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The Hole in Our Gospel: What Does God Expect of Us? The Answer that Changed My Life and Might Just Change the World. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009. 303 pp. $15.99..
Richard Stearns has accomplished something very significant with The Hole in Our Gospel. Stearns presides over the US division of the well-known Christian humanitarian organization, World Vision International. Out of his experiences before and after assuming that post, he writes a moving and challenging call to all who identify themselves as Christians to move beyond common reductionisms and embrace the whole gospel of the kingdom of God. Specifically, he challenges the spiritualized gospel that overlooks Jesus’ good news for the poor and oppressed regarding their actual life circumstances—and therefore overlooks the church’s responsibility as proclaimers of that holistic message.
In keeping with the intention to reach a very broad audience, the book is written on a popular level. Stearns compellingly weaves together autobiography, narrative, biblical commentary, and statistics, making for an enjoyable but gripping read. The personal touch of his own story of calling, resistance, and revelation exudes humility, conveying to the reader that he writes from a place of empathy rather than judgment. In this way, he is able to make the bold claim that the very gospel the reader may have heard or accepted might be an incomplete and therefore falsified version of Jesus’ message and claim on the would-be disciple. In fact, the answer to the overlong subtitle is, “God asks us for everything” (1)—a claim the affluent American Christian audience that Stearns targets could easily dismiss as hyperbole were it not for the finesse of his presentation.
The main idea of the book, then, is that the very essence of Christianity—the gospel—has been profoundly misunderstood by the majority of believers, in the Western world at least. This is, of course, a deeply theological claim that requires substantiation. Yet, it is a claim that the less accessible theological literature already widely confirms. Stearns admits he does not have theological training, though he evinces a familiarity with at least the contours of the corresponding academic discussion. In fact, the book fairly represents the emerging scholarly consensus on the holistic nature of Jesus’ kingdom message. The result is that the real contribution of the book is its ability to communicate more widely and effectively than other kinds of publications, which it accomplishes spectacularly.
Though there is a logical progression to the book, the sense of structure is minimized by the interjection of personal stories throughout, as well as the fact that some of the autobiography is not chronological. The movement begins with the problem (Part 1: The Hole in My Gospel—and Maybe Yours). It then brings the reader through a corrective (Part 2: The Hole Gets Deeper), an introduction to the need for the whole gospel (Part 3: A Hole in the World), and a look at the church’s common failure to respond (Part 4: A Hole in the Church). Finally, it ends with a challenge to practical action (Part 5: Repairing the Hole). It is a good introduction to the concerns of Christian charities and developmental organizations, from the core beliefs that motivate them to the challenges they face. Stearns’s portrayal of the struggle to bringing churches into substantial partnership may be particularly illuminating for readers from church traditions that have been historically reticent to allow parachurch organizations to do what ought to be the church’s work.
As someone who has become jaded about the emotional ploy of so many “sponsor a child” television commercials (of which World Vision has aired its share), I greatly appreciate the line that Stearns walks between guilt and motivation. In large part, the book’s emotionally convicting stories strike me as his personal testimony to the way that committed praxis has shaped his theology. That is a significant point by itself. The chapters on the “hole in the world” are especially well done, conveying the rather overwhelming statistical data in an understandable and humanized way, while at the same time managing sensitivity to the hopelessness that the information can instill. Another very helpful section is the brief discussion of the historical parting of the ways between liberals and conservatives over the social gospel. Stearns makes it clear that neither side came away with the whole gospel according to Jesus, helping some move beyond that dispute and conscientizing others to historical forces that shape their assumptions.
The author’s theological training aside, any book written for such a broad audience will inevitably oversimplify some things. With a view to the book’s purpose and style, that cannot be a criticism but must be an observation. This volume is a wonderful starting place for renewed reflection on the gospel, but the church cannot stop here. Notably, there is an overrealized eschatology evident in Stearns’s presentation. His rhetoric is probably justified, because the church is already so hesitant without mentioning the “not yet” aspect of God’s kingdom, but we must faithfully represent Jesus’ total message nonetheless.
There is also a Christendom mentality in the book, and Stearns actually refers to “Christendom” explicitly (216, 238). His vision for what could happen if all of Christendom were mobilized into generosity and service is a hopeful one, and an organization like World Vision cannot discriminate in its acceptance of donors and sponsors—nor should it. Yet, theologians in the late modern era have decried Christendom for good reason. Stearns needs to consider the implications of affirming Christendom on the basis of its economic potential, lest he sell out the whole gospel he intends to reclaim.
With these cautions registered, I heartily recommend the work as a vital and timely contribution. May the church ever return to a vision of the whole gospel!
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