Is your Gospel good enough for the world you encounter?
A review of Lisa Sharon Harper’s ‘The Very Good Gospel’
In 2004, as I sat with a young woman who shared with me her story of being abuse by a man she trusted, I remember my burning desire to share the love of God with her. She desperately needed to know the hope I knew for a better future, the feeling I knew of unconditional love.
Being a good first year bible college student, and beach mission trained, I knew my gospel tracts. I had even memorised the verses! Yet, it didn’t seem enough in this moment. She didn’t need to be told she was a sinner, although of course she was, she needed to be told she was loved, and there was a God who was capable of healing even the deepest hurts.
At the Justice Conference in Melbourne I was surprised when Lisa Sharon Harper recounted a similar story of finding a traditional rendition of the Gospel, in terms of substitutional atonement for a ticket to heaven, to be underwhelming. Too small for the world we had both been encountering.
For me it started a journey that led me into a much broader understanding of the Gospel, and an understanding of God’s mission in restoring the world to its intended beauty and wholeness. I found myself with a renewed passion for learning, and sought out various different books, mostly by well-known Anglo-Saxon men, but I never came across Lisa Sharon Harper’s ‘The Very Good Gospel’. Given the similarity of our stories I couldn’t help but pick it up at the conference at give it a read.
I’m thankful that I did.
Lisa Sharon Harper’s treatment of the gospel and the concept of shalom was incredibly refreshing. I found that it was almost impossible to read each chapter and not stop at the end and engage in times of prayer, reflection and confession. She writes with a beautiful mix of personal openness about her story, theological depth and challenging reflections.
As Brueggemann suggests in the forward, Lisa transfers the idea of a ‘Thick’ description of culture from Clifford Geertz’s cultural anthropology and applies it to our understanding of the Gospel. In line with Miroslav Volf she suggests that gospel tracts and oversimplified diagrams have led to a ‘thin faith’ which “creates its own collection of Instagram memes that serve as life principles” (p 10). A thin faith, from a thin understanding of the gospel, leaves us with a gospel that struggles to speak into the complexities of life’s situations, and the devastating effects of human brokenness.
Lisa paints a rich picture of God’s shalom, focusing on three key words found in Genesis. She suggests it is:
“partnering with God to restore very good (tov me’od) to the world. It is exercising God’s kind of dominion (radah) within the church. And it calls our leaders to do the same in society, to exercise the kind of dominion that cultivates the image (tselem) of God on earth while serving and protecting all of God’s creation.” (p 206)
The way back to shalom is the way made possible through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That is the very good gospel, that God is on about restoring his ‘very good’ to the world.
‘The Very Good Gospel’ demonstrates how God’s ‘very good’ includes the breaking of barriers between races, the wholeness of families, and the destruction of patriarchy. She argues that race is primarily about dominion, and removing or diminishing the dominion of some in order to increase the dominion of others. In talking about our broken families, Lisa acknowledges that sin is primarily about separation, and while sin will always be part of our experience in this world, the promise remains that even in our deepest longing for relationship, God will meet us there. I particularly resonated with her view of the broken shalom that we live in now as men and women. In reflecting on Genesis, Lisa writes that:
“Male dominance is nowhere to be found in the heart of God’s intentions for humanity prior to the fall… humanity chose the way of dominance. Between men and women, it takes the form of patriarchy, which shows what it looks like to live in broken shalom.” (p 87).
Her thick understanding of shalom necessitates a view of the gospel big enough to restore the world. Big enough to deal with complexities, big enough to speak hope into the dark corners of our world and experience.
Not only does she deal with the big issues of our world, in restoring shalom, but as a woman in leadership, she also spoke to my heart. So I want to leave you with some advice that a older, wiser woman offered Lisa, which she offers in her book to us:
“You will flourish when you stop apologising for your power and live fully into the woman God created you to be” (p 101).
There is some wise words worthy of reflection.
Bree Mills is currently the Associate Pastor at Glen Waverley Anglican Church. She is a Ridley Graduate who has been worked in youth ministry for 12 years at various churches, until moving into her current role in 2013, overseeing missional discipleship at GWAC. She is undertaking Postgraduate study at Morling College in the area of Missional Leadership, with a focus on congregational change, and is involved with various missional movements around Australia. She has worked with both large and small churches to reinvigorate youth ministries, and launch missional communities. She is passionate about equipping the church to engage with the local community, encouraging women in leadership, and building healthy and sustainable teams.