Lisa Sharon Harper. The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right. Waterbrook, 2016. (224 pages)
I really, really, wanted to like this book. I can only say that I appreciate this book and its overall goal, message, and ethic. But I’m not sure I could recommend it.
The “what” of this book is fantastic, that there is a very good gospel, and that shalom and justice can and must be restored. YES! The “why” of this book is excellent, because we live in a broken world, and humanity is crying out for a way forward, reaching for the very ethics and realities that are found within the pages of these scriptures. The “who” of the book is tremendously honorable, both the author, and the references, people who I admire and respect for their advancement of a better Christian expression. It is the “how” of this book that was more challenging than not, and left me with few notes to take, and several questions to ask about the accuracy and rigor of the scholarship.
First, the subtitle should read “What Everything Wrong Should Be.” There’s very little “how.” Second, as noted below in several comments, the technical work left me disappointed, feeling as if there was far too much “looseness” in the interpretive and linguistic claims. In this work, it really does matter how one substantiates their conclusions, and there is a certain quality of rigor required when saying–and substantiating–that one word in Hebrew or Greek means “x” in English. And, let me say, I criticize this as someone who has been violating that very principle my entire life, a delinquency I am attempting to quickly correct in my latter years of ministry and teaching. So, I mean no personal or sentimental offense to Harper. I do mean to be pesky and persistent, that our linguistic, philological, translation, and hermeneutical proficiency must be meticulously critical and skilled in order for our arguments to be strong.
I commend the end aim. I am sorry to say that I was disappointed with the means. And, regardless of my harsh critique, I pray that the “what” and “who” of this book flourishes in this world.
Foreword by Walter Brueggemann
1 The Very Good Gospel
The good news was both about the coming of the Kingdom of God and the character of that Kingdom. It was about what God’s Kingdom looked like. It was about what citizenship in God’s Kingdom requires. The biblical gospel writers’ good news was about the restoration of shalom. (5)
The white American church split in two from 1908 through the 1920s. Rauschenbusch’s followers were called Modernists (known today as the liberal church). The conservative faction launched the Fundamentalist movement, under the leadership of people such as Cyrus (C. I.) Scofield, whose work is widely known today through the Scofield Bible. The Fundamentalists also founded seminaries, including Dallas Theological Seminary and Westminster Theological Seminary. (9)
To live in God’s Kingdom, in the way of shalom, requires that we discard our thin understanding of the gospel. 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. (13)
I have come to understand a few things that will be fleshed out in the chapters that follow:
- If one’s gospel falls mute when facing people who need good news the most–the impoverished, the oppressed, and the broken–then it’s no gospel at all.
- Shalom is what the Kingdom of God smells like.
- At its heart, the biblical concept of shalom is about God’s vision for the emphatic goodness of all relationships. (14)
2 A Glimpse of Shalom
On this day Elohim speaks three words and a phrase that I believe provide the essence of the vision of shalom: image (tselem), likeness (dmuwth), dominion (radah), and very good (tov me’od).
Tselem literally means “a phantom.” Figuratively, it means “representative figure.” (25)
[via: I think Harper misses the more representative translations akin to “shadow” and “engraving.”]
The writers’ use of radah conjures images of a new creation in need of stewardship. For you and me, the image of an untamed wilderness is an appropriate reference point. (28)
[via: Harper makes the case that “dominion” is not a good translation because of a) how it is interpreted, and b) there are other words for “dominion” in the rest of the Hebrew scriptures. I concur with the material fact of the rationales, but disagree with the general argument. First, how the word is interpreted is not a function of the terminology, but a function of the dynamic confluence of terminology and culture. Second, even in English, we have several words for “rule/reign/govern/subjugate/preside,” and perhaps others. This does not mean that the words are not synonymous. In addition, several other passages such as Psalm 72, a song about the “king,” includes the word to mean “dominion” [“Radah,” (רדה); verse 8]. The interpretation that can emerge from keeping “domain/rule” as the translation is to start with the theological premise that God rules/reigns over his creation. By commissioning humanity (אדם) to do the same is a statement about our ontology, that we are “like God,” more so than a statement about our power or prerogative to do whatever the heck we want with the world. If we were to truly embrace this identity, we would, therefore, care for creation in the same way God does (which leads to chapter 2).]
Stewardship requires agency: the use of one’s voice to guide and direct the use of one’s mind to make choices that impact the world. (29)
Radah equalizes power. No one is too low to exercise agency (29) to steward God’s creation. Likewise, no one can add value to his or her soul through the pursuit and exercise of power. (30)
Tov is the Hebrew word for “good,” but the word does not refer only to (30) the goodness of the object itself; it also refers to the ties between things. In the Hebrew conception of the world, all of creation is connected. The well-being of the whole depends on the well-being of each individual part. (31)
The implications of the vision are profound:
- All humanity is made in the image of God.
- All humanity is created with the call and capacity to exercise dominion.
- To diminish the capacity of humans to exercise dominion is to diminish the image of God on earth. (33)
- If humanity is created in God’s likeness, then the way we exercise dominion should reflect GOd’s kind of dominion. (34)
3 Two Trees and the Fall
…God doesn’t zap humanity to life. No, God kisses us. The breath of God makes human life possible. (41)
And love shares power. (41)
What does love require? That is the question of the two trees. (43)
In the Hebrew culture, however, knowledge was experiential. It was kinetic. In addition, the Hebrew word that is used here, da’ath, can be translated as “awareness.” (45)
The tragedy is that they were already made in God’s likeness (see Genesis 1:26). (48)
Shalom is both the antidote to sin’s separation and the fruit of loving and trusting God. (50)
Sin is not about the personal imperfection of the self. Rather, sin is any act that breaks any of the relationships God declared very good in the beginning. (50)
| As a result, the antidote to sin is not personal perfection–it is radical love! (50)
4 Shalom with God
5 Shalom with Self
6 Shalom Between Genders
Phyllis Trible points out that Adam did not name Eve but simply called her woman. (85)
[via: I have made this same claim, and, in discussion with my Hebrew scholar friends, they have suggested that my (our) point is not as strong as we wish it to be. “Called” is used in the naming of the animals, and later in Chapter 3:20, specifically for the naming of “Eve” (ויקרא האדם שם אשתו חוה)]
7 Shalom and Creation
8 Shalom for Broken Families
General family systems theory says that anytime any one individual in the family is affected by something, it sends a ripple through the whole family. – Dr. Claudia Owens Shields
Oppression rears its head in different forms in each generation, but in every instance it attacks families. (131)
9 Shalom and Race
Ethnicity is created by God as people groups move together through space and time. Ethnicity is dynamic and developed over long periods of time. It is not about power. It is about group identity, heritage, language, place, and common group experience over time. … Ethnicity is God’s very good intention for humanity. (140)
The only racial category on the national census that did not change from 1790 to 2010 was “white.”
The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University discovered that implicit bias impacts every level of the justice system,… (151)
From Plato to mass incarceration, the belief that certain people were created to rule and others were created to be ruled has been so deeply ingrained in our collective worldview that we don’t question these disparities. Implicit bias tells us things are as they should be. Unjust systems and structures remain in place because the people do not demand a better world. (151)
Search. Find. Show Up. Follow. (157)
10 Shalom Between Nations
…the Tower of Babel was an early attempt to build empire. (161)
[via: Eh… Is it more an etiology on language and the relationship between language, technology, and a humanity bent on doing the opposite of what God commanded and created us for?]
The first way in which the Israelites would be a blessing to all the families of the earth would be through the Ten Commandments, the cornerstone of Israel’s domestic policy. Most of the commandments are written in the negative form: “You shall have no other Gods before me” (Exodus 20:3), “You shall not murder” (verse 13), “You shall not steal” (verse 15). They don’t spell out rights, but the concept of rights is a modern construct. Still, we can infer that a commandment prohibiting murder conveys that citizens have the right not to be murdered. In the same way, citizens have the implied right not to be stolen from and the implied right to Sabbath. (166)
[via: There is a confusing contradictory anachronism in the above paragraph. On one hand, we can “infer” a “right,” from the commandments, even though “rights” are a “modern construct?” It would be better to say that “rights” as we understand them, is not what the decalogue is about. It is more about “covenant,” the establishment of the relationship and the character of that relationship between the two parties.]
Hosanna means “Oh save!” (174)
[via: More accurately, “save, please,” or “save, pray.” (הושיענא)]
In a pluralistic democracy, we cannot impose our conceptions of God on our neighbors through the imposition of any sacred text on domestic or foreign policy. It is, though, necessary for all people of faith to draw from our principles to help us engage the world in a way that moves our nation and world toward God’s very goodness. If the construction of human empire is our goal, we will become enemies of God’s purposes on earth. If the flourishing of the image of God and all the relationships in creation is our goal, then we will become partners with God, exercising dominion that is in the likeness of God. We must take seriously the ways our policies (both domestic and foreign) honor or dismiss the image of God in humanity globally. (175)
11 Shalom and Witnessing Peace
Charity offers a hand out or a hand up to individuals caught in poverty’s web. Justice examines the web and tears it down. (191)
12 Shalom and Life … and Death … and Life
God took an animal that God had created, and God ripped the animal in two to cover over our shame. On that day, blood dripped from the hands of God. (195)
[via: Just a note that the Genesis narrative suggests nothing of this. This is pure poetic license, and a quite liberal one at that.]
There is a way back to shalom. It is the way of God, demonstrated through the person of Jesus and made possible through his death and resurrection. | This is the good news. This is the very good gospel. (206)