Read stories that build connections 
From Cheri Harder:

I’m a bit conflicted about giving recommendations, as great stories help form connection largely through enlarging our sense of empathy and imagination — the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, see things from their perspective — and typically, a great story is doing a lot beyond this as well. But a few that come to mind that I’ll mention include:

Everything Sad Is Untrue
by Daniel Nayeri 

by George Eliot

Invisible Man
by Ralph Ellison

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
by Frederick Douglass

Reading Lolita in Tehran
by Azar Nafisi

by Emma Lazarus

You can gauge it by empirical data or just take a look around: Down goes trust in American institutions and up goes cynicism about our body politic. In a memed-out society, this inverse relationship may seem like just a talking point. But it’s a big deal that affects everyone.  

While these two realities may feel acute at the moment, the phenomenon is not exactly new. Back in 1991, businessman Al McDonald and sociologist Os Guinness founded the Trinity Forum to mend frays in social fabric, to advocate for the common good from a Christian perspective. Today, that work continues in several avenues, from a broad network of fellows to high-profile gatherings of thought leaders. 

For longer than a decade now, the Trinity Forum has been led by its president, Cheri Harder. She spoke with Common Good’s editor this summer.

Your stated mission at the Trinity Forum relates to social renewal. What does that mean?

If one subscribes to a doctrine of original sin that sees things always tending toward disorder and chaos and breakdown, then social renewal is a vital part of loving one’s neighbor. Simply loving God and loving one’s neighbor necessarily entails a predisposition to work toward renewal, and not just of our individual, privatized lives. There’s necessarily a social element to it: I see social renewal as the working out of the mandate of love to counteract the inevitable chaos and conflict that essentially distorts our social relationships and social order. It is about rightly ordered loves, loving the right things in the right way to the right degree.

Why engage in such seismic work?

We’re not a political organization, and we’re certainly not a partisan organization. But no man is an island; we’re all connected, and the Christian faith is actually one that calls us toward loving engagement. Love always seeks greater communion, and the inevitable implication of that is when you love the world, and when you love your neighbor, disorder and conflict can’t be matters of indifference to you. 

What is the relationship between your two apparent emphases of the public square and letters (literature, art, etc.)?

Our three main areas of emphasis are: 1) faith in the public square, 2) arts and humanities, and 3) spiritual formation. Christians are called people of the book who worship the Word. In a sense, reading the written word should be something really precious to us. And I’m very happy to make the argument that reading deeply and well forms your mind and forms your attachments in very different ways than what is conditioned into most of us now, which is like strip-mining a text for the most surface information and extracting it.

There are a lot of biblical verses about dwelling in the Word. The world itself was spoken into existence. So we start with the assumption that there is great creative power in the Word, and that the fact that the one we worship has called himself the Word is both an invitation and a summons to learn to love words and to chew on them and be nourished by them. That forms a different kind of thinker and a different kind of person than a viewer or a scanner.

Will you give an elevator-pitch-style history of the Trinity Forum? 

As many know, Os Guinness was our co-founder along with American businessman Al McDonald in 1991, and they led the Forum for the early years. The idea was simple: to cultivate, curate, and disseminate the best of Christian thought for the common good. Not just for the life of the mind, but also in the more practical ways like loving one’s neighbor and showing the love of God in the civic space. My predecessor, Luder Whitlock, who’d been the president of Reformed Theological Seminary, led the Forum for five years, and then I started in 2008. 

How has your tenure affected the work of TTF?

I definitely see a strong line of continuity from our founding to now in terms of mission and vision. There are, not surprisingly, differences in some programs and strategies. The Forum was started before the internet, so there are new distribution channels available and new media through which people receive information very differently than they did more than 30 years ago. But we still publish curricula, we still publish readings, we still, on occasion, do Socratic forums. We now have a variety of other programs as well, whether they’re evening conversations or online conversations, private convenings, group readings, or discussion groups. All of that good stuff. 

How do pastors and churches fit into this conversation?

We would consider pastors not just leaders, but thought leaders. One of the smaller, under-the-radar programs we host is our pastors breakfast. When we have an in-person event, an evening conversation, and have a thought leader come to town, we try to do a low-key, off-the-record breakfast the next day for pastors. Part of that is because we recognize there are not that many opportunities for the intellectual and spiritual development of pastors, especially the kind that don’t require a huge commitment of time. So we provide a hot breakfast, limit attendees to around 25, and give space for pastors to sit and talk with people like David French or Russell Moore or Francis Fukuyama. It’s relational. It’s hospitality. And part of the hope is that the time contributes to their own sort of intellectual nourishment.