An Interview with Lisa Sharon Harper

Lisa Sharon and I have known each other for nearly twenty years. I’m a big fan of her new book, The Very Good Gospel. Here’s our interview about the book.

How would you sum up the gospel as you used to understand it?

That’s simple—and that’s the problem. My understanding was shaped by the Four Spiritual Laws, a little gold tract created in the mid-20th century to help win the masses to Jesus.
· Law One. God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.
· Law Two. Man is sinful and therefore separated from God and cannot know and experience God’s love and plan for his life.
· Law Three. Jesus Christ died to pay the penalty for man’s sin.
· Law Four. If you individually receive Jesus Christ as your savior and Lord, then you can know and experience God’s love and plan for your life.

What changed in your understanding of the gospel?

I took a pilgrimage that challenged that simple understanding of the Gospel to the core. I traveled across 10 southern states over four weeks in one bus with 25 other campus ministry staff members. We retraced the Cherokee Trail of Tears and the African experience on American soil from slavery to Civil Rights.
I came out of the journey asking one fundamental question. Could I share the Four Spiritual Laws with my own ancestors who walked the Trail of Tears, according to family oral history, or with my ancestors who were enslaved in South Carolina? If I shared my understanding of the gospel with them, would it lead them to jump and shout with joy thanking me for giving them good news? When I considered that question I was struck by a more damning question? What exactly does my understanding of the gospel have to say to their reality? I thought about this for the entire summer. In the end, I had to face the fact: My gospel was mute in the face of the evil my own ancestors encountered.
Eventually I came to terms with a brutal truth: If my gospel is not good news to the people who need good news the most, then maybe it isn’t good news at all. Or at the very least, it isn’t good enough. This sent me on a 13 year journey to investigate the biblical concept of shalom, what it has to do with the good news of the gospel, and how that impacts our daily lives and public ethics.
At its core, what changed was my understanding of perfection and sin. Through deep study of Genesis 1-14 I came to understand that God declared what very goodness (the closest thing the ancient Hebrews had to our current-day Greek-inspired concept of “perfection”). Genesis 1:31 God looks around and declares all of creation “very good.” But that word “good” (tov) isn’t necessarily referring to the thing itself. The Hebrews would have understood tov to exist between things. And the word “good” (me’od) can be translated forceful, abundant, emphatic, and overwhelming! So, what God is actually saying when God looks around is that the relationships between things are forcefully, abundantly, emphatically, overwhelmingly good! The relationship between humanity and God, humanity’s relationship with self, the relationship between men and women, the relationship between humanity and the rest of creation, the relationship between all of creation and the systems that govern us—the way things work. Things worked to bless all and curse none. This is what God calls perfection; the web of relationships we were created for, all very good!
If this is what God considers perfection, then what is sin? Sin is not being imperfect. Sin is anything that breaks any of the relationships God declared very good! If sin breaks these relationships, what strengths them? What is the essence of right relatedness? I’ve come to understand right relatedness as a concept biblically grounded in Genesis 1:26-27. It is the honoring of the image of God in all humanity—every single human on earth. It is the renouncing of the lies the world tells us that some people are created with more of the image of God than others—more call and capacity to exercise dominion than others—more call and capacity to steward the world—that is the core spiritual lie of our age. The Gospel comes against that lie. Jesus came against that lie. And right relatedness requires that we sit in the reality that we are made in the likeness of God, but we are not God. So, while we are called to exercise dominion, human dominion must bow to God and reflect God’s kind of dominion—dominion fundamentally characterized by love, service, and provision for all creation.

What difference would it make in our typical churches – Evangelical, mainline, Catholic – if people rethought the gospel along the lines of your book?

Many of our churches would find that the very core of the message of our Christian faith would suddenly become relevant in both the private and public worlds of parishioners. The gospel itself would speak directly to the souls of ones suffering under the tyranny of shame and disconnection. With the same power that gospel would speak against the public, structural tyrannies of racism, sexism, colonialism, imperialism, and consumerism. For, at the heart of the gospel is Jesus—the one who came to restore the very goodness of all the relationships God created in the beginning, the one who came to restore the inherent dignity possessed by all who bare the image of God on earth. Jesus faced down death and won the battle. Now he invites us all to be healed and to become healers of a world hell-bent on crushing the image of God on earth—a world governed by the kingdoms of men—not the Kingdom of God—not the kin-dom of God.
Congregations would join in the task of restoring the rule of God in their midst and they would start by recognizing the fullness of the image of God in each other, in their neighbors, in the other. And they would become bastions of grace, not shame; healing, not gossip and strife. And they would lead the revolution toward the restoration of the very goodness of all relationships in the world. I’m not saying we would achieve it in our lifetimes or even in the next millennia. What I’m saying is our churches would find their purpose and they would be set free.

What was one thing that troubled, surprised, encouraged, or otherwise struck you as you wrote the book?

In the middle of writing Chapter 2, I had a moment when I broke into worship. While reflecting on research on the origins of Genesis 1, I realized the writers were a company of priests coming out of 70 years of enslavement in Babylon. The Hebrews creation story was similar to the Babylonian creation story, Enuma Elish, in some critical ways. But some key things were different, as well.
In Enuma Elish, the River is full of conniving gods who war against each other for supremacy. Marduk rises up to challenge Tiamat, who has created 11 monsters to help her win the battle. Marduk strikes a bargain with the other gods. If he prevails, then he gets to reign supreme. He wins.
Much like the River in Enuma Elish, the deep in Genesis is full of agony, but in this story there are no smaller gods: There is only the one God, Elohim. Is it possible to see “the deep” serving as a kind of double entendre, one phrase with two meanings: both a place of agony and a symbol of Babylonian oppression? The earth is a vacuous desolation. It is a surging mass of water surrounded on all sides by misery, destruction, death, sorrow.
Then, action!
The wind, the breath, the violent exhalation of God moves over this surging mass of misery. The word for “move” (rachaph) literally means to brood, as a hen broods over her eggs. It is as if God’s spirit—ruwach, a feminine noun in Hebrew—positions herself to confront the misery and destruction, to confront the sorrow and wickedness. She broods over it as if she is about to do battle with the darkness and her strategy for engagement … is birth—new life.
Then Elohim, the supreme God speaks: “Let there be light!” (Gen 1:3) And light is born! “And Elohim saw that the light was good.” The voice and command of God births light. There is clarity. There is happiness. God speaks and goodness is birthed from a cesspool of despair!
This is our human context. We are surrounded by the stuff of darkness. It weaves destruction into our lives and our world and it is utterly painful.
But God! God cuts the darkness. God intervened and lifted the Hebrews’ oppression. God intervenes.
I wept.

I especially recommend The Very Good Gospel to folks from an Evangelical background. You’ll find ordering info here.