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A Review of
The Great Chasm: How to Stop Our Wealth from Separating Us from the Poor and God.
Servant Partners Press, 2015.
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Reviewed By Paul D. Gregory
People read books for various reasons. Maybe you read romance novels to be “swept away to a distant land.” Or maybe you enjoy a book that is set in the mountains and is wet with beautiful imagery of mountain peaks, blue skies and crisp clean air. Still others may enjoy stories with happy endings because they like to imagine themselves in the heroine’s role (wouldn’t everyone love to be Tom Cruise at the end of the movie Jerry Maguire). And still others read books hoping to find answers to life’s big questions.
There is a good chance that you will not be fond of the message contained in Derek Engdahl’s The Great Chasm. There’s an even better chance that you will not enjoy some of the imagery he uses to describe the slums of Manila, Haiti or Mexico. And many of you won’t be thrilled to read about servant living and/or the importance of giving up things we don’t need. And many readers will finish Engdahl’s book with a nagging pain in their side, as they acknowledge their own failure to have compassion for those in need.
The Great Chasm is a piercing critique of the Christian church. Using parables from Luke’s Gospel, Engdahl humbly shares a heart-felt message to readers about the great void that stands between the poor and the rest of us.
One of Engdahl’s main points in the book focused on our relationship to God and the poor. Engdahl states, “One cannot know Christ and not know the poor; to ignore the needy, the oppressed, and the helpless is to ignore Christ himself” (15). Yes, salvation is important; however, it is precisely our relationship with Christ that should cause us to have compassion for those in need. I loved Engdahl’s description of the difference between having concern and compassion for those in need: “Concern is feeling bad when you see something bad happen to someone else. Compassion, on the other hand, is seeing your brother’s pain and believing that you cannot let him continue to suffer in that way” (14).
The concept of Mammon is another focus of Engdahl’s book. Mammon is defined not only as one’s income, but also her/his wealth in general. Engdahl uses the parable of the shrewd manager to address how Christians should view their own money and wealth. He proposes that Mammon will ultimately fail us, as it is tied to this material world. Moreover, Engdahl suggests that the fact that God has gifted us earthly wealth “…does not give us some special right or authority, but rather a special responsibility to use our resources according to God’s will” (47). Later on he proposes that this special responsibility dictates that we should not be responsible, but recklessly generous our wealth. This is how Jesus acted when on Earth. He chose to associate and love those individuals who were labeled unlovable or incorrigible.
It’s important to point out that the author does not imply that Christians can’t enjoy the fruits of their own labors (i.e., it’s okay to indulge every once in awhile). However, we often spend money on things that are important to us, and too often the poor are on the bottom of our list. In response, Engdahl states:
“We should be generous to the members of the body of Christ, but especially the poor members. We should support the mission of the larger church, but especially to the unreached poor. We should practice hospitality, but especially toward the needy, the homeless, and the outcast” (67).
A considerable segment of the book is devoted to the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. You may or may not remember that Lazarus was a poor man who spent his life at the gate of a rich man. Now the rich man passed Lazarus each day as he left and returned to his home. But the rich man never acknowledged the poor man. Upon his death, the rich man finds himself in hell and looks up toward heaven only to see Lazarus sitting with Abraham in heaven. The reader discovers that the rich man will spend eternity in hell and Lazarus in heaven. This is the great reversal. “Those who suffered, who were outcast and deprived, would find comfort, while those who sought wealth and comfort…on earth were the only pleasures they would ever have” (134).
The rich man made two errors that damned him to an eternity of torment. Let’s be clear, the fact that this man was rich and that he enjoyed nice things was not the problem. Rather, it was the fact that “…he made them [his riches] the centerpieces of his lifestyle” (136). Extravagances every now and then are not the problem. Surrounding our everyday lives with these extravagances is the mistake.
The second error the rich man made was his continual disregard of Lazarus. Let’s not forget that Jesus says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The rich man lived the entirety of his life ignoring his neighbor’s plight. Engdahl says, “We often think of sin as wrongdoing, but here sin is having the power to act and yet doing nothing” (135).
The last message from this parable focused on the rich man’s family (his brothers). In the parable, the rich man begs Abraham to allow Lazarus to go back down to earth and warn his brothers of his failures. But Abraham says “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (211). We must cross the great chasm now. We cannot wait till tomorrow for “those of us who are wealthy and comfortable, and who ignore the suffering of the poor around us, are in jeopardy” (136).
The Great Chasm was difficult to read. It not only challenged the decisions I make about my everyday life, but also my relationship with others across the great chasm. Make no mistake, Engdahl’s words will challenge, frustrate and sometimes anger you. However, his words were true, filled with humility and spot on. Importantly, Engdahl leaves the reader with concrete ways in which each of us can begin to cross the great chasm and love those who are in need.