Review: Holy Disunity

Holy Disunity

Holy Disunity: How What Separates Us Can Save UsLayton E. Williams. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019.

Summary: Proposes that difference ought be viewed as gift rather than problem, that difference, and even disunity, as messy as it is in the church, can be a source of growth.

Within the Christian community, the existence of difference, disunity, and division is viewed as problematic. These seem to betray the oneness, the unity of the body of Christ of which scripture speaks. Layton Williams makes the argument that difference, disagreement, and sometimes even division, is a gift. She roots her argument in the Trinity where three distinct persons exist as one being. She argues that we do not create unity but that we are one, and this is a unity that does not obliterate difference but treats it as a gift.

Williams observes that often our strategy is to suppress difference and the undesirable in the various forms it takes, which she unpacks chapter by chapter: doubt, argument, tension, separation, vulnerability, trouble, protest, hunger, limitations, failure, and uncertainty. Often, our posture is to try to act as if these things don’t exist, or address them with over-simplistic solutions, or to normalize a certain position to the exclusion of others. Worse yet, we often marginalize, demonize, and dispel those who persist in honestly differing. By the same token, sometimes we sacrifice deeply held convictions and perspectives to “keep the peace.”

Instead, she contends:

We don’t have to fear difference. Difference–our own and others’–is how we know who we are. It’s how we distinguish ourselves. Our own unique place in this universe and the experiences and qualities that define us allow us to interpret the world around us and make our own particular mark on it. The world is the way it is–different from how it might otherwise have been–because of us. It’s also different because of others. The ways that others are different from us, their unique experiences and qualifications, expose us to new ways to understand the world.

Each of her chapters explore how the various facets of difference save us. Each includes a reading of a biblical text that develops her position. In the chapter on tension, she contends for the hard work of wrestling with tension with a discussion of Jacob’s night of wrestling with God in human form, emerging both blessed with a new name, and limping. Difference often means walking into hard things that both leave their marks on our lives and lead to growth and greater self-understanding.

There is an important autobiographical element running through the narrative that makes Williams wrestling with and embrace of difference significant. Williams self-identifies as LGBTQ, and with other “out” LGBTQ Christians. Her own perspective of the gift and “holiness” of difference emerges from her own experience of growing up in a home, and a church in the South where she both experienced deep love, and yet also deep pain as neither could fully embrace her LGBTQ identification. In a chapter on “the gift of separation” she writes movingly about what this has meant for her and her mother:

It isn’t that I don’t wish, deeply, that my mother and I could be equally at peace in the same church. It’s that I know that it takes at least as much love and commitment to look in the face of one of the people you care most about in this world, and to know that at this time you cannot be theologically reconciled, and to let them go to pursue faith in a way that doesn’t prevent you from doing the same, hoping all the while that your paths might one day come together. For all the ways we disagree, my mother and I have both done that for each other.

I was impressed with the perspective that allowed for the possibility of disagreement and even separation, whether of individuals or church bodies, while also allowing for the possibility of continued love and charity toward one another. It is a perspective that refuses to diminish or disrespect the theological commitments of either, without minimizing the disagreement, or allowing the disagreement to degenerate into rejection of, vitriol toward, demonizing of, or hatred of the other. This note is exceedingly rare and welcome in what has often been a hurtful area of contention within the contemporary church.

The question I might pose would be how far would the author extend her argument about difference within the church? How would she have responded to the differences in the church in the United States around the issue of slavery? How would she respond to an embrace by the church of a nationalism that diminishes the value and worth of other human beings and obligations as Christians to them, as occurred in Nazi Germany? Is difference always a gift? And if not, by what criteria ought such difference be deemed unacceptable; not a gift but a matter for repentance and re-formation?

At the same time, I found much that resonated deeply. Allowing room for doubt and dispelling the false god of certainty has been a vital part of ministry among university researchers. Getting further on in life, I recognize the gifts of limitations and failure. When people can be more vulnerable in a bar than among the people of God, this challenges the church with the question of what we must become to be places where people can truly disclose themselves. As a cis-gender heterosexually oriented male who might identify more closely with the theological commitments of the author’s mother, it was illuminating and important for me to listen to and sit with this LGBTQ woman’s journey and to see the church through her eyes. I needed to read of her fears and hopes, and to be challenged with the call to love across our real differences, and to believe with the author that even in the mess of the moment, “[w]e can trust that God is at work.”


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary advanced review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Do We Need to Fight Over Books?


Image by RyanMcGuire via Pixabay

A couple of interesting things came across my screen today that suggest that even book lovers may act in very unlovely ways toward each other. One was an article on Literary Hub titled “Chuck Wendig on the Time He Enraged a Bunch of Tolkienites.” It seems that the author committed the unforgiveable sin of admitting on Twitter that he just could get through The Lord of the Rings. He learned that you don’t question this holy trilogy of books. Angry Tolkienites even made YouTube videos in response. I read that and thought, “These people need to get a life!”

Now I am a fan of LOTR, having read the books five or so times over the course of my life. But I have many friends like Wendig–and we are still friends! A friend of mine saw this story and commented, “I just don’t understand people’s rage against someone who likes different books, movies, etc than they do.” Truth is, I don’t either. This is like getting into a spat over what flavor of ice cream is best. It seems to me far more fun to celebrate how good ice cream is in all its flavors.

It seems to me that it ought to be that way among lovers of books. I’ve hosted a Facebook page over the past year liked by over 2000 lovers of books. I like the thought both that there are so many like me who delight in this wonderful gift of what we find between the covers of a book (or on our e-reader) but also how different we all are. As I write, people have been responding to a question I posted on how they organize their books. It is fun to see the differences between those who have highly organized systems and those who say, “organize?” I’ve enjoyed times when people could disagree without becoming disagreeable, and discover different perspectives. For example, a recent discussion explored whether you could help a reading averse college grad to come to love reading. There were those who said “impossible,” those who suggested ideas from their own experience, and a few who said, “I was once one of those people and now I love books.”

That brings me to the other thing that crossed my screen. I’m in another Facebook book group, and saw a post from an admin who apologized for an individual who was bullying others in the group, and informed everyone that the individual had been “blocked.” I’d seen similar messages elsewhere on Facebook, but never in a book group. I did not see the offending posts so have no idea what was said, but I guess people can be trolls, or at least very obnoxious, anywhere. I appreciate admins like this one who act promptly to keep pages or groups from going toxic.

It is ironic, and frankly puzzling to me, that there are people who love reading, but haven’t had their minds opened enough by their reading to discover that people see the world differently, have good reasons for doing so, and that people like different things. I suspect it has to do with wounds in other parts of their lives that take more than books to heal. Sometimes it is the case that “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1, NIV). Sometimes all you can do is block continued abusiveness online, and celebrate all the others who enjoy the common love of books, and all the different ways we love them. That’s actually pretty good, and often, pretty good is good enough.