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Help the Poor, Help the World
A review of The Hole In Our Gospel and Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger
The Hole In Our Gospel
Richard Stearns (Nelson, 2010) $15.99
Every now and then a book comes along that unexpectedly captures the attention of many and it becomes a surprise best seller. Popular best-sellers are rarely about the obviously gut-wrenching topics of world hunger and the complex matters of international economics, though. Yet, with Stearns’ remarkable storytelling ability, and his colorful life story (he was the President of Parker Brother’s Games at age 39, a CEO of an even bigger corporation soon thereafter) he has written a recent book that has become an international best-seller.
And it should be; Stearns is has an MBA from the Wharton School and has worked in global business. He has been through a lot himself and has travelled all over the world. Stearns asks on the cover of this powerful book “What does God expect of us?” And then he teases us with this: “The Answer That Changed My Life and Might Just Change the World.” The first portion of this riveting book includes a telling of his own story or success and disillusionment, an instructive one for any working in the mainstream of Fortune 500 firms.
Since Mr. Stearns is now the President of World Vision, it shouldn’t surprise us that the answer he gives to the provocative question is rooted in Scripture and driven by his faith in the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the gospel of God’s amazing grace. Yet, as he dramatically puts it, many of us—both the most dedicated church folks and those who are not—have this “hole” in our understanding of the gospel. There is something missing. We think the gospel is only about getting to heaven when we die, which is a truncated telling of the Biblical story, making redemption into a rather abstract matter, that leaves the things of this world—most obviously the plight of our fellow human beings—along the roadside their plight unrelated to our religion. Like seminal authors such as Ronald Sider (whose classic work we will look at below), Richard Stearns realizes that the Bible is a book of immense concern and relevance for the affairs on the planet, a book that demands of us a concern for our neighbors, for land, politics, economics. God cares for the poor and God despises those systems that ignore or oppress the needy. For us to proclaim a full gospel—the real gospel of the Bible—we must develop a holistic vision, one that is most clearly captured by Jesus’ own phrase, the Kingdom of God. It is a rich, theological phrase that Stearns explains; it is the key to get rid of our missing part, the “hole” in the center of the typical approach to modern religion.
Surely our faith is more than going to church, feeling God’s love, or telling others about the forgiveness offered by Jesus. It certainly includes those things, but there is more. There is much to do, many ways to respond to the urgency of the tens of thousands who die of malnutrition each day. Stearns inspires us to understand, to get involved in plausible ways, to join the struggle for a holistic faith that meets the needs of the poorest of the poor. His book rings out with a bold endorsement from the righteous (and well informed) rocker himself, Bono. (Not to mention nearly every major, well-respected evangelical leader, and several prominent diplomats and statesmen and former Secretary of State Madeline Albright.) The Hole in the Gospel is just one of many outstanding recent books on this topic, and there are a lot that have recently been published. This is one of the excellent introductions. Religious publishers are to be applauded for attending to this urgent matter, the need to develop a faith big enough to respond to the biggest issues of our time. It may be that many of these new books owe a debt, however, to a classic from a few decades ago. It is to that book we now turn.
Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger
Ronald J. Sider (Nelson) $15.99
When Christianity Today did it’s “best books” of the 20th century a decade ago, it was no surprise that this best-selling, much-talked about book was on the list. Now in its 5th edition, it was first published in its most powerful edition in 1977 (later editions were, to the gladness of many, and the consternation of some, a bit more politically balanced and less critical of corporations and capitalism.) It immediately became a point of controversy as many in the mainstream of evangelical faith were still skeptical of passionate calls to social justice, to criticisms of systemic or structural injustice, to efforts to bring Godly reform in the areas of economics and politics. General concern for the poor was itself meager, but the call to work for political changes, land reform, debt cancellation, and such was ahead of its time. Sider, an impeccable evangelical with sturdy spiritual roots and robust, orthodox theology, knew what a famous Latin American Catholic liberation theologian meant when he said “When I feed the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor are poor, they call me a communist.” Yet, Sider’s Rich Christians withstood the mocking, name-calling, and boycotts, and he pressed on to found a pioneering ministry about holistic faith and politically engaged discipleship, Evangelicals for Social Action. He wrote more books—he is passionate about civic life, but also apologetics, prayer, multi-ethnic theology, traditional sexual ethics, Biblical non-violence, creation care, human rights, and the relationship between evangelism and social action. He will soon release a book on the morality of budgets, continuing his on-going efforts to offer a Christian mind on matters of domestic policy.
Still, with its focus on Bible study, thinking about the theology of social reform, the call to simple living, and the demand to be Biblical faithful in a sacrificial dedication to serve the poor, Rich Christians is Sider’s classic. It slowly—too slowly, some of us may think—caught on and there are now dozens of similar works and a few young authors being criticized for their anti-poverty work. It could be argued that the renaissance of Christian social renewal at the start of the 21st century came, in very significant ways, because of the publishing of this tenacious, humble, evangelical professor and activist. Sider still writes his regular column in ESA’s Prism magazine and continues to encourage the next generation who realize that we are called to be agents of restoration. This book laid out the Biblical basis for much of what we see happening today within evangelical faith communities and we would be wise to regularly refresh ourselves by reading and re-reading this contemporary Christian classic.
You can order both of these books at
Hearts and Minds Books
. Mention Q Ideas when you order and receive 20% off.
How can you promote holistic faith?
In your opinion, what is the best way to promote the common good as a follower of Jesus?
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The Hole in Our Gospel
Another book to be read on this topic is David Chilton's Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulators, written as a response to Sider. Everyone knows we are to help the poor. The big question is how. Since we have cut the bible in half, only seeing the NT as important, we are left with NT phrases that have been stripped of their earthy OT roots. For instance, Deuteronomy 24:8-25:3 gives us very practical designations of different categories of the poor and how to truly help them. At the center of this section (v. 16) is personal responsibility. The big queiston of HOW not WHETHER to help the poor msut be answered carefully and biblically, lest we hurt the very people we are trying to help. (See When Helping Hurts).
I am delighted to see these two books highlighted on Q. Sider's book was a significant turning point for my own faith and understanding of both scripture and the gospel. I have read responses to Sider's book and found them, at best, struggling to provide a biblical response to the contrary. The accusation of hypocrisy is often leveled at Christians (evangelicals, in particular). I would submit that, for many, hypocrisy is not the issue, as many do not recognize the extreme stratification that exists within many societies (with the U.S. among the leaders in inequality). Many Christians' behaviors are right in line with their views that the American Dream, individualism, and pure personal responsibility are ideas blessed by God and endorsed by the Bible. I certainly adhered to a worldview that fit within these until Dr. Sider encouraged me to examine the whole of scripture, the ministry and message of Jesus, and the heart of God.
john van sloten
I'm convinced that a right perspective on how to help the poor can only be discovered as we get all facets of God's kingdom here on earth worked out. We need to get more 'heaven on earth' happening in our local economy, in order to be able to best see how to help a poorer economy. By taking how we work to a more heaven on earth place, we'll be in a better place to work with others. In God's kingdom all things are being made new; education, politics, work, sport, leisure, etc... I think we need to focus on everything all at the same time. We need to be careful not to fall into justicolatry.
Another challenging read is UnPoverty by Mark Lutz. I have spent many years in church learning to be a good christian. It was easy for me to ignore the poor. Working hard to be good, I lost sight of Jesus. Today Jesus has thrown me a life line. I have seen His face in the orphans in GUA. Never have I been so close to Jesus as I was spending a year in the slums of Kenya. Today I believe I need the poor more than they need me. Could it be that God calls us all to come closer to Him by going near the poor?
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