Book Review: Reconstructing the Gospel

Book Review: Reconstructing the Gospel by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

As part of my ongoing effort to educate myself about the problem of systemic racism in the U.S., I followed a number of activists on Twitter who share my faith*.

North Carolina author, activist, minister, and nonprofit founder Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is relatively new on my radar thanks to retweets from author, speaker, and activist Lisa Sharon Harper. Both of them, in conjunction with a handful of other theologians, have contributed to a book published by IVP entitled “Still Evangelical?: Insiders Reconsider Political, Social, and Theological Meaning.” When I saw this book cover flutter across my Twitter feed, I knew it was a book I’d want to read and review on my blog. [Review coming soon!]

When I reached out to the generous folks at IVP, they not only agreed to send a review copy of “Still Evangelical?” but offered to send a copy of Wilson-Hargrove’s new book Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion as well. Each of these books is helping me to better understand the problem of systemic racism and the moral responsibility I have as a follower of Jesus Christ advocate for essential change in our country.

Reconstructing the Gospel

Slave Bible at The Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C.I ended up reading Wilson-Hartgrove’s book first thanks to an online book club opportunity, and the book rocked my world. Reconstructing the Gospel is divided in two parts: Part One details the relatively brief history of what the author describes as “slaveholder religion”; Part Two reminds the reader what the Scripture says is good news and what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

“The gospel that was twisted to accommodate America’s original sin must also be reconstructed if we are to experience the healing that Jesus wants to bring. Otherwise, evangelism is violence and those of us who spend our time in church meetings are perpetuating a death-dealing culture without even realizing it” (p. 17).

Photo (left): Slave Bible on display atThe Museum of the Bible

It is the author’s conviction that we Americans inherited—and ignorantly perpetuated—a “divided gospel.” Wilson-Hartgrove is convinced that if you were to dig down to the root of our political divisions and class disparities, you would find a sick gospel that was twisted and manipulated to justify owning, using, and abusing fellow human beings created in the image of God.

Do not doubt his conviction. It is based on FACT.

When my family and I visited the Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C. last November, we saw first-hand a copy of a “Slave Bible.” I had never even heard of such a thing, but there it was right before my very eyes!

Around 3 minutes into this video (left) which I was live-streaming from the Museum of the Bible, you can see the display for yourself. I’m reading the description card.This was the first time I ever knew there was such a thing as an edited version of the Bible solely intended for slaves! 😔 

What made the slave Bible so different from that of the slave holder? Passages that talked about freedom for the captives had been cut out.

The book of Exodus? Not there.

Why?

The slave holders did not want slaves getting any ideas about freedom from the Bible.

I can’t even imagine how someone justified this bastardization of the Holy Word of God, but they did. This was a printed and bound copy. There are more. Somewhere.

Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass Portrait

In time, many men and women who had been brought to this country against their will, sold as chattel, and treated like animals regained a sense of human dignity. They learned to read and write the American language. They learned about God. And eventually, they learned the stories that had been cut out of the slave Bibles—including the story of the Hebrews being delivered out of bondage in Egypt by Moses. And these stories gave them hope and a vision for the future. 

Frederick Douglass, though born into slavery, escaped his bondage and became an accomplished orator, a gifted writer, and a political activist. He became the leader of the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and New York1. He embraced the true gospel of freedom and equality and grace.

He wrote, “I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slave-holding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land” (quoted on page 35 of Wilson-Hartrove’s book).

Slave-Holder Religion is Alive and Well

What’s crazy to me is that, although Douglass penned his observations in the mid-1800s, slave-holder religion is still alive and well in the 21st century. In fact, it has gained a second wind thanks in part to the overtly racist comments and dehumanizing tweets about people of color from the current President of the United States who not only claims to be a Christian but also garnered 80% of the white evangelical vote in the 2016 presidential election (see one tweet below; many others can be found on his Twitter feed here).


Dehumanization is often used to groom unsuspecting people to tolerate what would otherwise be unacceptable treatment of another human being. In her May 2017 article “Dehumanizing Always Starts With Language” Dr. Brené Brown warns:

We must never tolerate dehumanization—the primary instrument of violence that has been used in every genocide recorded throughout history. When we engage in dehumanizing rhetoric or promote dehumanizing images, we diminish our own humanity in the process.” (emphasis mine)

Wilson-Hartgrove would agree. His personal journey out of racial blindness happened over a period of time through a number of enlightening encounters with people of color.  As he recounts the time he was talking to a group of teens at a youth camp about the virtues of biblical love and faithfulness only to be called out for his ignorance:

I not only assumed that the good life I imagined as a white man in America was what God wants for everyone, but I also naively suggested that these young people had the freedom to choose biblical faithfulness in all the same ways I did. Truth was, I didn’t have a clue” (p. 43).

When the Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II courageously agreed to speak at his church in Klan country, Wilson-Hartgrove was no longer examining his faith alone. He had a mentor, and this man would help lead him from racial blindness to sight, from ignorance to knowledge, and from white independence to multi-racial interdependence in the “beloved community” of Christ followers. 

Ignorant No More

Proximity, humility, and an open heart—each of these is necessary for a life free from the shackles of slave-holder religion and the bad theology of white supremacy which has wormed its way into the church.

As the author builds his case against slave-holder religion, he argues that when we accept without question the religious traditions handed down to us, we often through ignorance make things worse. In other words, there is a white American “Christian” culture that blinds us to what is happening in the world around us. When we are blinded by racism, we limit the gospel to changing individual hearts or the culture of families. Jesus came to change more than that. He came to change the world (p. 132).

Racial inequality is rampant, complex, and systemic. As followers of Jesus Christ, we have been called to engage politically: To change our country. To change the world. #slaveholderreligion #wilson-hartgrove Click To Tweet

Racial inequality is rampant, complex, and systemic. As followers of Jesus Christ, we have been called to engage politically: To change our country. To change the world.

For those not blinded by racism, Jesus came to change more than individuals’ hearts or the culture of families. Jesus came to change the world. He did it by gathering together a fusion coalition of the poor and the sick, tax collectors and zealots, religious defectors like Nicodemus, and lepers who had been written off as unclean. Preaching the good news that God’s politics made room for all of them together in a new social order…the political threat of this popular movement got Jesus arrested and killed” (pp. 132-133, emphasis mine).

To say that Reconstructing the Gospel opened my eyes would be an understatement, for that implies that only my eyes and brain were affected. The truth is that my entire body was affected by this book, because for the first time in my life, I have begun to viscerally understand what it means to live in skin. “White” skin. I get it.

Living in White Skin

Now, when I am out, I try to stay mindful of the privilege automatically afforded me and the responsibility I have as a follower of Jesus Christ to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with my God (cf. Micah 6:8). Not to solve problems, but to observe and listen. To “see” people for who they are and affirm the imago dei in each person.

Wilson-Hartgrove calls us back to the unadulterated gospel of Jesus Christ: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, touching the untouchable, embracing the marginalized, and setting the oppressed free. It’s a social gospel, for sure. “By endeavoring to live as Christ lived in the world, the church helps everyday people see and remember that another way is possible” (p. 143). This gospel message does not neglect the soul; it touches the whole person: body, mind, and spirit.

And here’s where we must slow down and take a good, hard look inside. Before we rush out to fix the problems of the world, we must first face the facts that—as much as we try to interpret and apply the Scriptures faithfully and accurately—most of us have inherited a broken gospel. Each of us needs to take a hard look at what we’ve been taught as right and good, and humbly hold the doctrines, attitudes, and practices of our faith up to the entirety of Scripture. Wilson-Hartgrove continues,

Reconstructing the gospel can never only be about the individual. This is why so many noble efforts at reconciliation fail. They pretend that broken people with the best of motives can simply opt out of hundreds of years of history through individual choices and relationships…But if we stop short of the personal work…then we carry the germ of white supremacy with us into our most noble efforts to rid this world’s systems of racism. Nothing is uglier than the inevitable explosion when white people try to participate in anti-racist work without addressing their own hidden wound. Each of us has to do our own soul work” (p. 156).

This is where I am right now: I’m doing my own soul work. It’s hard, and it’s taking way longer than I had hoped it would. The fact is, it might take the rest of my life to fully comprehend how hidden biases have affected my attitudes and actions, and how much damage I’ve unconsciously done thanks to ignorance and the slave-holder religion I inherited from my parents who inherited it from their parents who inherited it from theirs and so on.

Deconstruction is a Messy, but Necessary Process

Even though no one in my family tree ever owned a slave, we were still impacted by the false teachings and immoral compass of slave-holding theologians and leaders in our country. Thank God for grace, mercy, and enlightenment!!!

A dilapidated room in an abandoned house

Before the reconstruction of one’s faith comes deconstruction. Teachings based on poor hermeneutics steeped in white supremacy must be torn down. Slave-holder theology enmeshed in traditions, hymns, and “Christian” books must be must be ripped out. Ignorance and arrogance must be taken to the dumpster. Deconstruction is a time-consuming, messy process, but it is absolutely necessary for anyone who hopes to become more like Christ. 

Deconstruction is a time-consuming, messy process, but it is absolutely necessary for anyone who hopes to become more like Christ. #slaveholderreligion #reconstructingthegospel Click To Tweet

This “soul work” involves more than proximity to people who are different than me. It requires humility and compassion and a willingness to listen and learn from people who I’ve never. “For healing to begin, we must learn to listen with our hearts” (p. 166). When we listen in humility and with our hearts, we are open to hearing the message as it is given, not as we think it should be.

I highly recommend Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s 2018 book: Reconstructing the Gospel. It is eye-opening, convicting, and, most of all, extremely helpful in promoting a type of racial reconciliation that could turn this nation, and the world, toward the God who sees, hears, and loves everyone.

* BTW, I rarely use the word “Christian” to describe myself any longer because it no longer means what it used to mean. When the adjectival label “Christian” is routinely applied to people who so blatantly speak and act in a manner completely opposite of the gospel of Jesus Christ,  the term can no longer be used to describe me or my faith.

For many years now, I have preferred the term “Christ follower” or “follower of Jesus Christ” to the term “Christian.” That’s the truth. I believe what the Scriptures say about Him, and I try to follow His teachings. More than anything, I want to live like He lived: Advocating for the oppressed. Embracing the marginalized. Confronting the hypocrites. When I say someone “shares my faith,” that’s what I mean. They follow the same Jesus I do, and you can tell it by what they say and what they do. You know the tree by its fruit.

1 Wikipedia contributors. “Frederick Douglass.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 20 Aug. 2018. Web. 22 Aug. 2018.

Photo credits:
“Frederick Douglass Portrait” is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1923. See this page for further explanation.

“Cracked Cream Walls” photo by Nolan Issac (@nolanissac) on Unsplash


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About the author: Laura Zielke

Laura Zielke (ZELL-key) is a deep thinker and Bible scholar. She is not afraid to question tradition and challenges people to evaluate their beliefs according to the Scriptures. Laura earned her M-Div. from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary with an emphasis on Biblical Studies, Archaeology, and Languages. She has been blessed to serve as a lay leader in local churches for more than thirty years. Having been recognized as an outstanding leader, teacher, and entrepreneur, Laura serves as the Community Manager for the Nonprofit Leadership Lab (an organization dedicated to helping nonprofit leaders worldwide accomplish their mission). She and her husband of 21 years have one son who is in the 10th grade and homeschooled. Laura is an INTJ on the Meyers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator, and enjoys helping people discover more about themselves, the Lord, and their purpose in life. Connect with her on social media: @thezwomann (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest).

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