Several months ago, the editors at Christian Research Journal asked if I’d write a summary critique of The Hole in Our Gospel by Richard Stearns. I took several months to read through the book carefully and then struggled to condense my review to 1800 words. The article is in the latest issue of CRJ (the issue with Avatar on the cover).
There are many more positives I could highlight about Stearns and his book than get included in my piece. The nature of the review and the word count meant that I had to dive right into my objections. But this doesn’t mean people can’t be very helped, encouraged, and even inspired by this book. If I were writing the review over again I would do more to celebrate all the good Stearns is calling us to do. My concerns are not with the heart motivation, nor with the ends, but with the thinking and rhetoric that is sometimes used to get from the heart to the ends.
Is it possible to write a review that is at the same time sympathetic and critical? I hope so, because that is my goal with Richard Stearns’s The Hole In Our Gospel (Thomas Nelson, 2009). Stearns, the president of World Vision, has written a book that is winsome, compelling, and often inspiring. The Hole in Our Gospel is also theologically flawed and economically misguided. In other words, I have some serious criticisms of the book, but its overall charge to care for the poor and put our faith into action is a good and necessary challenge.
The Hole in Our Gospel tries to answer the question, “What does God expect of us?” Stearns argues that God expects more from us than going to church, saying a few prayers, avoiding the big sins, and believing the right things. “The idea behind The Hole in Our Gospel is quite simple. It’s basically the belief that being a Christian, or follower of Jesus Christ, requires much more than just having a personal and transforming relationship with God. It also entails a public and transforming relationship with the world” (p. 2, emphasis in original). God changed the world two thousand years ago with twelve men, and He can do it again—if only we will give ourselves fully to the task of being the good news, and bring compassion and justice to a world ravaged by disease, hunger, and oppression.
It’s hard not to like Richard Stearns. His love for Jesus Christ and the church is evident. His concern for “the least of these” and disdain for many aspects of the American Dream are admirable. His tone, even in rebuke, is warm and humble. No doubt, World Vision is doing a lot of work near to the heart of God. And Stearns, no doubt, is on the side of the angels. There is a lot to be gained from reading The Hole in Our Gospel. But there are also a number of problems with Stearns’s book. Let me mention three.
In the worthwhile effort to get us to care about suffering around the world and not just suffering in our own lives, Stearns overshoots his mark and disallows any degrees of moral proximity. To have more compassion for someone closer to us geographically, socially, or culturally, Stearns argues, is to value one human life over another (107). Though he’s no fan of Peter Singer (the controversial ethicist from Princeton), he quotes from him approvingly, affirming Singer’s principle that moral responsibility cannot take into account proximity or distance (111). So Stearns asks (I’m paraphrasing): Why don’t we respond to other people’s kids like they are our kids? Why don’t we help starving people in Africa like we would if they were literally left on our doorstep? Does God have different compassion for different people in different parts of the world?
Stearns wants to shake us out of our apathy. Good, but this is not the way to do it. I’m not even sure Stearns really believes the implications of his argument. The fact of the matter is that we do care for our own children in a special way. Our hearts do break more for our friends than for people we’ve never met. This doesn’t mean we automatically think those other people are worth less to God. It just means we are human. Jesus didn’t weep at the sight of every illness or death, but He did weep when His friend Lazarus died (John 11:35). It is an impossible burden to think that we are obligated to help every orphan in the world like we should help the child drowning in the pool in front of us. Let’s stir up compassion, but let’s not burden each other with false guilt because we feel a special sense of obligation to help our friends, our family, and those next door. The renewed cry for social justice in our day will only be a helpful corrective to middle-class lethargy if the social justice advocates don’t exaggerate our failures and don’t overstate their case from Scripture.
In a similar vein, Stearns is quick to turn commands meant for the church into commands to care for the whole world. He dismisses the idea that the “least of these” in Matthew 25 refers to other Christians or even traveling missionaries, despite the use of the word “brother” (292–93). Elsewhere he concludes: “The Bible is clear from the Old Testament through the New Testament that God’s people always had a responsibility to see that everyone in their society was cared for at a basic-needs level” (123). This is an important conclusion for Stearns because it means that poverty is a justice issue. But there’s nothing in either Testament to suggest that Christians must see that everyone in society—including all those outside the covenant community—are to be cared for at a basic-needs level. This is not to discourage Christians from helping non-Christians. It does mean, however, that the church is not responsible for the redistribution of a society’s resources. Do good to everyone, the Bible teaches, and especially to those of the household of faith (Gal. 6:10).
The Hole in Our Economics
Stearns perpetuates a number of economic fallacies and half-truths. First, he argues, via Jimmy Carter, that the growing gap between the rich and the poor is the root cause underneath most of the world’s unresolved problems (98). Although Stearns says in one place that we are not to blame for the poverty of the developing world (123), this note is missing throughout the rest of the book. For example, he leads off Part 3 with John Berger’s claim that “the poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich” (95). So is poverty in the two-thirds world our fault or not?
Second, the way Stearns employs statistics is misleading. He states that “the wealthiest 7 people on earth control more wealth than the combined GDP of the 41 most heavily indebted nations.” But why say “control” instead of “earned” or “created”? He tells us that “the top 20 percent of the world’s population consumes 86 percent of the world’s goods” (122). But why not give statistics on what percentage of the world’s goods that twenty percent also creates? I’m sure many rich people are rapacious goons, but it is unhelpful to frame the numbers as if wealth were a zero-sum game. Stearns argues that “the wealthiest countries, where just one-fifth of the world’s population lives, spend 90 percent of the world’s health care dollars, allowing the remaining four-fifths of the planet to spend only 10 percent of the money” (141). This makes it sound like there is a fixed pie of health care dollars and all the rich countries raided the pie before the poor countries had a chance to get to the table. This is bad logic and bad economics.
Third, Stearns continues to argue for more government aid. He suggests that if the rich nations would only divert five percent of the military expenditures into aid, another billion people could be lifted out of extreme poverty (158). Not only does this ignore the possibility that military expenditure can actually help the poor, it overlooks the mounting evidence from people such as William Easterly (The White Man’s Burden) and Dambisa Moyo (Dead Aid), that governmental aid in places like Africa is more problem than solution.
Getting the Gospel Right
Lastly, and more significantly, The Hole in Our Gospel marginalizes what is central to the gospel. To be fair, Stearns acknowledges that reconciliation between God and man through the atoning work of Christ is part of the gospel (15). But the whole gospel, says Stearns over and over, is God’s vision for a new way of living (276). The “essence” of the good news is that God’s kingdom is going to begin on earth through the changed lives of His followers. But Stearns doesn’t make clear how one enters this kingdom, or that the in-breaking of the kingdom is bad news for those who oppose God and do not trust in Jesus Christ. No doubt, Stearns would agree with the apostle Paul that the gospel is the good news that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that He was buried, and that He was raised from the dead and appeared to many witnesses (1 Cor. 15:3-8). But what Paul labels “as of first importance,” I hear Stearns demeaning as a diminished gospel (279).
It seems that for Stearns the gospel is primarily something we do. The gospel is not an announcement of what God has done for us in history. The gospel is a “social revolution” (20). At one point, after quoting 2 Corinthians 5:20 that we are “Christ’s ambassadors as though God were making his appeal through us,” Stearns says, “God chose us to be His representatives. He called us to go out, to proclaim the ‘good news’—to be the ‘good news’—and to change the world” (3). This is certainly a curious gloss on what it means for God to make His appeal through us.
Frankly, for all its laudable exhortations, I find Stearns’s gospel exhausting and even triumphalistic and paternalistic at times. I can’t count all the times in the book we are told to change the world, start a social revolution, or usher in the kingdom of God. If only we gave more or had the will, we could eradicate hunger and win the war on poverty. For the first time in history we have the know-how and access to solve these problems, we are told. Now we just have to make it happen. The church around the world is waiting us for us to act. Without our efforts and resources directed toward the developing world, their lot in life will never improve. According to Stearns, “This is not to be a far-off and distant kingdom to be experienced only in the afterlife. Christ’s vision was of a redeemed world order populated by redeemed people—now…It’s up to us. We are to be the change” (243–44, emphasis in original). Does God’s reign and rule really depend on us?
I think I know where Stearns is coming from. He wants our faith to work. He wants Christians to care about the world and not just about their “fire insurance.” I get that. I applaud that. He should be more careful in talking about the gospel, however, lest it become a generic message about how God is going to make the world a better place. “Preach the gospel always; when necessary use words” (23) is not a helpful saying. Besides the fact that there’s no record that St. Francis ever said this and every indication that he didn’t live this way, the pithy saying represents a confusion of categories. We must use words if we are to preach the gospel, because the gospel is a message we must proclaim. If we never live like Christians, we are not Christians. But to tell people that they must repent and believe in Jesus for the remission of sins, to tell them that God sent His Son in love to bear His just wrath, to tell them that they must receive the kingdom in faith like little children, is not a gospel with a hole in it. It is precisely the center, and Stearns’s call to action would have been more compelling if it more clearly radiated from there.