Over the past 15-20 years there has been increasing discussion about the meaning of the word ‘gospel’. At the top level most everyone can agree that the ‘Gospels’ are the four books that open the New Testament and the ‘Gospel’ is the message of Christianity. Gospel is derived from the Greek euangelion which means good news. Understanding what is, and is not, ‘the gospel’ matters, it isn’t just semantics.
I pushed back pretty hard against Matt Chandler’s The Explicit Gospel because he didn’t have an ending to what needed to be included in the gospel and while I affirm that we have to actually use words, the gospel does not require a belief in 7 day creation or male only understanding of the role of pastor to be the gospel.
Scot McKnight I think had a helpful corrective to the ‘gospel movement’ with King Jesus Gospel which refocuses the meaning of the gospel on Jesus Christ’s Lordship. NT Wright’s Simply Good News takes a similar approach focusing on Jesus as King and restorer.
But each of these authors batting around the term gospel seem to focus primarily on gospel as intellectual content. Allen Yeh in his chapter in Still Evangelical focuses the problem not on the meaning of the actual word gospel (or evangelical) but the bias toward orthodoxy without paying enough attention to orthodpraxy. This isn’t a new charge. Lesslie Newbigin in his 1986 Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture focuses on how the gospel has been rooted in the West in a particular view of culture and practice.
I could easily keep going on. I have 163 reviews at Bookwi.se that include the word gospel. The meaning of gospel or the focus of the gospel or the practice of the gospel matter because we believe that our Christianity matters. This is not a discussion that is going away and this is not a discussion that is solved by Johnathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s new book Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion.
Reconstructing the Gospel is playing on the title of the book The Third Reconstruction which Wilson-Hartgrove co-wrote with William Barber. Both of these books reference the historical period of Reconstruction which in popular historical understanding is a period of failed political intervention after the Civil War. Recent historians, like Eric Foner have been re-writing that popular understanding of Reconstruction for the past 20-30 years.
The Christian hiphop artist Propaganda created a firestorm with his song Precious Puritans in 2012. Propaganda suggested that something is missing from our gospel presentation when we point to historical Christian figures but miss the fact that many of these giants of the faith in the United States were slaveholders. Johnathan Edwards, often called the greatest theologian of North America, owned a slave.
Johnathan Wilson-Hartgrove recounts the last 20 or so years of discovering his faith and the holes in his faith because he had absorbed a Christianity that had blindspots toward injustice. Wilson-Hartgrove’s story is similar to stories of a number of people that I know. They knew that Jesus loves everyone. They knew that we can be saved by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. But when they actually started living with people that were poor they realized that something was missing.
Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, in their book Divided by Faith, talk about a ‘magic motif’ that is present in many people’s understanding of Christianity. Emerson and Smith found that when confronted about problems around racism many White Christians assumed that racism would be eliminated if enough people actually became Christians. There is an individualism in the assumptions brought up by the ‘magic motif’, an assumption that the problem isn’t systemic, but individual sin. Wilson-Hartgrove says clearly, “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.”
Reconstructing the Gospel isn’t just Wilson-Hargrove’s story, although his own discovery as an illustration of the weaknesses of Christianity in America is important. This is largely a historical book. It isn’t only that White Christians held slaves. It is that before, and after slavery, the problem is a Christianity that didn’t see slavery (or Jim Crow, or other injustice) as a problem.
Because Wilson-Hargrove lives in North Carolina he devotes more time to local history there. The first big movie in the US, The Birth of a Nation, an openly racist movie, was based on a book by a pastor in New York City. The Biblical Recorder, a Baptist Newspaper in North Carolina, encouraged people to go see it so that they could see an,
“Invisible Empire of defeated soldiers who in poverty and weakness by the might of right and courage of consecration to all that is holy, terrorized the aliens that had assumed to rule them, disarmed the black cohorts, struck down their white satraps, and drove out from the Temple of our Liberties the horde that had been put in possession of the holy of holies itself.”
The myth of the Lost Cause that was celebrated in The Birth of a Nation was a reimagining of the Reconstruction period. That gospel of the Lost Cause infected the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The corrective to the gospel of the Lost Cause was the message Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited and others. Thurman and others, primarily minority Christians that understood the blindspots of the gospel, have been calling attention to those weaknesses for generations.
Wilson-Hartgrove references Martin Luther King Jr’s (strongly influenced by Howard Thurman) focus at the 1968 Poor People’s campaign. The point of that campaign was to:
“dramatize for the nation the divide between rich and poor, the story of Lazarus and Dives became a parable that spoke to the soul of America. Dives didn’t go to hell, King began to say, because he was rich. He went to hell because he could not see his neighbor, Lazarus. Dives went to hell because he was blinded by so-called privilege. And America, too, would go to hell, unless she made a concerted effort to correct the systemic economic injustice created by generations of stolen labor.”
The second half of Reconstructing the Gospel is about how Wilson-Hartgrove has relearned what the gospel is about. And it is going to be a message that will be resisted because it isn’t a simple ‘have a better understanding of the gospel’. The way that the gospel is reconstructed is by spending years living with and learning from those that are poor and those that have been ‘disinherited’ and those that have been doing the work of the gospel for decades. That work is slow because the discovery of blindspots is slow.
This isn’t a straight line growth model. Because we are human. The opening of the book is a relatively recent story and Wilson-Hartgrove has been living among and learning from the poor for decades at this point. He hasn’t learned all there is to learn. His understanding of the gospel hasn’t ‘been fixed’. He will continue, like all of us, to have blindspots.
I have been on a journey to open my eyes to my blindspots around race for years. And I can see many of the ones I used to have, but the very nature of a blindspot means that I have not identified those that I have not yet identified. I was frequently frustrated by reading Reconstructing the Gospel. I want a quicker solution. I am afraid of the indictment that is presented here. I do not want to lose the historical church in the process of cleaning up my understanding of the gospel. But Propaganda was right. If our understanding of the Puritans (or anyone else) is more precious than the gospel, or more precious than the people around us that are in need of the whole gospel, then there is a problem.
Reconstructing the Gospel is not a negative book. The stories of individuals and churches, especially the stories at the end of the book are hopeful. Some really do get it. And there is hope for me and other readers if we are willing to keep pushing. But it is not going to be easy to remove the stain of sin from our understanding of the gospel.