Lisa Sharon Harper is the founder and president of FreedomRoad.us, a popular speaker, and a writer for Sojourners. Her book The Very Good Gospel is an attempt to reassert a fully-orbed, biblical gospel that stands in contrast to the “thin” versions that arose from the modernist-fundamentalist split of the early 20th-century. Unfortunately, Harper’s “thick” gospel seems to rely more heavily on the concerns of 21st century progressive evangelicalism than on the concerns of the biblical text.
Harper’s book does contain some important insights that conservative evangelicals should affirm. For example, Harper rightly laments a Christianity that is so individualized that it can comfortably coexist with chattel slavery, racism, and injustice. Citing David Bebbington, she insists that evangelicals should recognize that “doctrines must transform the way we live. Our faith is kinetic, lived out in the world through our hands and feet” (p. 7). She criticizes a gospel that “falls mute when facing people who need good news the most -the impoverished, the oppressed, and the broken” (p. 14). Similarly, the ‘shalom’ that God desires is about more than just a restored relationship with God; it also includes a restored relationship with other people and human flourishing across all areas of life. Evangelicals should readily agree with these statements.
However, the book’s main problem is its tendency to focus exclusively on “progressive” themes and applications of biblical teaching while minimizing or ignoring more “conservative” themes. For example, when Harper speaks about the consequences of the Fall, she writes: “God earnestly says, ‘… I want you to know a lush and lavish world, … a world without human exploitation and slavery, without droughts, without broken families, without domestic violence, without eating disorders, without rape, without war, without glass ceilings, ethnic enmity, and structural racism, nationalism, and other-ism.’ (p. 45) Or: “To choose the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil – which results in greed, consumption, exploitation, nationalism, misogyny, and other-ism- is to become an enemy of God’s purposes in our world.” (p. 47).” Or: “[the fruit of sin] is self-hatred..rejection..shame, isolation, and chemical dependence…misogyny and patriarchy..toxic dumping and climate change… violence and neglect… nationalism.” (p. 60) Or: “Shame, eating disorders, gender-based violence, climate change, shattered families, racism, oppression, war, and death itself all are natural consequences of humanity’s small and monumental choices to reach for peace in their own way” (p. 196)
While these lists of evils aren’t necessarily incorrect, they’re notably unbalanced. For example, in her entire book, Harper never mentions abortion, which is a pervasive, global sin that surely deserves a mention alongside “eating disorders” or “glass ceilings.” Similarly, the only mention of LGBTQ issues is found in this passage, where Harper admonishes Christians for failing to love LGBTQ individuals:
Regardless of what one thinks of LGBTQ relationships, the US Supreme Court’s five-to-four ruling in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges has legalized a new family structure across the country. Still, men, women, and transgendered people face the same separation from families and faith communities that they faced before the high court ruling… the single greatest sin of the church against LGBTQ people is the lack of recognition of the image of God within them… Will Jesus followers rise above theoretical arguments and political wrangling to love their LGBTQ daughters, sons, mothers, fathers, aunties, uncles, and fellow parishioners? It is the lack of love -and the separation that results- that cuts deepest for many in the LGBTQ community” (p. 131)
The overwhelming impression given by passages like these is that the Bible’s view of sin is in close alignment with 21st-century secular progressivism when, in reality, a biblical view of sin will challenge both secular progressives and secular conservatives.
A second problem is the book’s questionable exegesis. The most glaring example is related to issues of gender, one of Harper’s major concerns. In Chapter 6, “Shalom Between Genders,” Harper devotes substantial space to debunking “patriarchal biblical interpretation” (p. 86) by showing that there was no “male dominance” prior to the Fall. (p. 87). Yet she does so by arguing that adam in Gen. 1-2 was not gendered:
Adam is not the man’s name [in Gen. 2]. It is the Hebrew word for human being, not man or male. The text tells us that rather than creating a man first, God created a human being who, in the beginning, had no distinct gender. God saw this gender-neutral human’s need for companionship and provided the answer to that need. (p. 84)
contrary to popular belief, females were not taken from the rib of a male (p. 84)
God caused the human to fall into a deep sleep. As in Genesis 1, God separated one from the other. This time God separated male from female. God took a rib from adam, the human, and for the first time in the text, gender specific language describes humanity. (p. 85)
It’s hard to overstate how flawed this argument is. For one, if adam should be understood to refer to “a gender-neutral human,” it’s unclear why the text continues to refer to the man as adam even after the woman is created: “Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man [adam], and he brought her to the man [adam]. The man [adam] said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man…Adam [adam] and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.” – Gen. 2:22-25. See also Gen. 3:8, 3:12, 3:20, 3:22, etc…
But second, Paul clearly understood the Gen. 2 creation account to refer to Eve being formed from Adam: “For man was not made from woman, but woman from man.” (1 Cor. 11:8) “For Adam was formed first, then Eve” (1 Ti. 2:14). In both passages, Paul goes on to make statements about gender roles based on this reading of Gen. 2. I don’t know how it’s possible to accept Harper’s claim while still affirming that Paul’s claims in these two verses are true.
What I find most troubling about Harper’s argument is that it doesn’t even mention these difficulties. Perhaps she (rightly) assumes that many evangelicals are unfamiliar enough with the Bible that they won’t be aware of the contradiction. But, regardless, she should alert readers that these problems exist and that adopting her view will have serious implications for our view of biblical inspiration.
Harper’s readings suffer from other difficulties including a reliance on higher criticism (“The Genesis 2 writer is known as the Yahwist”, p. 40), questionable word analysis (“Radah is not a call to exercise imperial power”, p. 28), and a tendency toward anachronism (“[In Acts 2:1-13], God was indicting imperial rule”, p. 143), but her misreading of Gen. 2 and gender stands out as the most obvious example.
Finally, if modern evangelicalism (arguably) suffers from an over-emphasis on the vertical aspects of salvation (reconciliation between God and man) over the horizontal aspects of salvation (reconciliation between man and man), The Very Good Gospel suffers from the opposite failing. In particular, virtually nothing is said about God’s holiness, his justice, the offensiveness of sin, or his wrath against it. God is portrayed as a loving Father but not a righteous Judge. In reality, God is both and the glory of the gospel is in how such a God can be both just and justifier of those who trust in Jesus.
Overall, I would not recommend this book either as an explanation of the biblical gospel or even as a corrective to pietistic understandings of ‘salvation’ as a purely individual event. While it is indeed important for Christians to strive for a biblical view of salvation and its implications, Harper’s book does not provide one.