The Diversity Culture — an overstated review

Posted: October 15, 2009 in books, missional, words, writing

This is my review of Matthew Raley’s “The Diversity Culture,” which was posted at Viral Bloggers.

I picked up Matthew Raley’s. “The Diversity Culture” with great anticipation. Raley is a pastor in my new neck-of-the-woods, dealing with the same social, cultural and spiritual challenges that I have, and the topic – Christian engagement with others – had lots of promise. Plus, it ‘s been a busy month, and if I were to review a book this month, I wanted it to be short, which “The Diversity Culture” is. The information I received regarding the author, projected him as a political and social conservative and the church is woefully short of these kind of men and woman who are engaged in meaningful dialogue with the irreducible Other – or at least are willing to write about it!

After giving Raley a solid read, I must confess I found his work to be a mixed bag. That’s not to say that “The Diversity Culture” is a poorly written or overflowing with poor ideas. Rather, Raley and I, while sharing a desire for similar outcomes, we come at interaction with the Other in some significantly different ways.

My task here is not to argue with Raley – that would be counterproductive, not to mention out-of-school. Raley has some significantly useful points and perspectives that more Christ-followers would be wise to incorporate. Therefore, I will simple lay out what I consider to be the good, the bad and the ugly and allow you to decide.

The Good

Raley’s best work surrounds his ability to give Christians a language and process for engaging the Other. This, I know, can be discombobulating to some, especially those that view increasing diversity in America as some kind of threat. Describing the stereotypical World War II man, Raley explains that he “knows who he is.” This kind of knowing is often – and I may be reaching here myself – unsettled by cultures and epistemologies that the World War II man doesn’t understand. If that is the case, then Raley is a great place to begin.

What’s more, Raley, gives a step-by-step guide to engagement – the perfect solution for those who don’t quite know what to do. Raley offers scripture, community, and testimony as a way forward. For some this will be a great challenge and Raley gives them glimmers of hope and thoughtful ways to engage. If you know someone who wants to interact with Others, yet is too uncomfortable to do so, then Raley is a good place to start.

What’s more, Raley committed works from a Biblical perspective. He is not attempting to create conversations by distancing himself or the church from the claims of scripture. He is not even advocating that we see the Biblical text in a new way. Rather he is attempting to bridge the divide, giving Christ-followers helpful ways to move the conversation along

The Bad

But what Raley does well is also the Achilles heal of “The Diversity Culture.” Admittedly, most of these critiques involve the first half of the book, which was difficult to get through. First, while reading “The Diversity Culture” I got the distinct sense that the Other is a problem to be dealt with, not a person to be loved. The books aim seems to be this: “How do we get the irreducible Other to think and act like typical American evangelical Christians?” This fact is embedded in the book’s title. The subtle suggestion is that there is a “diversity culture” that we need to learn to reach and teach – as if (1) we are not all a part, in some degree, of the same culture and (2) that other cultures out to acquiesce to “our” culture.

Raley’s bias is exposed in his exegesis of the Samaritan woman, whom he constructs as the necessary Other to be engaged. Looking at Jesus’ interaction with the woman, Raley offers their interaction with one another as a model for the church. Here’s the problem with that model: (1) Within this interaction, Jesus is socially and politically the superior. This necessarily effects the engagement. We must ask whether or not this kind of engagement is a proper equivalent. Do we want to use an image of superiority when engaging the other? Perhaps one of Jesus’ encounters with a social equal might be better.

As Raley writes, you get hints of this superiority in his descriptions of others, such as a New York Times reader or the lady at Café Siddhartha. Raley characterizations may come off to some as flippant stereotypes that may make some readers wonder whether or not he took the irreducible Other seriously as a person. Along with this, Raley offers a popular exegesis of the Samaritan woman that simply is extra-textual. Like many before him, Raley posits that the woman was divorced by her five previous husbands, which may be true but is not actually in the text. How might the reader engage the Samaritan woman if through the devastating blows which life sometimes deals, they discover that she is a five-time widow? Sounds extreme? Maybe. But it is no more or less explicit in the text than a five-time divorcee. Oddly, I happen to know a woman who is a three-time widow. Given the disparity in ages, which occurred in the marriages of antiquity, it’s not entirely far-fetched. Perhaps Jesus’ interaction with the woman is less concerned about sin and more with compassion – but now I’m rambling. At root, however, for Raley the Other seems to be less a person and more the object of a ministry designed less to convert from darkness to light and more to assimilate. But, (and I mean this sincerely) I may be woefully misreading him.

Second, because Raley switches back-and-forth between an imagined scene in a café, his own insights and Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman, his writing style seems herky-jerky, at times. Though not a major problem, there are points in which his argument is lost in transition.

It should be noted that Raley’s instincts get better as the book wears on, but it’s hard to give him an audience for that long. As a pastor desirous of conveying the message of the gospel, I respect Raley, and his desire to engage the Other in meaningful way. For that we can all be thankful.

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