity and understanding. A bridge allows people to not have to change who they are and gives them the chance to understand the other side.”

On the ugly intersection of religion and politics, Scott comments:

“When you have people who get extremely radical over a few causes, which we as a country are experiencing now, those people center their entire Christian experience around specific issues versus traditional evangelism and outreach about knowing Jesus…I think it’s just a case of energy directed in the wrong place.”

Addressing Racial Differences Without Stereotyping

The most interesting section of the book was the chapter in which Railey and Scott shared stories from their childhood and adolescence. Because of the neighborhoods, families, and moving to several different states with varied openness to mutual respect between black people and white people, the authors exercise the vulnerability of sharing some low points of how they were treated and how they saw others treated because of their race.

Aron Railey: “There is this massive movement to abolish racism and a lot of people are shrinking back into themselves. They don’t want to talk about racism or the problems. They just want to say, ‘Oh, I’m not racist, I have black friends. Racism doesn’t exist.’ All people need to admit there is a racial issue so we can solve it.”

Tony Scott: “Racism is really just a fear or lack of understanding another culture. It’s just a lack of comfort level due to not being exposed to something you don’t understand.”

A Starting Line For Dialogue in Complex Culture

The Bridge is a base camp for an expedition seeking unity in a pluralist society. It provides a timely conversation-starter for concerned citizens attempting to build stronger communities, and for church leaders overwhelmed by the lack of connections across generations, race, and subcultures.

At the end of each chapter, the authors included condensed points about the core of that chapter and a brief reflection on relevant Bible passages. These help readers seeking scriptural teaching to understand why cross-cultural conversations and pursuit of understanding and unity are so important.

This book won’t answer all your questions; it doesn’t intend to. It won’t persuade you of one side of an argument, or to vote for a specific party or issue, or to adopt a specific set of beliefs. It doesn’t give you step-by-step instructions to build long lasting connections, but it does expose a few central areas of cultural friction and invites readers to dig deeper for themselves.

Processed with VSCO with a6 presetPractice Respectful Dialogue Across Differences

At the close of the book, Scott and Railey share several points they learned during their social experiment:

  • Sync your language and define terms with others in the conversation so both parties understand what’s being shared.
  • Carefully determine the message you want to share and how to most effectively share it for others to understand.
  • Build trust by creating a safe place for dialogue without fear of disrespect.
  • Develop empathy for others by being sensitive to their fears, pains, personal experience, and struggles.
  • Discern which parts of your story and advice you want to share will be helpful and well-received at that moment. Avoid dumping your emotional baggage on someone who isn’t prepared to hear it or help you process it.

A Constructive Critique

One constructive critique is that the authors could’ve capitalized on the conversational nature of the material by providing The Bridge as an audiobook, podcast, or series of videos. The whole point of the book is to enter respectful conversations with people from different backgrounds; what better way to let their message be communicated through the medium?

Additionally, a reading/listening guide could empower readers and listeners to practice the core ideas of The Bridge with stimulating questions, specific practical takeaways, and recommended resources for further exploration of building healthy connections in a polarized society.

A question I kept asking myself as I read The Bridge was: “OK, I agree with your sentiment. What examples from history, cultural critics, other books, and thought leaders support your argument? Who else has said what you’re saying and has proved it works?” (Or perhaps I’m just overly zealous about quotes and citing lots of sources.)

“Now, more than ever, there’s power and strength in our unity, through our compassion and support for each other. This is a time for empathy to arise.”

Find more about the authors and the book at readthebridge.com.

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Free Book Giveaway!

One lucky winner gets a copy of The Bridge. Here’s how you can get your name in the drawing (which ends at 1pm ET 1/27):

  1. Find the post of this article on my Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram page.
  2. Leave a comment on the social media post, and tag someone who would benefit from this book. (Comment on all 3 social media posts for greater chance to win.)
  3. I’ll randomly select a winner by 1pm ET on Friday, January 27, 2017.
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