We used to sing this song in church:
Untold millions are still untold
Untold millions are outside the fold
Who will tell them of Jesus’ love
And the heav’nly mansions awaiting above
This was a song about the importance of evangelism, which was a major theme in our church. Not evangelism itself, mind you, but the importance of it. We believed, fervently, in the importance of evangelism, and we demonstrated this belief by gathering regularly for sermons on the topic of the importance of evangelism, and to sing songs like the one above reaffirming our commitment to the idea that evangelism is really quite important. (To be fair, I’ve experienced something similar in mainline Protestant circles where the importance of justice is a major theme.)
This preoccupation with the importance of evangelism produced a constant state of guilt and anxiety which, in turn, occasionally prompted us to actually attempt the thing itself. Such attempts rarely went well. They succeeded in allowing us to check off a box on our spiritual to-do list — obligation fulfilled! — but they almost never actually succeeded in “winning souls” for Jesus. The targets of our evangelism seemed wholly unfamiliar with the script we were expecting them to follow and we were unprepared for them to be so unimpressed with our urgent message of Heaven and Hell, so we usually wound up parting ways mutually confused and frustrated.
That confusion, frustration, and general ineffectiveness led to additional generations and iterations of that same guilt and anxiety, some of which were spiritually toxic. I want to come back to all of that to explore it further, but here I just want to note that I remember all of that multi-layered guilt and anxiety, and that I sympathize with those immersed in it — such as the dear soul who left this “gospel tract” on a shelf at the Big Box.
This was an odd gesture, almost touching in its awkwardness. I have many thoughts and questions:
1. I’m sure that the person who left this did so out of a genuine concern for the spiritual fate of others — for all those “untold millions still outside the fold.” The message of this tract, they believe, is the difference between an eternity of infinite bliss in Heaven and an eternity of infinite torment in Hell. And, to their credit, the person who left this was demonstrating that they prefer that we be eternally joyful rather than eternally tortured. I appreciate that and I’m grateful for it.
2. Still, though, considering what they believe is at stake here, this is kind of a feeble, passive-aggressive gesture isn’t it? I mean, they’re not being a completely passive bystander to our collective damnation, but they’re still not far from that. It reminds me of Willy Wonka muttering “Help. Police.” under his breath while not lifting a finger to rescue poor Augustus Gloop. The lack of urgency displayed by the gesture undermines the breathless urgency of the text of the tract.
3. Why paint? That’s where they left this tract — in the paint department, not in hardware or electrical or plumbing. Was this person simply shopping there in paint themselves, or did they imagine that paint was where the sinners were likeliest to be shopping? Either way, for future reference, the paint department is probably the worst place to surreptitiously drop your gospel tracts. Those aisles are already littered with misplaced color sample cards and your tract is likely only going to get swept up and tossed, unread, with the rest of those brightly colored little scraps.
4. What do you suppose Ben Franklin would have made of the idea of his likeness being used for a gospel tract like this? What do you suppose his unlikely friend, the evangelist George Whitfield, would make of it?
5. The self-reliant deist Franklin is still probably less inappropriate than the picture of Andrew Jackson on those gospel tracts designed to look like $20 bills. This one uses the same sleazy ploy of grabbing attention by trying to trick the reader into mistaking it for a bit of actual money. That’s an odd Mammon-for-Jesus bait-and-switch tactic — particularly since it seems intended to appeal more to the poor who, according to the Bible, don’t need to get saved.*
But at least this tract wasn’t designed to be left in lieu of a tip for the server in a restaurant, because that’s just stone-cold evil.
6. Franklin also seems like the wrong choice here because he is famously featured on the $100 bill, making it unlikely he would also appear on the $1,000,000 bill that this attempts to seem to be. That would be inconvenient, because you might reach into your wallet for a $100 bill and accidentally hand over a $1 million bill instead, tempting an unscrupulous clerk to take advantage of you.
7. Does the whole “$1 million question” strike anyone else as a bit dated? I suspect this evangelistic copy dates back to the 1970s, before billionaires became the new millionaires. Nowadays, nobody gets excited for a $1 million PowerBall jackpot. Heck, we’ve got a self-proclaimed billionaire running for president who’s going to great lengths to keep his tax returns secret because he’d be embarrassed for the public to learn he’s only actually a multi-millionaire. Or think of how this tract’s million-dollar message would go over in, say, San Francisco’s housing market. Just not sure $1 million has the same cachet it did back when this tract was first written.
8. The message of this tract isn’t quite coherent. It intends to make a hard-sell case for the binary choice of Heaven or Hell — get saved or be damned. But then it says this: “But God is not willing that any should perish. Sinners broke God’s law and Jesus paid their fine.” That suggests penal substitutionary atonement, but not limited atonement. The tract thus inadvertently makes a pretty strong case for universalism.
(I get that the whole TULIP thing can be tricky for gospel-tract copywriters, since such tracts tend to be essentially Arminian tools imputing and appealing to an act of free will on the part of the recipient. So it’s important to avoid any discussion of the U or the I here. But this tract leaves out the L as well, and that undermines its urgency.)
9. I’m not really sure whether or not someone like me was the intended recipient of this Big Box evangelistic effort. On the one hand, I’m a Christian — not one of the “untold millions.” I’m a born-again, baptized believer. But on the other hand, I clearly don’t share this tract-dropper’s soteriology and eschatology. And I voted for Obama (twice). So it’s possible they wouldn’t regard me as a real, true Christian and, thus, would be happy to know their tract found its way into my hands. (At least, they’d be happy about that so long as they never come across this post.)
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* No, that’s not an orthodox statement. Orthodox soteriology, like orthodox trinitarian theology, is an extra-biblical construct. But the beggar Lazarus is not an exception. He’s simply the starkest named example of something suggested throughout the Psalms, the prophets and the Gospels. Why does Lazarus go to paradise? Because he’s poor. Period. The sheep are blessed for feeding the poor. The goats are cursed for neglecting the poor. What of the poor themselves? See Lazarus.
Stating this is likely to make some people angry and defensive — sending them eagerly back to their Bibles to pore over everything it has to say about the poor and God’s love for them. That is, at least, what I’m hoping they’ll do. Kind of what I’m shooting for here.