THE VERY GOOD GOSPEL: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right. By Lisa Sharon Harper. Foreword by Walter Brueggemann. New York: WaterBrook, 2016. Xiv + 224 pages.
Jesus came preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom. That is, he came preaching good news that promised a restoration of that which is good. This is not just good news, it is very good news, as the title of Lisa Sharon Harper’s book suggests. Recognizing that the Bible is ultimately a narrative of God’s work that begins in creation and ends in restoration, Harper invites us to inhabit this narrative so that we might be drawn into this “very good gospel.” It is a gospel that offers shalom, or peace and wholeness.
Before getting to the author, I need to take note of the one who wrote the foreword to this book. Anytime Walter Brueggemann puts his imprimatur on a book, we should pay attention. We might not agree with the sentiments at points, but if he finds it intriguing then so should we. As for the author, Lisa Sharon Harper is "chief church engagement officer" for Sojourners. Sojourners is a community and movement that seeks to connect faith and social justice. Harper is tasked with inviting churches to enter into this work. Besides her status as being a Sojourner’s staff member, she is also the author of several books, has worked as a community organizer, and has become a widely recognized faith leader. From her vantage point at Sojourners she wants to invite us to inhabit this "very good gospel," so that what is wrong/broken can be made right/healed.
In his foreword to the book, Brueggemann suggests that her book serves as an “antidote to a ‘thin’ reading of the Gospel” (p. xiii). In other words, she wants us to dive deeper into the biblical story so that it can form us to be agents of good news.
Harper begins he book by laying out what she believes is this “very good gospel.” The Gospel includes the reconciliation of the individual to God, self, and community. But it goes deeper. The Gospel involves pursuing justice and righteousness. It is news of God’s shalom, where we move into the vision of the Kingdom. Harper begins this conversation by looking at contextual issues. She reminds us that the world we live in has allowed slavery, poverty, racism, etc., to flourish. Shalom involves overcoming these realities, so that we might return to the original vision of God. The point is not whether there once was a golden age where everything was wonderful—a truly “edenic” existence—but that this vision of shalom might take root and begin transforming us.
If we’re to engage in this conversation, we need a starting point, and Harper finds it in Genesis 1. There we see revealed God’s vision of creation, which God declared to be very good. If this is true, then the goal will be returning to this model or template. Three words stand out in relation to shalom—image (tselem), likeness (dmuwth), and dominion (radah). We are created in the image and likeness of God so that we might engage in dominion, which she thinks of in terms of stewardship. This idea of dominion will appear regularly in the book, and she uses the term in such a way to encourage our sense of responsibility for the world in which we live. What is involved here is recognizing our agency in returning creation to God’s declaration that what God created is very good.
God created all things and deemed them very good, even the sea monsters! But as the story continues, things go wrong. There are two trees, one of which is placed off-limits. But humanity chooses to eat of its fruit, so that they might know shalom, but humanity chose otherwise. Sin, separation, took hold. Interconnected relationships were broken. She writes that “thirteen chapters after all relationships in creation were declared very good, nations are at war. Indeed, “separation looks like distrust, shame, confusion, and domination” (p. 49). The story doesn’t end there, however. As she notes the remainder of the Bible, from Genesis 12 through Revelation speaks of God’s “plan to redeem the world and restore shalom.” As you might guess, there is a strong evangelical strain to this book. God is at work, and we are invited to participate in what might be called “salvation history.”
The remainder of the book, from chapter four to the end, is focused on this work of redemption. It focuses on restoring shalom. First with God, and then with self. After that we explore the need for shalom between genders, with creation, in the midst of broken families. From there we look at how God restores shalom in relationship to race and between nations. She reminds us that the restoration of shalom requires us to bear witness to God’s vision. It means standing up for justice and what is right. This is not a pie in the sky, head in the heavenly clouds, version of evangelicalism. It is a call to experience shalom here within creation, as God intended. She points to the example of Charles Finney. Finney was a key figure in the Second Great Awakening. He was an important evangelist, who invented the so-called “anxious bench.” He invited people to come to the altar and seek God’s salvation of their souls. Not only that, but he invited them to join in the fight against slavery. He also gave support to the ministry of women, including Phoebe Palmer. Harper notes that Palmer preached in partnership with Charles Finney, “whose altar call gave the guilty the opportunity to openly declare their allegiance to the Kingdom of God.” Then, Finney would invite the people to sign up for the abolitionist movement on sign-up sheets that he had laid out on the altar. In much the same way the suffragist and civil rights movements were born. This is the example, the template, of restoring shalom that Harper wants us to consider.
In her final chapter, Harper explores the question of death and resurrection. She notes the causes of fear of death. She addresses the myths that we can evade it. There were two trees. We ate of one and we were cut off from the other. In death, we are invited to share in the tree of life. In other words, the relationship with God has been restored. “Separation does not win” (p. 202).