If you’re not an academic — and I’m not — why should you read an academic book about how 405 Christian international students changed – and did not change – their sense of identity in Christ during and after graduate study outside their home countries?
Just the title of Jenny McGill’s book might intimidate some: “Religious Identity and Cultural Negotiation: Toward a Theology of Christian Identity in Migration.” Knowing that the text was her doctoral dissertation could intimidate others.
Here’s why I think it’s worth holding your breath and diving into this volume.
A Book Full of Big Ideas that Matter
McGill’s book is full of big ideas that matter. Some of them come as happy reminders that academic thought is not so universally remote from Christianity as some American Protestants think. Some of them set me thinking about subjects important to my own life and faith:
- Where do I find my own sense of Christian identity?
- How much is what I describe as my “identity in Christ” shaped by the people and places around me?
- How much is it right and good and even essential for my faith to be externally shaped?
- How far from my “comfort zone” do I need to “migrate” to get a clearer picture of God in me?
McGill’s student subjects self-identify as evangelical and traveled internationally for theological graduate studies. They became, by choice, “strangers and aliens” in order to follow what they often described as a sense of divine calling. Many discovered differences between Christian churches in their home countries and Christian churches in the US. Those discoveries left many feeling gratitude for what they learned here and also feeling different from what they found here. The experiences of these students suggest directly part of what it means to be Christian: to be set apart, different, distinct, no matter where we are.
Big Idea: How to Embrace the Hostile Other
McGill is an academic who tries to see how things fit into a bigger picture. So she examines recent psychological and theological ideas about how people develop our sense of personal identity and how that relates to our understanding of God. This material can be hard going if you’re not used to reading theology, philosophy, and academic psychology. It’s not simple “self-help”, yet it has the potential to be extremely helpful. Imagine, for a moment, reading reflections about how Christians are called to love those who are “other” written by a Christian who grew up in an anti-Christian Communist state. That’s a meaningful part of Chapter 3.
Academic works aren’t structured like most published books, so they don’t start with a “hook” that is intended to convince you to buy the book you picked up. Instead, they open with pretty dry explanations of how the author looks at the world, who has influenced that worldview, and why she takes the worldview she does.
Big Idea: After Postmodernism, Reality
Still, I found a “hook” in the early chapters. McGill sets her point of view in “critical realism,” an academic worldview that has grown in response to postmodern thinking. Critical realism acknowledges that we each bring different perspectives to our understanding of the world. In this way it is like postmodernism. But instead of denying that it is possible to know the world and allowing each to define his or her own “reality,” critical realism allows that what is real is real and that we may, together, get a reasonably good picture of what is (or is not) in fact real. In the vision of an old parable, an elephant has not become a rope simply because one blind man has grabbed him by the tail. But six blind men may indeed come to understand an “elephant,” if they just listen to each other. For those of us bemoaning the impact of postmodernism on the world we seek to reach, it’s reassuring to know that the academic world whence it sprung is having second thoughts.
Let me offer one more good reason to consider reading this book: This is Jenny McGill’s doctoral dissertation, published by the American Society of Missiology — knowledge about the global spread of Christian missions. Most dissertations are bound in black covers. The owner has one copy and a second copy sits for decades on the dusty shelves of one academic library. This one has a bright paper cover and is available for purchase. That alone tells you it’s worth reading.
Learn more about God’s work to transform people in global migration and in your own life. Read this book.