Today there is a lot of discussion in evangelical circles about the nature of the Gospel. Well – at least there are an increasing number of books and popular engagement over the subject, particularly as it relates to relationship between the gospel as salvation and the gospel as a redemptive force in the real world with it’s challenges, pain, poverty, and many other problems.
I just finished A Cross-Shaped Gospel by Bryan Loritts which is an exploration of these general questions and the theme is captured well by the sub-title “Reconciling Heaven and Earth.” The main premise is that the gospel can be framed symbolically through both the vertical and horizontal beams of the cross. The vertical beam represents one’s relationship with God and the journey of being saved and transformed in Christ through the Spirit. The horizontal beam is one’s relationship to the world, one’s involvement in the real plights and struggles of this fallen world.
One of the things I loved about this book is that I felt like it was real. By real, I mean I feel like the perspectives and theology reflects a close proximity to the issues that were being discussed. I’ve reviewed other books attempting to reconcile the evangelistic mandate of the gospel with social justice. My critique of them has been that they were too “white.” By that I don’t mean that white people can’t offer great perspectives on this issue, but that some of these treatments felt very “distant” from the struggles that people are facing in this life. Social justice is something you have to “go somewhere to do” rather than being something that comes out of one’s natural relationships and engagement with community and society. There’s a lot of ivory tower theology out there I think in evangelical circles, so I was thrilled that Bryan anchored his approach in what the reality for people on both sides of power really is.
Part of this is that Loritts doesn’t try to talk about the Gospel for all peoples without discussing the pervasive issues of power that shape all of our perceptions and attitudes towards politics and spirituality. There were a couple chapters that I thought were just fantastic – one on politics and power that I think every believer would benefit from called “Donkeys and Elephants” and another one on race and power called “The Gospel and O.J. Simpson” that I thought was authentic and an excellent illustration of how our place in society influences where we may see a need for the gospel and God’s justice and where we might be ignorant or blinded to. As an L.A. county native – I lived through the Rodney King/L.A. riots and the O.J. Simpson saga (which unfolded while I was nearby at UCLA). I also loved that he speaks to the dynamics of paternalism to as it relates to social justice and serving different communities and demographics. These dynamics are just as true from a missiological perspective as they are for social justice and empowerment.
There’s solid treatment of the Gospel from the Scriptures and it provides an integrative picture of the connection between the spiritual and the human – evangelism and the ethical and compassionate engagement of people who are different, who are struggling, who are stuck in life in one way or another. We can’t detach the vertical and the horizontal without severely compromising and undermining the message and power of the true gospel of Jesus Christ.
The only thing that I had questions about was that there was a strong focus on racial reconciliation and a holding up of multi-ethnic communities as the ideal reflection of a gospel community. I agree that this is an important part of what the church is called to be and a fruit of the Gospel, but much of the perspective and content of the book is anchored in the black – white tension. Much of this is because that is the context for both the author and the city he is serving in. In that context, I think these are excellent perspectives on what people of different ethnicities are called to. However, I think it could lead some to question contextualized ministry or missiological approaches to starting ministries among different people groups.
I don’t think all churches are in a position to be multi-ethnic, nor are all churches needing to be multi-ethnic because of the nature of their mission and context. I do believe that over time there should be a trajectory of diversity as people are becoming transformed by the gospel and as demographics change, but not everyone will be able to adjust culturally prior to experiencing the power of the gospel. There are times where people need to experience the gospel in their own context. There’s a tension that exists between “being all things for all people” and serving people on their own turf and then leading people towards experiencing the reconciling power of the gospel with people culturally or economically different. The gospel is big enough to overcome this tension, but it’s something we need to lead through with the Spirit given our contexts.
I think in this book, the focus is primarily about the discipleship of people in diverse contexts as opposed to the evangelistic pursuit of pioneering ministries in different cultural contexts that resonate within those communities. That’s still really important. I just spend a lot of time relating to people that feel like all problems would be solved if everyone just came together – which is a false hope anchored in some cross-cultural ignorance and ignorance of power dynamics. The helpful thing about this book though is that it gives some great tools to see peoples realities for what they are and not overlook them and to assess what those power dynamics might be calling people to as followers of Jesus Christ. I don’t think I disagree with Loritts on ministry philosophy, I just felt like the racial reconciliation theme was so strong that many cross-cultural “newbies” may not be able to see where diversity may not be the ideal or the priority as they seek to serve different communities. But in saying that – I firmly believe the gospel calls us to move towards people who are different and that brings great discipleship challenges and opportunities.
But I thought it was so refreshing to read a book that I feel like speaks to many people’s earthly realities, but with a view of what life in the Kingdom can look like when people are living out the gospel across various divides – whether economic, political, or ethnic. I have grown weary of hearing theologians reiterate phrases like, “It’s really important to do good works, but…..” and “It’s really important to care for the poor, but….”. Loritts keeps the focus on death and resurrection of Christ and what that means both vertically and horizontally. While he rightly affirms the primary importance of life vertically with God, I think he also rightly challenges anyone who would seek to divorce the two beams or create too much distance to where gospel becomes something so personal that it is removed from all of what people in society are truly facing.
I fully recommend it. My only other hesitancy with the book is associating the gospel primarily with the symbolism of the cross alone given that I believe the gospel is bigger than that. But I think it’s also a helpful metaphor too though of the vertical and horizontal beams. So I wasn’t too bothered as I have been at other books that pound away at the cross to the neglect of the resurrection and even incarnation.
I think it’s a book that can speak to people of a lot of different backgrounds which I think is a testament to the authenticity and credibility of the content and teaching and illustrations that Loritts brings. But I would especially encourage my white/majority culture friends who are Christian or in ministry to read this if they don’t have much of a framework for how power in society affects how we view the gospel and its mandate for how we relate to others in society.