[One of my goals for 2021 was to set time aside in the mornings for reading and reflecting on spiritual and theological books. Four months in, it’s been a wonderful shot in the arm for my sacred practices and spiritual life. As I’m ‘in between’ series these days here on the blog, I thought I’d make a habit of sharing with you some of the wonderful books that have made this time of sacred reading so special to me.]
The Very Good Gospel
by Lisa Sharon Harper
WaterBrook press, 2016
Lisa Sharon Harper is an African American educator, facilitator, peacemaker, and community organizer. She is rooted in American evangelical Christianity, but her writings and ministry push her tradition to expand its vision of what it means to be Christian in the world today. In The Very Good Gospel, Harper recounts her journey away from a stereotypical evangelical faith focused on personal salvation, towards a faith grounded instead in God’s original vision for creation as expressed in Genesis 1-3.
She begins by looking at God’s proclamation on the sixth day of creation that everything was “very good” (Genesis 1.31). ‘Very-goodness’ is not about internal perfection, but rather about the relationships between things. As she describes it, “God created the world in a web of relationships that overflowed with forceful goodness.” This goodness is called ‘peace’, or shalom, a word she prefers to use because of its connotations of wholeness and goodness, and not just an absence of conflict. The rest of the book explores, through stories, study, and reflection, how the very-goodness of shalom plays out in different relationships: Shalom with God, with self, between genders, with creation, within families, between peoples, between nations, and within the questions of life and death.
What I appreciated most about The Very Good Gospel was just how ‘very good’ she makes the world God envisioned sound. Creation is lush and full, and so are the relationships God desires us to have. While we have certainly made a mess of the world, that original vision is still there, and we can become allies of God as we seek to live out Shalom. If I had to offer a critique, it would be that because she focuses on the themes of creation and fall, the third traditional theme of Western Christianity, redemption, is given less space than it probably deserves. What God has done in Jesus is not a major theme, and so at times it felt more like a commentary on the Pentateuch than a book on explicitly Christian theology and spirituality. This is, however, a minor critique, since God’s vision for creation shines through the book so brightly.
The mixture of approaches, accessible writing, and simple (but powerful!) guiding image combine to make the book suitable for a wide audience. That said, it doesn’t shy away from difficult questions, including the questions of gender, race, and economics that are so prominent in our cultural moment. I would strongly recommend it for personal reading as well as for church book studies, especially in communities that are ready and able to have challenging conversations.
I’ll end this by giving Lisa Sharon Harper the last word:
“If the construction of human empire is our goal, we will become enemies of God’s purpose 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.”