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.
I received a copy of The Hole in Our Gospel courtesy of Booksneeze’s review program.
Re: “The gospel that was first announced as “good news to the poor” (Luke 4:14-21) has too often been anything but.”
In its historical context the word “poor” referred to the people of Judah in Palestine or still living in exile in the first century. In the Psalms even a king can refer to himself as “poor.” It is not that it had a purely spiritual meaning then, but it did not have the association with general or relative poverty that it has now. It was not understood economically in the way it is now. It was primarily understood as a posture relative to God.
The gospel message was that the old world was ending and the Kingdom of God was at hand. That was not a metaphorical way of calling people to emphasize social justice for the poor around the world.
The focus on individual salvation has a long history, as does an emphasis on charity. The emphasis on social justice has a relatively short and modern history and is wrapped up in our concerns for freedom, equality and democracy. While those concerns have connections with Christianity, they also have connections with Athens and its pagan past, and with Europe and its pagan past.
I too have concerns for freedom, equality and democracy as well as with concerns for dealing with poverty. For the most part the West has shown more concern here than any other culture in history and has delivered more people from poverty through secular means than through religion. I think of my concerns as arising from the Western tradition in all its elements rather than from Christianity or its gospel.
Christianity throughout its history has had an otherworldly emphasis and since its spread to gentiles has had an emphasis on salvation of individuals. The journey away from that history into the modern Christianity that emphasizes social justice leads most of us out of Christianity. For many it becomes hard to avoid a conclusion that Christianity is a form of oppression – they see it a way of denying reality, of looking to another world instead of this one, and a way of getting people to accept injustice now rather than revolting against it.
I think if Christianity has a future it rests with those who believe that grace and mercy, not justice, is the heart of the gospel, divine grace and mercy.
And for others, it is hard to understand how so much this-wordly good has been done throughout history if Christianity is in the business of denying reality and looking to another world. There is obviously much injustice that has been and continues to be resisted in the name of Christ. That’s not to say that aren’t other contributing factors, but Christianity is obviously a hugely significant one among them.
Re: the first part of your comment, do you think Jesus would object to having the application of “poor” extend beyond what it may have primarily referred to in a first-century Jewish context?
I think what happens in modernity is that in the branches of Christianity that emphasize social justice many people eventually see that Christianity is not important for that aim and that it detracts from it.
Most Christians who emphasize social justice are found in mainline protestant churches. They did not begin life there. They emigrated from evangelical churches. Native liberals, like me, people who grew up there, grew up with a social justice gospel, are absent now.
Re: “do you think Jesus would object to having the application of “poor” extend beyond what it may have primarily referred to in a first-century Jewish context?”
I think that equating the word “poor” in the Luke quotation with the way we commonly use that word today misses the meaning of the gospel.
I don’t think in terms such as “what would Jesus do, or what would Jesus think, or what would Jesus object to.” I fear people who do. I expect them to hit me with their gospel of morality. They do that quite often. I hope Jesus would object to that.
Even when I do not believe in God, I hope that mercy is woven into the fabric of the universe.
It’s hard for me to imagine how extending and broadening our understanding of the word “poor” as we become more globally aware could be “missing the meaning of the gospel.”
If you could imagine it, I think it would be worth the effort.
But maybe not. At the university I studied Hebrew with secular scholars. It was there that I think first understood the words in their context and saw the difficulty of connecting them with the contemporary “gospels” of churches. After that I was no longer able to preach. I was, nevertheless, more free than ever. And more aware that I am poor in the Biblical sense.
It is true the the Hebrew concept of “poor” is not synonymous with how the word is used by most of us today. However, there is significant cross-over. Old Testament and rabbinical sources both indicate that material poverty was related to the broader poverty being referred to in their use of the word “poor”. Part of the difference is that the Hebrew worldview does little to divide the material from the spiritual, including their concepts of poverty and wealth. So while we should not equate their “poor” for our “poor”, neither should we dissociate them entirely.
Jesus went even further with this association, especially when you compare the Sermon on the Mount with the Sermon on the Plain. The differences in emphasis demonstrate that Jesus’ meaning of poverty was far more nuanced and inclusive than what either “side” of the spiritual vs. material debate present.
Thanks Jamie. I think we far too often divide things up into categories that are mostly foreign to the Bible (whether we’re talking about poverty or persons!). In my view, one of the enduring gifts of the Hebrews is the challenge to consistently think more holistically about all of life.
Jamie, what is the gospel that you preach?
Hey Ryan – I met Rich Stearns back in the day when I worked at WV Canada. He struck me then as the real deal.
PS. I vote for justice, if you’re keeping score.
I sort of suspected where your vote might be cast, Mike :).
Just a thought- Is mercy possible without justice?
I hope so.
Seems to me that mercy requires justice from which a reprieve is given. Without justice what looks like mercy is just another random action. A wolf killing a rabbit is neither unmerciful not unjust. Or the converse should it spare a rabbit it has caught.
It seems to me that forgiving and extending mercy requires that a right is foregone.
My hope lies in the other ways the word “mercy” is used – kindness, benevolence.
So where does mercy fit into the equation when a mother bee kills her offspring for the good of the species? I have a hard time imagining that this offspring feels like mercy or benevolence has been applied to it.
Interesting review Ryan. I read and reviewed Stearns book, and had mixed feelings about it. He IS the real deal; he’s a serious guy struggling with massive issues that are outside the experience of myself and many people I know. He makes legitimate and convicting arguments about the impact of the gospel on the lives of the Christians who claim to believe it, and I found myself having to pause and re-think how I think about, and treat, the poor (especially since I work with people who are impoverished).
Though I agreed with his general ideas, I found his biblical support to be pretty wanting (which weakened the overall book for me). Then again, that’s pretty typical for books of this nature, since most Christians aren’t hermeneutically/exegetically self-aware. It’s sadly commonplace that people will try to establish something that is true (i.e. If you confess and repent of your sin, God will forgive it) from a mis-applied biblical text (i.e. 2 Chron. 7:14).
I found myself generally agreeing with Stearns and simply not checking his references.
How do you think that proper (in your view) exegesis/biblical support would change Stearns’s main point in this book—or the points of any other books “of this nature” written by any other hermeneutically/exegetically unaware authors?
In a nutshell, I’d guess that Stearns would have to show God’s concern for the poor and oppressed (i.e. Is. 10:1-4; Amos 2:6-16) and how that concern that was commanded of Old Covenant believers is equally commanded of New Covenant believers (i.e. 1 Tim. 5:3-16; James 1:27). I agree that there’s serious rammifications for the poor and the oppressed (believers and unbelievers) in the gospel, but I don’t follow Stearns when he tries to find those ideas being explicitly taught in passages like Luke 4:18 where Stearns suggests that “recovery of sight for the blind” is talking about a compassion for the sick and the sorrowful (page 21 & 22). I’m definitely supposed to care for the sick and the sorrowful, but Luke 4:18 isn’t where I gain those convictions.
Right idea, wrong text.
Aren’t we lucky, then, that God isn’t limited to the “right” texts to get the right ideas through to us… Aren’t we lucky that God’s kingdom advances even through exegetical lightweights like Richard Stearns…
We’re blessed that the Holy Spirit commits the truth of the scripture to our minds, even when we forget where we got it from! *dances and rattles a fish shaped tambourine*
I’m not the exegesis police. I don’t stop people in a Bible study and write them tickets when they get something wrong.
Do you applaud mediocrity?
My use of the word “lucky” was a touch of sarcasm. I am as grateful as the next person that God does not rely on our exegetical skill to speak truth to us.
I do not applaud mediocrity. I do, however, applaud grace and charity and humility in how we interact with one another, whether about the meaning of Scripture or anything else.
Peace to all of you,
I happen to pick up the book Hole in our Gospel, not for curiosity but by the urging of divine guidance.
Faith without works is dead. By faith we are save not by our works. Those are from the Bible. The Bible is the Word of God.
When someone say something out of your comfort zone, instead of talking back why not pray and ask the Holy Spirit to guide you.
So many evangelist the most popular live in mansion, luxury lifestyle, accept donations, but do they do the work of Jesus Christ to care for the poor, sick etc? I doubt it. They will answer that when they face Jesus someday, if they will have a chance to face Him, for I know if they will be cast in hell, they will never see Him face to face.
Some of them are members and embrace Illuminati (devil’s advocate). Their god is not God but the lesser god.
May the peace and wisdom of God the Father and with Jesus Christ His Son and the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.
Thank you for your review of this book. Unfortunately, I have not read it, so whatever I do say is not based on my knowledge of how the book was written. My main concern, not necessarily regarding this book/author is how much our world bends towards helping the poor, yet without the Gospel message. We have become a politically correct society in the sense of helping the poor (even the movie stars have this on their agenda), but what of their spiritual state? Does it profit to sponsor a child in need just with a monetary gift if they never hear the Gospel message that Jesus died for their sins and longs to redeem them? The times that Jesus healed in the Bible it was accompanied with forgiveness of their sins or addressing their spiritual needs (as well as physical). My question is then does Mr. Stearns address the importance of helping the poor with physical needs only or does he also tackle the issue of addressing our greatest need: that being our need of repentance and believing in Jesus Christ! I understand that in James 2:15-17 we are told that it does no good to simply send someone on their way with a blessing when they are physically in need. Also commanded in James 1:27 is to care for widows and orphans……I agree completely. Nevertheless, there remains the most important food and that is The Bread of Life Himself. I am interested in reading Mr. Stearns book, but not if there is no mention of giving the Gospel message. Anyone is able to help the poor and their physical needs, but only those who have been redeemed by Jesus Christ can give more lasting food.
As I see it, Stearns is simply seeking to understand and convey and live out the whole gospel. Too often, we separate elements of what ought to be an indivisible whole—either the gospel is saving information about Jesus to get us to heaven when we die or it’s ignoring the spiritual in order to meet physical needs. I think Stearns is to be commended for his efforts toward this end.