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The ‘Very Good Gospel’ of Shalom

Lisa Sharon Harper, courtesy DeChant-Hughes Assoc Inc. Public Relations.

Last week I offered a post about the York Mystery Plays that I had witnessed during travels in England. That particular rendering of the grand biblical narrative featured heavy emphasis on a pre-Creation angelic rebellion, Satan as a constant antagonist to God and humans, an uncomfortable focus on Jewish high priests conspiring to get Jesus killed, the details of his brutal suffering on the Cross for the redemption of sinners, and a final apocalyptic judgment separating the saved and the damned.

I asked whether this is still the Big Story Christians believe and tell. I asked whether there are alternative versions of the grand Christian Story that are equally (or more) defensible based on biblical sources.

These questions are related to some of my broader musings in recent months about the profound differences emerging between conservative and progressive evangelicals. I have suggested that stark ethical differences between these camps may be rooted in very different understandings of the core Christian theological message, or “Gospel” (“good news”).

Let me expand on that a bit here.

Recent years have seen the widespread (re)emergence of an account of the Christian Gospel centering on the reign, or kingdom, of God, which Jesus so often spoke about, and its characteristic qualities, such as justice, healing, and peace. These accounts have been especially popular on the progressive evangelical side, and among post-evangelicals.

My own co-authored ethics textbook, Kingdom Ethics, with the late Glen Stassen, now just out with Eerdmans in a second edition, offers one effort at articulating such an understanding of the Gospel, with its far-reaching moral implications.

A particularly winsome new rendering of this type of Gospel account is found in Lisa Sharon Harper’s book, The Very Good Gospel, just out from WaterBrook Press. Harper is a leading progressive evangelical activist, organizer, writer, and speaker who works as chief church engagement officer at Sojourners, in Washington. She is a rising star, a portent of a better future for American evangelicalism.

Harper’s account of the Gospel in her new book is shalom-based. Drawing deeply from a theme that runs through the Bible but is especially strong in the Hebrew prophets, Harper tells a story of a God who acts in Jesus Christ to bring shalom, or holistic peace and justice, in every part of creation. God wants shalom between men and women, shalom for the poor and abused, shalom in family life. God wants shalom across racial lines, between nations, in creation itself, within the tormented human heart, and between humans and God. God is a God of life, bringing life out of death and being for life, its dignity and flourishing. God is for shalom.

Harper writes that “Shalom is what the 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.”

Let’s do a bit of compare/contrast between the two Gospels I have outlined with the help of York and Harper.

  • York’s Gospel, which we can take as a medieval Catholic rendering of a personal salvation Gospel, focuses on the fall of humans into rebellion against God, with the threatened punishment of eternal damnation. Jesus comes to save individuals from eternal punishment, and his death on the Cross is the decisive act in salvation. Creation is the context in which the human salvation drama is acted out, but is not itself part of the redemption drama. Angels and demons play a mysterious but important role; they come from the world above and the world beneath, and human choices (or inscrutable Divine Will) determine which direction humans will go when they die, which is the main issue in human existence.
  • Harper’s Gospel focuses on all aspects of brokenness in the good world God made. The entirety of salvation history, including God’s covenant with the Jewish people as well as the mission of God incarnate in Jesus Christ, reflects God’s intent to renew creation, including but not limited to human beings. Jesus’ teachings matter, and not just his death, because his teachings, in continuity with the Law and the Prophets, teach the way of shalom, which is the content of God’s reign. The main point of the Christian Story is not to get individuals saved from eternal damnation, but to get God’s creation restored to the goodness God originally intended. Ethical concerns, such as justice and peace, are not secondary to the Gospel, but are part of the very content of the Gospel message.

I know which version of the Christian Story makes the most sense to me. What about you?

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David Gushee

3 Comments

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  • I subscribe to the Harper version. In this case Jesus’ death isn’t so much a sacrifice for the sin of the world as it is a simple consequence of the world’s corruption. Thus, in order to bring the message himself, he had to be born and all things born must die. The various atonment theories the Church has offered down through the centuries have become less and less effective in explaining God’s efforts to restore creation.

  • I agree with Harper and Tom. Jesus as sacrifice for human sin was not emphasized until after Christianity became the state religion of Rome, thanks to Monica’s little boy, Constantine. A loving and welcoming god did not function well for political manipulation, hence – Sacrificial Atonement!

    Extensive research has been done of the first millennium faith. Imagery is sharply different from the grim crosses, emphasis on suffering and silly Mel Gibson movies we see today. The ancient churches in Turkey and the Mesopotamian region show pastoral images, the lamb with a limb around an empty cross, flowers, birds, flowing streams.

    Such images are very difficult to find now because most have been painted or frescoed over to bloody and dark pictures. However, one of the best books on the topic is _Saving Paradise_ by Rebecca Ann Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock. (Amazon, https://goo.gl/0Jkugq) They investigated most of the oldest churches throughout the area. Their research is impeccable.

    I saw one of the earliest images on an embroidered church linen from the 4th century CE. It hangs in the Minneapolis Institute of Art. It’s a beautiful and serene pastoral image on a white background.

    It’s good to see Christianity returning to its roots. Most mainline denominations are well along in the process. It’s good to see progressive evangelicals doing the same. I don’t hold out a great deal of hope for the RCC because fear is such an effective tool for control.

  • A very good article,that I believe is the right path in understanding Jesus.I have felt for some time now that Jesus being human had developed a strong understanding of God and had turned his life to God with obedience and faith. Christianity wanted a God in Jesus,believing that this would be the only way that people would follow this new religion.The reality, is the religion would be more acceptable to the masses,if we understood that Jesus was human(totally) and we all could be like him.

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