The Hole in Our Gospel: Review
A few months ago I was snooping around in a bookstore somewhere and I noticed a book called The Hole in Our Gospel. It had an interesting picture on the cover and a provocative title, so I looked on the back cover. The author was a man named Richard Stearns who, I learned, was the president of World Vision, USA.
I put the book back and walked away. I figured it was just another book about some high profile American who had “discovered” that being concerned about social issues such as world hunger and disease were a part of what it meant to follow Jesus. Just another bigwig evangelical superstar-type who had come to the realization that the gospel was bigger than believing the correct things about God. All well and good, I supposed, but not terribly interesting.
Fast-forward a few months and I am snooping through Booksneeze’s available options for reviewing and I see the book again. I didn’t see too many options that interested me at the time, so I decided to give Stearns’s book a try. After all, it was free, right? It had to be at least mildly interesting to read this guy’s story. I requested the book, not expecting much.
Turns out, the book was pretty much what I expected it to be, content-wise. Except that it was interesting. And moving. And convicting. It was just what I needed to read.
The Hole in Our Gospel is a simple book with a simple message. The church has embraced a gospel that is too small, a gospel with a gaping hole in the middle that is our collective neglect of the poor and the marginalized. We have reduced the good news of Jesus Christ to a “personal transaction with God, with little power to change anything outside our own hearts.” The gospel that was first announced as “good news to the poor” (Luke 4:14-21) has too often been anything but. We have, as one of the quotes that begin each chapter says, “shrunk Jesus to the size where He can save our soul but now don’t believe He can change the world.”
The structure of the book is fairly straightforward. Stearns begins in parts one and two with describing his own personal journey toward realizing that care for the poor was part of the gospel. He then gives us a lay of the land globally in part three. An arsenal of statistics, stories, and studies is marshaled to give readers an idea of just how dire the situation is for the world’s poor. Part four is an indictment of the church. Stearns is fairly blunt about how little we actually do for the poor as Christ’s body in the modern West (one of the chapters is called “Two percent of Two Percent” to highlight just how little of our income we actually give to world relief). Finally, Stearns closes the book with a call to action. Part five provides a whole list of practical ways to get started, from where to give to what to do to what to read, once we become aware of the scope of the need and our mandate as Jesus’ followers to be a part of the solution.
Despite all of the statistics and data, this book is an intensely personal one for Stearns. The hole in our gospel began with a realization of the hole in his gospel. There is a good deal of biography in this book, with Stearns narrating his own rise from a relatively poor upbringing through a college education, into the business world to becoming a well-paid CEO at a large American company, and, ultimately, to walking away from a lucrative job and a comfortable life, to become the president of World Vision USA. The book is, in many ways, the story of Stearns’s own spiritual and social awakening and this is part of what makes it so compelling.
It is Stearns’s honesty and transparency, perhaps, that makes the book so engaging. At one point he remarks that even as President of World Vision, he continues to “struggle with the consistency of my compassion and commitment to those suffering in dire circumstances. I have to work hard at maintaining a tender heart and letting my heart continue to get ‘broken by the things that break the heart of God.'” This is not abstract theology or social theory but the story of a life of discipleship that invites personal reflection.
Six years ago, I was nearing the end of a period of contemplating what the future held, wondering if I should pursue formal studies, etc. I had never studied at a post-secondary level but was reasonably sure I could do it. I was also reasonably confident that my interests and gifts would be better suited to an academic context than the job that I was doing at the time.
One of the things that held me back whenever I contemplated going back to school was anxiety about whether it was an appropriate use of the resources God had entrusted me with. I remember having conversations with folks where I said things like, “But how can I justify spending tens of thousands of dollars on an education when there are children starving in Africa?” “What right do I have to complain about my job when around the world people have to do all kinds of physically demanding, even demeaning and dehumanizing work?” I was well aware of my privileged position in the grand scheme of things, and it made me uneasy to think that I was somehow assuming that I deserved better.
Obviously, I managed to convince myself that my education was morally permissible. But the whole wrestling process came back to me as I read this book. One of the reasons, perhaps, is because we were sponsoring a couple of kids at the time, and when we went back to school this sponsorship stopped. Going back to school meant cutting costs—we had to sell our house and our car in the process of learning how to get through six years of post-secondary education with young children and almost no income for the majority of it. I told myself that it was acceptable, that the kids we sponsored were in their teens already and we were nearing the end of the sponsorship arrangement anyway. I told myself a lot of things, but at the end of the day a couple of kids across the world lost their support because of my decision to get an education.
I thought about this often as I paged through story after story from around the world about how lives are changed when the wealthy open their wallets and give of their time and resources. I thought about my own life and what my decisions about how I spend my time and money say about what I think is important. I thought about what I say and do in the community I serve and am a part of. What kind of a gospel do I preach? What kind of gospel do I live? The more I read, the more I began to wonder if the hole in our gospel was also a hole in my gospel.
The Hole in Our Gospel will not transport you to literary heights with its brilliantly elegant prose. It does not reveal to us a state of affairs of which we were previously unaware. It does not offer a comprehensive analysis of the myriad and complex causes of poverty and disease (although Stearns clearly understands the complexity of poverty, and is a strong advocate for such things as micro-loans as opposed to handouts). It ploughs no new exegetical ground in its handling of biblical texts. It is simply an honest, straightforward account of one man’s ongoing journey in trying to do what Jesus said, trying to love God and neighbour in a world where God’s will is so often not done, on earth as it is in heaven. And urging others to do the same.
We all know that if we live in the modern West we are among the wealthiest people in the world, and that huge numbers of the global population are forced to eke out an existence in conditions we can scarcely imagine. We all know that followers of Jesus are supposed to care for the poor, work against injustice, and bring light and help and healing into dark places. We know all of these things and more. We just don’t do much about it.
Which is why Richard Stearns wrote this very helpful and necessary book. What we know, as those who claim to follow Jesus, has to translate into what we do.