Book Review of “Changing Normal”

Does culture affect how we deal with conflict? Does culture affect how we apply biblical principles to conflict resolution? Dr. Jolene Kinser answers “yes” to both questions in her new book, Changing Normal: Break Through Barriers to Pursuing Peace in Relationships. As an American who spent decades living in China, she implies that it takes someone outside the culture to observe its impact on conflict resolution. She argues that, once cultural norms are identified, they can be screened through a biblical framework and modified – not necessarily rejected — to conform to biblical standards. (Full disclosure: I’ve known and worked with Jolene for years, including teaching with her in China.)

The most obvious relevant cultural norm observed in Asia is “face,” how a person perceives their reputation in the eyes of others. The need to save face can prevent a person from admitting mistakes, and can stifle subordinates from providing necessary correction to superiors – adding to conflict. Dr. Kinser notes that “face” is ultimately about where we get our identity, and the Bible makes clear that our identity comes from God. Once we see ourselves as the new creatures in Christ that Paul describes in II Corinthians 5:17, we need not look to others to define our self-worth. It becomes easier to apologize, and to confront gently, when one is seeking God’s approval, not humans’. Thus adjusted, the concept of “face” need not hinder people from making peace.

This is not simply an academic work. Dr. Kinser asked about 30 Chinese Christians to describe how they applied biblical principles of peacemaking to conflicts in their daily lives – their marriages, their extended families, their workplaces, their churches. So each of her points in the book is illustrated by direct quotes from people who lived them. People describe improved relationships after consciously thinking and behaving differently with regard to their conflicts.

People who don’t live cross-culturally will also benefit from this book, as it covers all the important aspects of biblical peacemaking in a refreshing way. Especially helpful are the prayers and reflection questions at the end of each chapter. Dr. Kinser’s book is a welcome addition to the small but growing library of books on biblical peacemaking.