Book Review: Reconstructing the Gospel

Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion

by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

InterVarsity Press

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I want to like this book.

I agree with so much of the premise and admire the journey and story of the author. The book itself is best described by the word “scattered.” I struggled to follow the train of thought and was surprised often by the insertion of the main point three pages after the chapter start or 1-2 pages after a heading. The definition of terms was often murky. In the midst of all of the scattered-ness were incisive and well articulated paragraphs.

I feel obligated to finish the books I start. Kelly just shakes her head. If a book doesn’t strike a cord with her, she just puts it down and moves on. It feels like a betrayal to me. To be honest, the combination of interspersed gems in the text and my own dysfunctional loyalty is what made me finish the book- and I am glad I did. Ultimately, the message makes the additional work worth the read.

The heart of the book may be his chapter entitled “Having Church.” For me, the book could have used the structure taken from the Spiritual he quotes called “I Will Trust in the Lord”:

I will trust in the Lord,

I will trust in the Lord,

I will trust in the Lord till I die.

I’m gonna stay on the battlefield,

I’m gonna stay on the battlefield,

I’m gonna stay on the battlefield till I die.

I’m gonna treat everybody right,

I‘m gonna treat everybody right,

I‘m gonna treat everybody right till I die

p. 145

From this song he pulls three gospel practices, the closest he comes to explicitly fulfilling the promise of the title of the book: the gospel practice of confession, the gospel practice of resistance, and the gospel practice of non-violent love. Maybe these should have been chapters, for me they were the most substantive part of the book. He also shares the mission of Greenleaf Church, compelling, but given short shrift. This compelling vision of church and gospel is what I was looking for from the book, but he buries the lead. If not for my dysfunctional approach to reading, I would not have read about this remarkable church. It is from this chapter that comes the paragraph that would have turned this book from simply the journey of the author into what I was hoping for from the title: a manifesto and template for the reconstruction:

Jesus’ first sermon guided the leadership of Greenleaf toward a new definition of mission. They got out a map of Goldsboro, drew a circle with a two mile radius around the building they already owned, and said, “This is where we’re called to set the oppressed free. Whatever is enslaving people, we commit to fighting it by the power of the Spirit.”

Over the next decade, a congregation of about 150 people invested $1.5 million of its own money in community development projects that brought over $10 million of investments into their neighborhood. They partnered with state and local government, businesses, congregations, and individuals to build 56 single-family homes, forty units of subsidized senior housing, a restaurant, and a community center, which houses a preschool, and after-school program, a gang prevention program, and a re-entry program for people coming home from prison. And twenty-five years after their leadership retreat, they still haven’t built a new sanctuary.

P. 142

The other very important point he makes, and this may impact the way he has written the book, is the call for whites to take listening posture in the conversation about race and how it has impacted the church and the country. He grapples with this (as should all whites) and expresses it this way in the Acknowledgements to the book:

The black-led freedom movement has long insisted that there are two things white folks need to learn: when to shut up and when to speak up. One pitfall of whiteness is thinking you always have something important to say. Anyone who publishes a book about anything is subject to this temptation. But on the other side of the narrow way that leads to life is an equally perilous precipice – the danger of silence when you are the one who must speak up. 

If I have come anywhere close to balancing what sometimes feels like a tightrope stretched across hell, it’s because of the love of the people I name here. . . and many others I don’t.

p. 175

So, read this book – it is worth the work.

Check out these reviews of books with similar content on TheTemple:

This book makes me want to explore these books:

Photo by Natalya Letunova on Unsplash

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The TempleBlog started as my personal blog in October of 2006 with my first post: John Stott – it was a listing of John Stott quotes.

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