Reconstructing the Gospel or Obscuring It? A Review of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s “Reconstructing the Gospel”

When I first began reading Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion, I knew nothing about Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s background, reconstructingthegospelso I was surprised when he began telling the story of a free Christmas concert held by a local church at the Durham Performing Arts Center a few years ago. “That’s my church,” I thought. “I was there. I even remember the rendition of The Little Drummer Boy that he mentions.”

Unfortunately, it’s at this point that our experiences diverge dramatically. I recall my pastor delivering a sermon rooted in the gospel message of sin and redemption, our need and God’s grace, the darkness of the world and the hope we have in Christ. In contrast? In a chapter entitled “Christmas on the Plantation,” Wilson-Hartgrove writes that when he saw our “white, middle-aged” pastor appear with a Bible in his hand, he wished he could have “made a beeline for the exit” (p. 10). He continues: “I stayed to hear about how the angels who sang when Jesus was born in Bethlehem were proclaiming the ‘good news’ that Buddha and Muhammad are dead but Jesus is alive. I listened once more to the neat little syllogism in which Jesus is the logical conclusion to a set of propositions that are assumed to be self-evident. I cringed as the earnest man who’d gone to such pains to dress himself in hipster fashion casually smiled his best smile and invited us to celebrate his message that we were all going straight to hell if we didn’t align our understanding of the world with his” (p. 10).   The message made him feel like he was “going to throw up” and “knocked the Christmas spirit right out of [him]” (p. 11).

What precisely was the problem with my pastor’s sermon? That’s the crux of Wilson-Hartgrove’s book and a message that he repeats incessantly: “Slaveholder religion has infected every corner of the church in America – including the black church” (p. 3), “Christianity in America has … turned the gospel against itself, tearing in two the people who adopted this form of religion without letting its truth change their lives,” (p. 16) “We are all subject to the lie of slaveholder religion,” (p. 81) “The church is broken by slaveholder religion” (p. 87), “we miss the basic message of the gospel” (p. 91). And on it goes.

Before continuing, think about how serious these charges are, especially for those of us who are grieved by America’s racist history and who long to see Christians display their fundamental unity in Christ. Wilson-Hartgrove believes that the American church has lost the gospel; indeed, that it has never really had the gospel. Based on that assessment, I expected the rest of the book to contain a clear analysis of what the true gospel is and the ways in which we have distorted it. That’s not what I found. Instead, the book was a stream-of-consciousness blend of ringing diatribes against our country’s sordid racial history, heartfelt paeans to the black freedom struggle, and personal reminiscences. As a compelling bit of writing, it works. As a reasoned argument, it doesn’t.

What is the gospel?

If large segments of America are captive to a false gospel, then what exactly is the true gospel? I combed through the book to find the answer to this question. These passages represent the closest approximation to an answer that I could find:

“The ‘good news’ Jesus proclaims is euangelion in the Greek – the root of our word evangelical. And it is, from the very beginning of his ministry, good news to the poor. I don’t know a gospel that doesn’t challenge the injustice of poverty” (p. 2)

“I reread the Scriptures after watching Black Lives Matter illuminate the gospel for young black men in Walltown” (p. 40)

“There is no way to preach the gospel without proclaiming that the unjust systems of this world must give way to the reign of a new King” (p. 102)

“Black social Christianity has always noted the political call of the gospel, even as that call has been interpreted and practiced in markedly different ways” (p. 132)

From these statements, we can gather that Wilson-Hartgrove thinks that the gospel challenges poverty, can be illuminated by Black Lives Matter, and necessitates the proclamation of coming justice and political action. But what exactly does he think the gospel is? It’s not clear.

How has the gospel been corrupted?

If Wilson-Hartgrove doesn’t spell out precisely what he thinks the gospel is, perhaps we can infer its nature from his comments about how it has been corrupted by “slave-holder religion”:

“In America, racial politics has always been ‘Christian’ – has always cloaked itself in the language of redemption and morality. Co-opting the poor refugee Christ to defend white supremacy, we have crucified him on a gilded cross, turning our most revolutionary symbol of our movement into a talisman to finger when we’re anxious… In all of this, we miss the basic message of the gospel and the wisdom of untold millions who’ve shown us a better way.” (p. 91)

“Because his so-called gospel prioritized the eternal security of souls above the temporal living conditions of bodies, Stringfellow simply could not see the inherent connection between bodies and souls.” (p. 67)

the gospel of white evangelicals hasn’t interrupted our racial habits; it has reinforced them” (p. 79)

a gospel that does not interrupt [our racial habits] perpetuates a church that is broken by sin” (p. 81)

Unfortunately, these quotes also offer minimal guidance. Throughout the book, Wilson-Hartgrove explicitly condemns the way in which slave-holders appealed to the Bible to justify slavery or segregation. My response is “Yes, and Amen.” But these doctrines can’t be what he has in mind when he insists that the overwhelming majority of modern Christians are still practicing “slaveholder religion.” How many churches still teach that Blacks are under the ‘curse of Ham’ or that segregation is justified or that racism is good and permissible?

Conversely, if he believes that we are often inconsistent and that our behavior often falls short of our beliefs, this observation is true but fairly trivial. Such a discrepancy, which is present to some degree in every church and in every human heart, doesn’t seem to rise to the level of having a corrupted gospel or a false religion.

If the spiritual state of the church is as dire as Wilson-Hartgrove suggests, why not explain exactly why? And even if we accept that American Christianity was corrupted at its inception by racism and slavery, is there any reason to think that the doctrines of the Reformation or the creeds of the early Church are similarly infected?  Why isn’t he simply urging us to return to these earlier formulations of Christianity? Most importantly, why not show white evangelicals their error using Scripture so that they can repent and believe the true gospel (whatever it is)?

What is our problem and how do we fix it?

To see why Wilson-Hartgrove leaves these questions unanswered, it helps to understand his conception of ‘whiteness’ and ‘racial blindness.’ Citing the work of critical race theorists like Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Robin DiAngelo, Wilson-Hartgrove understands ‘whiteness’ as far more than a reference to one’s skin color or ancestry. Instead, he sees ‘whiteness’ as inextricably linked to white supremacy, racism, and cultural superiority. To be ‘white’ is to be racially blind and in need of healing:my problem as a white man was that I didn’t know how to live in skin. This was the poverty of my so-called privilege, what kept me from seeing the fullness of the gospel’s power for my own life” (p. 60), “[Implicit bias] was the patterns of whiteness I simply had not noticed… Racial blindness was in my DNA” (p. 65), “Many white people would rather do something to address the symptoms we can see than acknowledge our original sin. Racism isn’t only a part of who we’ve been. It is, in ways we don’t even comprehend, who we are. It has cut to our very core, severing soul from body. Which is to say, if we are honest with ourselves, we carry the wounds of white supremacy in our bodies” (p. 70). “White people suffer from a malady [called] ‘shriveled-heart syndrome.’ It is rooted in the experience of white people enslaving black people.” (p. 161)

How, then, can white people be healed of the ‘wounds of white supremacy’? By being born again. In several places, Wilson-Hartgrove interprets Jesus’ healing miracles to be pictures of whites being healed of their racial blindness. For example, in his chapter on “Racial Blindness,” he writes that Bartimaeus’ desire to receive his sight in Mark 10 may be “the most damning of slaveholder religion and its habits, which have been passed down to us. If we are honest to God and ourselves, we have not wanted to see” (p. 54). Referencing Jesus’ healing in Mark 8, he writes that “Not only do we [whites] not know how to live in skin, we’re often not clear about what it means to live in the world… everyone looks ‘like trees walking around'” (p. 67). White people are compared to the demon-possessed boy in Mark 9: “for all our education and therapy we [white people] rarely get to the root of our trouble with living in skin. When desperation leads us to Jesus, we cannot help but ask, like the desperate father, ‘But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.'” (p. 71)

Perhaps the clearest illustration of the connection Wilson-Hartgrove makes between whiteness and blindness is found in the comparison of white people to Nicodemus, who comes to Jesus at night in John 3. Because this passage is so important, I’ll quote it at length:

Nicodemus was like a white man. Whiteness shines through the first words Nicodemus says to Jesus… Here is a brother who has been brought up to assume that he understands how the world works and knows what is good and true… our Lord looks at him and loves him. But Jesus also knows that white men can’t be saved until we face the fact that we do not know what we are doing. So Jesus tells Nicodemus, ‘You must be born again’ (John 4:7). This story, which was so central to white evangelicalism in the twentieth century, has been spiritualized to the point that it’s nearly impossible to read afresh. And yet, as a white man who came to the black-led freedom movement under the cover of night, I can feel in my bones how much I need both the hospitality and the radical challenge of Jesus” (p. 118).

In light of these passages, the puzzling absence of an appeal to Scripture or to theology makes more sense. The white evangelical’s main problem isn’t doctrinal or even behavioral. His problem is that he is tainted by original sin (racism). Consequently, he is dead in sin (racially blind) and must be born again (woke). He can’t achieve this experience through knowledge of effort, but must receive it by the penitent recognition of his own blindness. Wilson-Hartgrove doesn’t primarily appeal to Scripture or to reason because what white people need is not exegesis or a rational argument, but an encounter with Jesus to heal their racism.

Analysis: what should we think?

While many secular commentators have noticed the striking parallels between religion and the modern anti-racist/intersectionality movements, this is the first time I’ve seen a book from a professing Christian who so clearly adopts the same paradigm. To be honest, I find it even more troubling. When a non-Christian expresses a desire for a grand metanarrative, a story that tells him his place in the world, that explains the origin of evil, that gives him purpose and meaning, and that offers him redemption, we can sympathize with him. We can show him how his deepest longings point to God’s true story of reality, as revealed in the Bible. All along, what he needed was a right-standing before God. He may have tried to attain that right-standing through moral effort, or though achievement, or through social justice advocacy, or through a myriad of other mechanisms. But God offers that right-standing freely, as a gift, to all who trust in Jesus.

In contrast, instead of showing how our feelings of shame and our need for redemption are ultimately fulfilled in Christ, Wilson-Hartgrove repackages the stories of Christianity to all point back to racism and social justice. Being “born again” is not a metaphor for spiritual regeneration, but for the emergence of a liberatory consciousness. “Blindness” is about racial insensitivity, not our hard-heartedness towards God. The gospel is not primarily about sinners being reconciled to a good, holy, and loving Creator. Indeed, it’s not really clear what the gospel is and that’s not overly important. What matters -according to Wilson-Hartgrove- is that we practice fusion politics, fight systemic injustice, and build community.

Although Wilson-Hartgrove promises to reconstruct the gospel, in the end, he obscures it. I commend him for his passion for racial unity and his desire to fight injustice. But his “reconstruction” of the gospel is not the solution. To Christians who long for justice and the healing of racial wounds, let me plead with you: this is not the way.

It is the gospel and only the gospel that is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe, the gospel of the Son of God crucified in my place and raised from the dead for my justification. That good news is what transforms us into people who passionately desire to worship the God who saved them, to seek justice, and to love mercy.

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