28/03/2016

Disunity in Christ (by Christena Cleveland)

I’d never heard of Christena Cleveland, and I doubt if this book title would have leapt out at me if I’d seen it in a shop, on or offline. But it came very highly recommended on a blog I sometimes read, so I made a note to buy it some time. I spotted it on offer at the AwesomeBooks site a couple of months ago, so when I made an order I bought it.

‘Disunity in Christ’ is subtitled ‘Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us apart’ and looks very daunting at first… the front cover is grey, and the only image is of a couple of chairs facing away from each other. But I leapt right in, and am so glad I did.

Cleveland is an American Christian academic, but she writes in a very readable and accessible way, about issues that are relevant worldwide, and in almost every context of life. She uses examples from sociology and psychology, research from the present and past (some of it not entirely ethical, though nobody was harmed) and draws her conclusions convincingly.

The book revolves around the idea of ‘ingroups’ and ‘outgroups’, proposing that we all tend to classify other people in various ways. In some instances this may be useful; but in many cases generalisations are negative, often based on stereotypes or bad experiences of individuals within an ‘outgroup’. The author proposes that this is at the heart of most conflict within the church - and, indeed, society in general. But rather than merely theorising, she gives helpful to steps to enable readers to identify their perceptions of ‘outgroups’, and to find ways of relating better to them.

I found almost every chapter thought-provoking; when I experienced a moment’s superiority (I don’t categorise, after all…) I realised how ‘people who categorise’ are one of my ‘outgroups’. I even wrote a post on another of my blogs about the idea of categorising (‘us’ and ‘them’) and how it applies to us all, one way or another.

At the end of each chapter are questions to consider, either individually or in groups, and while I mostly skimmed those, I can see that they will be well worth perusing at some later stage.

The writing is excellent and well-researched; there are extensive references at the back, for anyone who wishes to follow up on the author’s discoveries and conclusions. It’s relevant for church leaders and members, and indeed anyone who tends to stereotype ‘outgroups’ - I’ve come across this kind of thing related to whether or not people eat meat, whether or not they send their children to school, whether or not they have a television… and so many more issues where it would be much more constructive to have friendly discussion and to understand each other as human beings better, rather than endless sniping and criticism of other people’s choices.

If nothing else I’m now aware of ways in which I and those around me tend to see ‘outgroups’, and as Christena Cleveland points out, just the awareness can lead to putting aside some prejudices and generalisations. Even on issues or examples where I disagreed with the book, I was able to see another point of view, and accept that it's okay to feel differently.

If you'd like a sample of the author's style, her blog, linked in the first paragraph above, has some excellent and thought-provoking articles.

Very highly recommended to all; particularly those in religious and other group leadership.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

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