“A House United” Book Review

If you notice the subtitle of A House United, don’t let it scare you away from reading at least this brief review… or the book itself.

That subtitle is, “How the Church can Save the World”…. Grandiose sounding at best? Ludicrous in the view of some?

I’ll not pass judgment on the validity of that phrase. (I will say it doesn’t bother me, although I acknowledge that “the Church”, in the broad collective sense, has often been as much part of the world’s problems as its solutions.)

But to my point: regardless of such a world-saving hope having any “real” hope, the book is a wonderful breath of fresh air. That, for anyone: Christian, humanist, spiritual-but-not-religious, follower of another religion, etc.

It is, indeed, directed particularly toward those of us within a Christian church. (Personally, I’m a member of a United Church of Christ congregation…. I’m intentionally, as the result of deep and varied experience and study, on the progressive side of a supposed church and theology “spectrum”, conservative to progressive. And my “tribe” deserves to be challenged as much as any.)

The author, Allen Hilton, speaks equally to a “progressive” like me and to those like my former self, a “conservative”. He challenges us both to respectfully hear and engage with the other. Not just on an individual basis, but also in groups. This can happen as church or other groups may (and he’d say should… with which I agree) more purposely join together in supporting causes important to us both, without getting into “culture wars” or theological discussions. Or, for the more bold and unity-minded, specific controversial discussions might be the actual agenda.

While this is over-simplification of a well-structured, well-developed book, I’ll split his contents into:

  1. Statement of the problem (of our being seriously divided, on many levels in this country and world)
  2. Examples and guidance toward solutions (focused on communities of faith, but applicable more broadly)

A House United came out in 2018, so is reflective of the same basic extremes of polarization we see in 2020 around partisan and “culture war” issues. In the case of churches in America, the divisions are also deep and acrimonious. Hilton gives many examples and statistics illustrating both secular and religious aspects. Probably few people need the case to be made, but it is important that we understand the full extent of the problem and some of how it seems to have developed. One chapter is devoted largely to “Christian Complicity” in our bitter national conflicts. It reviews the early period of Christians dividing up into “Modernists” and “Fundamentalists”, beginning over a century ago. Over differences grouped under such labels, many denominations have endured serious internal strife and often splits. It’s happening right to the present, in which the United Methodists appear about to be “disunited“.

The author sprinkles encouraging stories throughout the book, but in the last four chapters he tells several inspiring stories of various ways churches have surmounted differences. Sometimes in a joint mission. Sometimes in hearing out one another. Sometimes in deep dialog toward building mutual respect.

Hilton is humble about the Christian Church’s contentious early history. The ideal and goal of unity among Jesus-followers was elusive then, as it is now. He reminds us that the New Testament, as typically understood by most Christians, reveals but overall greatly downplays the serious church-group differences that were part of what we might call first century “culture wars”. They involved ethnic boundaries and “rules”, plus political tensions as well as theological ones. But the goal and the potential of solving certain (if not all) differences amiably and living peacefully with others is clearly laid out. Hilton calls on us to build on the best of this tradition and transcend historical failures.

Here is the way a friend of mine, from our church’s group-study of the book, summarizes the message of A House United: “Hilton leads us toward viewing our differences as a gift, not a threat, and that unity or oneness need not imply sameness….” We need to view another person, different from us, not as “…’the other’… rather, as a collaborator in renewing the world as we are called to do.” Note that my friend is rightly implying that all people are called to renew the world. It just happens that participants of churches (or synagogues, mosques, etc.) have strong positioning and a particular calling to do so. They can and should lead the way.

Whether the Church “saving the world” is an overstatement or not, I think open, careful observers will agree that Christian people, primarily through their churches, hold a pivotal position in how the world handles its disunity. Of course, disagreement and differing approaches to solving societal problems will never disappear, nor should they. Part of Hilton’s point in calling churches, particularly, to lead the way in finding key points of unity amid inevitable diversity is that we need to have differing perspectives represented. Any one person, one “tribe” or large group organized around one set of proposed policies or courses of action will not bring as much wisdom to the table as will a combination of differing perspectives and proposals, worked through and refined in the process of give-and-take.

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