A Review of
The Very Good Gospel:
How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right
Lisa Sharon Harper
This review originally appeared in
our Fall 2016 print magazine
*** Get a FREE digital copy of this issue.
Lisa Sharon Harper’s The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right is the book for which I have been waiting. In a world desperately in need of some truly good news, the church’s responses are often lacking. The gospel must respond meaningfully to the deadly and debilitating forces that erupt around us. Yet the gospel so often proclaimed is, as Harper terms it, thin. This thin gospel succinctly describes salvation as an individual’s restored relationship with God. The end goal of this salvation is equally simple: to be saved means to secure one’s place in heaven after death. Harper weaves together her experiences with church and life, theological and biblical insights, and current cultural and statistical data in order to thicken our understanding of salvation and gospel. What emerges is a truly holistic depiction of God’s cosmic salvation. Harper enriches the message and work of the gospel by focusing attention on the Hebrew word shalom, roughly translated as “peace.” God’s salvation, in which shalom is the reality, includes all aspects of life. Shalom, Harper reminds us, is inherently relational. True peace, salvation, has to do with the actual and concrete reconciliation of all things with their Creator and each other.
Before examining the content of The Very Good Gospel more particularly, I would like to make a few comments on my experience reading it. As I began reading, I was immediately struck by the book’s tone. I found myself wanting to read the book aloud and suspect that doing so would highlight precisely the kinds of connections and references that the text’s words do not necessarily make explicit. That said, readers do not need to read aloud in order to track. This is evidence of the rhetorical skill at work here. Harper makes excellent use of formatting and tone to provide both space for slowing down and encouragement to make progress.
Harper caused me to slow my reading, but not, I think, in a negative way. For example, after outlining thin faith and calling for the correction of a thicker account of salvation, Harper ends a section by asking, “What is the good news of the gospel” (11)? She answers the question by means of a new section heading: SHALOM. There are a few lines between the question and answer, providing a kind of visual breath or pause on the page. Without explaining or introducing further, Harper immediately outlines occurrences of shalom in the Bible and moves forward. By means of this formatting, Harper allows the text and the reader to breathe. Thus, although it is possible to gather the information and ideas from The Very Good Gospel quickly, a slower context is the best way to enjoy it.
This book invites its readers on a journey, and the invitation is rather subtly worded. If the thinness of the oft-proclaimed “gospel” and its inability to respond to systemic suffering does not bother you, Harper will not waste words trying to convince you that it should. Like Jesus, she speaks to those who have ears to hear. As such, Harper does not always connect the dots for her readers, but she does provide a sufficient framework so that readers will be able to make connections themselves. After laying out the contours of God’s shalom in her opening chapters, Harper adds color and texture in subsequent chapters, each of which examines various relationships in need of shalom. Reflection exercises, usually quite brief although no less impactful for their brevity, are provided at the end of each chapter. This book strikes me as being highly adaptable. It could be read in a community or by an individual, as I did. The reflection exercises at the end of each chapter are skillfully crafted so that a variety of different participants can make use of them. No matter the scenario in which a reader finds him- or herself, the book provides avenues for engaging with its ideas thoroughly and personally. This book also makes use of endnotes rather than footnotes, a formatting choice that seems as good as any to me. It has the felicity of grouping all the resources together in one place, without the need for a separate bibliography and thus additional pages.
Harper provides a relatively concise account of salvation, but she makes good use of each section. The text has few repetitions other than its very clear themes or central guiding concepts, of which there are two that reappear throughout. Perhaps obviously, shalom (and the various areas in which God is bringing about shalom) serves as the backbone of this book. The other item that reappears throughout, although less obviously so, is the idea of dominion. Harper weaves these two pieces together, as we shall see.
Shalom is a term that describes a system, a complex of relationships. Being in shalom means being in a state of right relationship. Shalom implies interconnection amongst all the various pieces of the cosmos: God, humans, creation. The thin gospel account makes virtually no mention of how God’s salvation brings shalom to relationships other than that between God and individuals. As such, Harper writes, “To live in God’s Kingdom, in the way of shalom, requires that we discard our thin understanding of the gospel.” We first get glimpses of Harper’s own story in this chapter, in the narration preceding this statement. Harper describes her realization that the gospel as it was communicated to her was powerless to respond to instances of suffering in her own life and in world history. She writes, “I had to face a hard truth: my limited, evangelical understanding of the gospel had nothing to say about sixteen thousand Cherokees and four other sovereign, indigenous nations whose people were forcibly removed from their lands. And it had nothing to say to my own ancestors who were enslaved in South Carolina” (14). This is Harper’s inciting conviction, the reason for writing this book, and the first strand of her developing argument: that a gospel that falls mute in response to suffering is no gospel at all.
Harper examines shalom in a variety of places, all of which are relational. Each chapter’s title identifies the particular relational space on which it will focus: shalom with God, creation, in families, between genders, within oneself, between nations, amongst races, as part of the witnessing church, and even while facing death. The discussions about these spaces build upon one another meaningfully, but each chapter could also stand on its own. Harper first paints in broad strokes, depicting the lack of shalom in the world now, and then focuses on specific instances that demonstrate the need for shalom. She substantiates each chapter’s discussion with intelligent references from fairly diverse resources, from Brené Brown’s work on shame to Phyllis Trible’s re-reading of Genesis to news articles on Haitian poverty and California droughts. Interwoven throughout many of the chapters are elements of Harper’s own story, which further deepen and unify this work.
Harper establishes early on that humanity images God through its right and proper care-taking (or dominion) for other members of creation and one another. Then she continually harkens back to the idea of dominion throughout the book. In virtually every chapter, Harper narrates the brokenness in each relational space as a failure to properly exercise dominion. This framework is an adroit one. It provides a ready shorthand for the narrative of shalom-redemption that Harper develops, ready in part because it stands on a firmly theological foundation. Humanity images God by exercising dominion as God would have them exercise it: through loving stewardship and caretaking. Dominion is both part of human identity and human action, which makes identity and ethics inextricable from one another. God creates humans in such a way that their identity and being imply their mission: to image God’s dominion over chaos by rightly tending the garden. The right relationships taking place in the garden are God’s shalom made manifest.
To this point, Harper’s narration is mostly on target. It stumbles a little when she attempts to narrate the fall of humanity. After the original humans eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they are cast from the garden of Eden. Leaving the garden is a necessary but inexplicable consequence of disobedience. Had humanity not disobeyed, it is implied, they would never have needed to leave the garden. God’s shalom is exemplified in the garden, after all. What reason would there be to leave?
But God’s command for the humans to exercise right dominion over all of the earth, “to fill the earth and subdue it,” (Gen. 1:28) would not be necessary if the garden was already the perfect example of shalom. Furthermore, the divine command could not be obeyed unless at some point humanity encountered space outside the garden, over which God’s dominion was not yet being exercised.
I suspect that Harper would suggest that God’s dominion, and humans with it, would spread naturally throughout the area outside the garden in God’s good timing. I would agree with this suggestion. Furthermore, I gratefully applaud Harper’s holding up the pre-fall garden as an exemplar of shalom rather than, as narrations often do, looking to post-fall phenomena as information about how God would have us live and be. What, then, is the issue?
The issue is that God cared about the chaotic, disordered space that existed outside the garden. God created humans and invested them with a mission to exercise the right ordering of creation outside the safe and peaceable confines of their home in paradise. The narrative that implies that we should never have had to leave that safety shapes us in a certain way. It inspires in us a sense of longing for home. Harper even invokes this sense of longing by describing Pascal’s “God-shaped hole” in humanity. She does so in order to inspire us, to set fire to our imaginations, and to energize us about our mission.
Directed carefully, that sense of longing can bear rich fruit. But I worry about a story that tells us we should never have left the garden, that implies that God’s shalom is a “return to the garden.” I suspect that it is, at least in part, this very narrative that has created the thin gospel against which Harper so rightly argues in her book. After all, aren’t we simply returning to our previous state of shalom if salvation means we go to heaven when we die?
God’s vision for shalom, as Harper so beautifully expresses it, is a cosmic “restoration of relationship, wholeness, healing, and peace” (12). We must never lose sight of the scope of God’s vision: for all of God’s children, all of God’s creation to experience this restoration. Harper does a tremendous service to this vision and scope. This book restores the broader, better meaning of many terms in the Christian vocabulary, especially the gospel. Such sweeping reconceptualization is much needed, and I am thankful for this book precisely because it deconstructs and restores with such strength of conviction. This work lays absolutely necessary groundwork. It is meant to serve as a beginning, and as such, is, indeed, a very good one.
This review originally appeared
in our Fall 2016 print magazine
*** Get a FREE digital copy of this issue.
Kate Blakely is a member of Cole Mill Road Church of Christ. A graduate of Duke Divinity and Emmanuel Christian Seminary, Kate has long focused on ecclesiology, particularly the unique practices found in free churches. She loves living in community with her husband, her sister-by-heart and her husband, and a cat named Moose.