Last week Northwestern had the privilege of hosting Lisa Sharon Harper, an internationally known writer, speaker and consultant. In chapel, Harper preached her sermon titled, “Four Words that Change Everything.” She also spoke at a NED talk about what it means to be “The Beloved Community of God” as Christians consider responding to a history of racism. On top of these campus events, Trinity Reformed Church also held an event titled “Fortune: race, repair, and the ministry of reconciliation.” This Q&A style conversation was about truth telling, reparations, forgiveness and bridge building.
While Harper was here, she shined a light on the implications of the gospel. Her mission is to insist that, according to Genesis 1, every human being was created in God’s image to exercise dominion. This means that every person encountered, of every race, ethnicity, class and background was created to have shared agency participating in God’s redeeming work. Prior to Harper coming to speak at NW, theology professor Dr. Cambria Kaltwasser assigned Harper’s book “The Very Good Gospel” as a piece of her curriculum.
“I chose Lisa Sharon Harper’s book for my class for a couple of reasons,” Kaltwasser said. “One is that the field of theology tends to be dominated by the voices of white men, and I wanted to include a diversity of voices. The second reason is her emphasis on the holistic nature of the gospel—the fact that Christ comes to restore our bodies and souls and all of creation.”
Kaltwasser emphasizes that Harper’s experience as a woman of color and a descendant of slaves offers us a fresh perspective on the good news of Jesus Christ, and she wishes to have her students explore that through her novel. As her students continue throughout her class, many of them respond with intrigue and curiosity to “The Very Good Gospel.”
“Many have never heard a perspective on the Bible like hers,” Kaltwasser said. “At first, some are surprised by her complaint that our focus on personal salvation is ‘too thin.’
The idea that Christ came to set right all our relationships—from the personal to the political to the cosmic—is new to them, and they have questions. Some students respond with excitement because she shows them Scripture’s concern for justice and deliverance for those living in oppressive conditions as well.”
After hearing about Harper’s mission and goals throughout her books as well as in chapel, both Kaltwasser and director of intercultural development, Martha Draayer, each took something away to apply in their lines of work.
“Harper recovers the Bible’s emphasis on God’s plan of cosmic redemption, and she helps us to see why justice is not an add-on to the gospel,” Kaltwasser said. “It’s not something we pursue just because we feel gratitude to God or merely as a secondary form of witness to others, as if what really matters is our private relationship with God. Instead, God’s intention all along is to restore creation to its intended glory and us to the just relationships that allow all to thrive.”
Draayer’s context is slightly different. As a leader on campus who interacts daily with people from underrepresented groups, Harper’s message is more readily accepted.
“I believe one thing we can incorporate in intercultural is Harper’s vision for the flourishing of all people,” Draayer said. “Intercultural office brings together people of different ethnicities, ages, abilities and talents all working together to create unity and belonging while seeing the imago dei reflected in each other.”
Not only does the intercultural department want to promote bridging people together, Draayer believes that Harper’s beautiful vision of shalom is also something we can lean into and incorporate in the office.
Harper left NW wrestling with reflecting on our identities, what is meant by the very good gospel and how systems of injustice continue to marginalize groups of people. The benefit from sitting in discomfort and engage in perspectives that challenge our thinking, engage Christians in cultural exploration as well as ultimately creating spaces for faculty and students to reflect deeply and meaningfully in scripture.