While reading a good book, have you ever thought, “I wish I could sit down and talk with the author about the implications of her writing?”
Lisa Sharon Harper’s The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right reads like the kind of extended discussion two friends have, mugs filled with hot coffee as ideas and personal stories are shared over several hours. At the end of the conversation they leave intellectually enriched, spiritually challenged, and bonded in friendship. That’s what will happen if you have the courage to read this book.
Lisa’s work provides a thorough biblical analysis, from Genesis to Revelation. It takes all 66 books of both testaments to fully grasp the texture and depth of the biblical theme of shalom, this pervasive idea so vast in its meaning which defies simplistic theological definition. Shalom requires, indeed demands, this kind of careful reading in order to grasp what Walter Brueggemann calls an emphasis on a “’thick’ reading of the gospel,” in contrast to the “’thin’ theology” so often put forward by both “convenient fundamentalism” as well as the “progressive church.”
Lisa — Sojourners' chief church engagement officer — narrates a variety of “glimpses of shalom.” Faithful to the Hebrew emphasis of wisdom emerging through narrative, the author skillfully recounts the stories of Creation and the Fall and the gospel’s final and complete revelation in the person and work of Jesus. This approach invites the reader to rethink the biblical narrative from the start, beginning with “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Gen. 1:1)
This approach avoids the commonly accepted practice of conveniently selecting an alternative starting point that simply reinforces a predetermined theological viewpoint of what the “Bible is really about.” In contrast, Lisa insists we learn how to listen as the Bible tells its story in the way the Bible tells its story. This practice requires a skilled guide along the journey, and Lisa points the way. Through careful listening to “God’s Big Story,” Creator’s intention becomes clear: shalom relationships with God (chapter 4), with self (chapter 5), between the genders (chapter 6), with creation (chapter 7).
“At its heart, the biblical conception of shalom is about God’s vision for the emphatic goodness of all relationships.” (p. 15)
But as we all know from personal experience, the world we live in is not permeated with shalom. Every person encounters a variety of personal, interpersonal, intercultural, international, and systemic disruptions of God’s shalom. Lisa is no stranger to such uninvited invasions that inflict unspeakable pain. Throughout the book, she vulnerably intertwines her own stories of personal violation and tragedy with the biblical story. It is this intersection of biblical theology with Lisa’s own life which makes the book read and feel like a series of conversations with a trusted friend as the relational bond deepens.
But the book contains far more than just Lisa’s own story. She also takes up the pervasive challenges to shalom in broken families (chapter 8), and between races (chapter 9) and nations (chapter 10). From Bosnia to Ferguson Lisa draws upon her vast experience with tragedy all over the world. Listening to her narratives, the reader is transported to a beautiful field covered with sunflowers but still unsafe to walk in because of landmines buried there decades ago. She takes us to the streets of Ferguson, right into the midst of the conversations with the courageous protestors who prophetically spoke against this nation’s propensity to accept centuries of racism that dehumanizes others and justifies their killings in the name of “law and order.” “No more,” they say, “because ‘Black Lives Matter!’”
Lisa’s skillful and sensitive descriptions of these life-changing encounters invite us into personal reflection about how the intersection of biblical shalom, the broken conditions of our world, and our own spiritual commitments intersect. Each chapter concludes with a set of exercises intended to prompt personal and communal reflection on what it will take to live toward God’s shalom in our fractured world.
This book tenaciously raises the all-important personal, theological and practical issue, “What exactly was Jesus’s ‘good news’?” (p. 6) The answers to this question carry the promise to transform personal lives, kindle prophetic imagination, and inspire courageous witness. The issue before us is whether we will take the time to sit down with Lisa for a long conversation. Make sure you have plenty of coffee, because this dialogue can last a lifetime. You will be challenged in ways you cannot imagine right now, as together we seek God’s shalom, empowered by the great hope grounded in Jesus that “everything wrong can be made right.” May it be so!