From the moment I saw the author worked at Sojourners, I knew this would be a book that I wouldn't agree 100% with. Why? Sojourners is famous for being a left-leaning evangelical organization and I'm a right-leaning evangelical. The clash was inevitable. But since I'm also the kind of person that appreciates having my views challenged, I was up for hearing Ms. Harper out as she tried to show that the gospel means more than heaven-when-you-die. The results were mixed.
Harper opens the first chapter of this book with a history of evangelicalism over the past 150 or so years. She discusses how activism (especially over the issue of slavery) characterized much of the Second Great Awakening but eventually disappeared because of more liberal scholars and pastors who reduced Christianity down to a mere political, social-gospel. More conservative Christians became so wary of the social-gospel that they eventually lost the social component completely rather than retreating to the middle and acknowledging that there is both a future and present element in the Kingdom of God. She ends this chapter with a great quote by Walter Brueggemann which sums up her understanding of the gospel: "The vision of wholeness, which is the supreme will of the biblical God, is the outgrowth of a covenant of shalom (see Ezekiel 34:25), in which persons are bound not only to God but to one another in a caring, sharing, rejoicing community with none to make them afraid" (page 15). Harper believes that a fuller understanding of the gospel is one that sees 'shalom' restored to humankind's relationships - with other humans, with creation, and with God. In this book she lays out how shalom should be restored in these areas and encourages her readers to begin the process of living out the Gospel.
There is a lot in this book that I really appreciate. I agree, with Harper, that the Christianity's gospel is, too often, thin. It can be so focused on the after-life that it forgets the current one. As a result, it has lost much of the power that originally propelled it into its first few centuries of existence. I ,too, would love to see an Evangelicalism that views the Gospel as powerful today - powerful to save from sin, to restore broken relationships, to create loving communities. Harper does a good job of showing how broken this world is and how the Gospel has the power to change everything.
Unfortunately for me, she also lets her left-leaning bias stretch the Gospel (and certain passages of scripture) in unnecessary ways. How about an example?
In her chapter on how shalom can be restored with God, she discusses the famous story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well (see John 4 if you need a refresher). Here's what she says about this woman: "The back story provided in John 4:16-18 explains that the woman had had five husbands and the man she was with at the time was not her husband. She had given herself to five men and five men and [sic] thrown her out. How empty must she have felt? How used? How disappointed? How unworthy of love? Five times the woman trusted a man to care and provide for her in a world where men had multiple wives and concubines but women could have only one husband. Five times she had a home, food, and protection; five times she was thrown away."
I'm sorry but that simply isn't what the text says. After Jesus tells this woman about the 'living water' that he has access to, she asks for some. Jesus responds with a command, "Go, call your husband and come here" (John 4:16). Why does Jesus tell her to do this? Is it because he wants to dredge up old memories of how used she has been? Is it because he's wanting to let her know that he'll be the husband she never had? Or is it because he wants her to confront her sin?
I would argue that it's the latter. When Jesus encounters people, he usually confronts people with their sin (or need) once they express a desire to have a part in what he's doing. Jesus tells her to get her husband because she has been living sinfully, not because she's been used five times. This is one of the problems with that Left-bias that Harper holds, according to the Left, there are oppressors and the oppressed. Men are oppressors. Women are oppressed. (Note: I'm not saying that Harper believes this, would say this, or her book advocates for this. I am saying that it's a deeply ingrained sentiment within many in the Left so it comes out when they write and speak, even if ever so slightly. I'm also not denying that, historically, men have often oppressed women). As a result of this prejudice, in Harper's mind (yes, I'm speculating here), this woman had to be oppressed - merely someone who was used by five different men. I'm not saying that this Samaritan woman was a seductress who went out of her way to con five different men to sleeping with or marrying her - I don't believe the text gives us enough to paint a very vivid picture of her life. But I do believe the text and context strongly imply that she was not totally in the right here - her actions had been, at least in part, sinful.
The world is not as neat as we might like. All humanity is sinful - even those who are part of traditionally oppressed groups. Sin isn't a characteristic of only those with authority. We have all contributed to the world's problems through sin. We're all responsible.
Harper's bias crops up like this here and there throughout this book. And yet, we all have biases. None of us approach anything completely objectively. However, when we come to the scripture, it is imperative that we do our best to take as objective a position as possible. We should examine our biases and be willing to acknowledge when reality does not reinforce them. I've written and preached from a position more colored by my bias than by reality. We all do from time to time. But it's something we need to be aware of - especially when we approach the preaching or writing of those who come with different biases.
My hope is that conservative evangelicals will read more books like 'The Very Good Gospel' and allow it to challenge them and their biases. If the things we believe are true and rooted in the Word, they won't be uprooted by a little contrary wind. In fact, that wind may strengthen them or even reveal areas where we need to grow in understanding and in practice.
May we all seek to not only learn but also to live this very good Gospel.