Thursday, March 26, 2020

"Holy Disunity" - Layton E. Williams

It was only a couple of chapters into Layton Williams's "Holy Disunity: How What Separates Us Can Save Us" that I identified to friends who knew that I was reading it that Williams had already left me having to set the book aside for a few moments of quiet sobbing. There is a rawness and an authenticity to "Holy Disunity," especially in its early chapters, that struck a chord with me and resonated deeply within my soul. 

As a paraplegic/double amputee with spina bifida, I was also deeply touched at Williams's repeated inclusion of persons of varying/differing abilities within her inclusive language - as someone who is used to regularly being excluded, especially within church and theological circles, it's hard to express how deeply touched I was by being included. 

"Holy Disunity: How What Separates Us Can Save Us" essentially possesses a rather simple and straightforward argument - that there is holiness in the disunity that exists within our lives and, at least sometimes, our attempts to move toward unity at any cost may be widening the chasm and not trusting God to work within those differences. Williams points out that quite often within the world and within the faith community that the presence of discord and disagreement is highly frowned upon to the point that all sides of an argument feel pressured to either compromise themselves or stifle their authenticity. This can lead to emotional/physical challenges for individuals, unstable/unsafe communities, and increased severity of fractures when they do occur. 

In a tremendously organized manner, Williams looks at several different expressions of disunity, or perceived expressions of disunity, and how they can be expressed in our daily lives, biblical examples of their expression and how Jesus dealt with them, and how they can ultimately save us if we are open to living within the tensions that they can cause. At nearly all times, Williams is quick to point out that there are exceptions to the healthiness of disunity. "Holy Disunity" isn't so much a prescriptive collection as it is a series of opportunities to reflect on the subject matter on a deeper level. I'm being incredibly sincere when I say that I found the first half of "Holy Disunity" to be an incredibly emotional, cathartic reading experience largely because the first half of the book had a stronger balance of Williams's autobiographical experiences woven into the material and the subjects simply resonated on a deeper level. On the other hand, I struggled somewhat in the final 1/3 of "Holy Disunity" as it began to feel like perhaps the material was being stretched a bit too thin and the topics began to feel just a wee bit redundant in presentation. I also felt, at times, like Williams was contradicting herself by simultaneously saying that disunity can be holy but then pointing out how disunity can really lead us to actual unity. 

Williams, who self-identifies as bisexual and is an ordained Presbyterian minister currently working on the staff of Sojourners, draws many of her autobiographical stories from her identity within the LGBTQ community and as part of a denomination that has only within the past few years allowed for members of said community to be ordained. This in itself is not problematic. However, I at times longed for Williams to reveal other aspects of her being and how they're all impacted by these discussions. If Williams were a character in a movie, I'd likely describe her as coming off as very one-note yet it's abundantly clear from her life experiences that she's far from one-note. We get a glimpse of this in the early pages, especially in discussions around her being a weird child, but nearly all the examples in the latter parts of the book are references to the LGBTQ community. 

Do I want her to disown that? Of course not. I simply wanted a more complete picture of "Who is Layton Williams?" to give her examples greater context. I also felt, at times, that Williams didn't delve as deeply into subject matter as she could have gone. For example, she specifically references the disability community on multiple occasions early in the book yet never provides a place for their inclusion as her examples begin to be expressed. 

As I arrived at the chapter on "The Gift of Limitation," I thought to myself "Ah, here we go!" Alas, nothing even mentioned despite such a wonderful opportunity to use this as an opportunity to explore the role of disability, disunity, and church life. It even fit quite nicely within the topic she did focus on - bias. There were a couple other times where I felt like the book could have expanded its universal reach but didn't quite stretch for it. Ultimately, however, I loved every minute of reading "Holy Disunity: How What Separates Us Can Save Us."

It's a book that challenged me. It's a book that made me think. It's a book that made me feel deeply and, especially in its first half, made me cry openly. It's a book that challenged me to explore my own issues with my own disability and how often I've fought so hard to be what the church wanted me to be that I compromised my well-being, my welfare, and even my health - this is especially vital as I'm sitting here having read the book just two months after having my left leg amputated above the knee. While I may have had minor issues with "Holy Disunity," 

I'm excited by Williams's authentic and honest voice being unleashed in the literary and theological worlds and there's literally zero doubt this is a book I will reference again and again. Inviting us into reflection and discussion and into a place where we can be ourselves amidst the tensions and uncertainties, Layton Williams has written an important, vital book for our times.

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