Hi and welcome back! Yesterday, we watched American Gospel: Christ Alone. In this 2018 documentary, Christians bicker and argue about exactly what ‘the gospel’ even means. The documentary makers decide ultimately that it means not prosperity gospel. Today, let me show you this documentary — and we’ll see how well they make their case.
(LSP moved to Tuesday — join me tomorrow for the beginning of the end of this iconic Satanic Panic novel!)
American Gospel: SO DISTORTED.
The movie opens with a number of Christians expressing great sadness that “the gospel” and “Jesus” are being so vastly distorted by Bad Christians.
A guy saying he’s an ex-Muslim tells us with wide earnest eyes that the Christians around him never actually told him about “the gospel,” so he concluded that they either didn’t really believe or they didn’t care if he went to Hell.
I noticed that every one of these subjects kept glancing off to the side while they spoke. I don’t know what it means, but it really makes them sound insincere somehow.
Either way. Nobody takes “the gospel” seriously anymore, apparently!
Therapeutic Moralistic Deism: The Enemy of American Gospel.
Someone comes in to talk about therapeutic moralistic deism. This is the enemy of the documentary American Gospel. Well, one of ’em. The term means, to evangelicals, a religion based around becoming a better person and being nice to people. And to them, this is just the worst thing ever.
An earnest young-adult Christian man tells us he felt “dead” despite being a Christian his whole life. Then we cut to Joel Osteen giving a sermon. Osteen tell his audience, “I’m asking you to feel good about who you are.”
The documentary’s expert tells us that therapeutic moralistic deism makes churches “Christless.” The ex-Muslim comes in to say that too many Christians think the gospel is “all about us.”
Various Christians — all young-adult men — tell us that the Bible and Jesus have changed their entire perspective of Christianity. They all insist that the realization was nothing they did. No, it was totally a miraculous strong-arming by nothing less than the god of the whole universe, just so they’d realize they were Jesus-ing all wrong. Out of the clear blue sky, they all realized they needed to become even more authoritarian.
Then the splash screen comes on.
How to Jesus.
More Christians come on — finally, we get a woman, and a person of color (POC) at that — to tell us that their original way of Jesus-ing was not at all correct. The POC woman tells us that she never realized the Gospel was “a big deal.”
Matt Chandler shows up to tell us that non-Christians often think Christianity is about “a moral betterment program.” Let’s remember he’s the one who shielded a pedophile from his own church and tried to “discipline” the woman who alerted everyone and then dumped him. No, nobody seriously looks at his religion and thinks that. Instead, they think his religion is a bunch of hypocrites pretending to be moral authorities and forcing others to live by the rules that even they can’t follow and/or don’t care about following.
Another pastor comes on to say that Jesus-ing properly doesn’t involve all that moralizing. He says it’s not only a “sub-Christian message, it’s actually an anti-Christian message.”
The barely-suppressed smirk he wears throughout this speech tells me he’s trotted it out more than a few times to great applause.
One of the other pastors tells us that Jesus’ addition of thoughtcrime to Christianity means that Christians can never be pure enough to please their god. And this is very good, apparently!
The pastor upset about sub-Christians and anti-Christians comes in to say that a message based around morality will ultimately either end with listeners proudly deciding they’re doing great — or despairing because they’ll never be good enough. And both are obviously dead wrong.
These are definitely Calvinists.
American Gospel Loves Banana-Man.
Ray Comfort heads out to the streets to ask people if they’re a good person. This is part of his usual schtick — he loves asking that, so he can zinger his victims about lying or something. Then, he tries to sell them his product using a manufactured terror of Hell.
It’s so incredibly dishonest.
And to my utter surprise, this documentary approves completely of him and his entire approach.
Interestingly, one of their pastor dudes comes on and offers this terrible analogy for how Christians mis-Jesus their Jesus-ing: he says all those Christian rules are like a mirror reflecting his god’s opinion. But the way Christians Jesus, it’s like looking at a mirror on the wall, noticing they have something stuck in their teeth, and then taking the mirror off the wall to pick their teeth with it. What they should do instead, he says, is beg for help because they can’t get the thing off their teeth by themselves.
OH MY DOG this guy’s tedious. He, too, wears a smirk that says he’s used this bad analogy before and everyone loved it.
When Ray Comfort’s victim insists he’s not a bad person, another pastor comes on to smirk that he is indeed bad, that everyone is bad compared to Jesus.
Oh, and J.D. Greear comes on. He looks higher than balls and talks about how people are “programmed” to love everything more than his imaginary friend. (Mr. Captain thought it looked like he was on Adderall.)
Notably, J.D.Greear is a Calvinist. So this documentary likes him.
All these self-righteous, self-satisfied, condescending Christian smirks are starting to circle around me and chant.
How Atheists Get Made, According to American Gospel.
Now that the documentary has established that everyone is a bad person, then obviously only its creators’ particular product — proper Jesus-ing in their particular groups — can save viewers from the manufactured fear of Hell. Once purchased, according to them, people become free of that fear. But those who Jesus wrong can’t ever escape it.
The POC lady shows up again to say that obviously, Millennials keep leaving churches because that fear made them despair eventually. She claims that Christians become atheists because their pastors didn’t preach the right message. These ex-Christians decide they can never please Jesus anyway, so why even try?
Of course, people leave her group too. I guarantee it. She makes a blatant misrepresentation here. That is not why Millennials leave churches. But I’ve noticed Christians flinging that accusation these past few years and wonder if this is where they get it, or if there’s some Q source that these Christians and this documentary drew from.
Bunches of pastors now drill down on this exact message. They offer up the standard-issue Christian argument of substitutionary atonement. Blah blah blah. This is not different from what I heard growing up in both Catholicism and several flavors of Protestantism.
And they all think the Gospels offer an accurate retelling of history. It’s so cute.
The Fight in American Gospel.
Now we hear one of the Calvinist solas: “justification by faith alone.”
I was shocked to notice they didn’t explicitly identify it as Calvinist. If I hadn’t already known it was Calvinist, I’d have had no hint of its source.
(In fact, they will never identify anybody they like as Calvinist — that I can remember anyway. They’re extremely careful to pitch this documentary as TRUE CHRISTIANS™ vs. Fakey-Fake Christians, not Proper Calvinists vs. All Those Arminian Heathen Heretics.)
In other words, they declare, you can’t work your way to divine approval and Heaven. Again, this is something nearly every Christian group says. The documentary refers to this solution as “Gospel Essentials.”
This sola means that if Christians have faith, then their god decides they’re righteous anyway even though they’re not.
Now they have to sell this idea as the only way to Jesus.
Next, they attack Catholicism for believing in works-based salvation, which is not actually what I learned growing up in hardcore Catholicism.
One guy very earnestly declares that Catholic leaders went after anybody who held what he called “a biblical gospel,” by which he means that sola of course, because obviously the way that Calvin Jesus-ed is exactly how today’s Calvinists Jesus.
One smirking pastor says that Catholics are a “plus religion” because they believe in “faith plus works” and “Scripture plus tradition,” as if his own ideology doesn’t do all of that in its own way.
Naturally these guys go after the intermediaries in Catholicism, and the whole ginned-up charge of Mariolatry (worship of the Virgin Mary).
(AHHHH! One of them uses the term “TRUE CHRISTIAN™.” In fact he catches himself saying just “Christian” and has to amend it by fixing on that “true” modifier.)
So far, this documentary presents us with a solid anti-sales pitch.
A Quick Side Note About the Exodus.
This thing’s 2-1/2 hours long. I’m not gonna recount every bit of it. But this cries out for attention:
One of the smirking pastors comes on to explain that belief alone is the right way to Jesus. He makes his point using the myth of the Exodus. The way he explains it, his god didn’t tell the Jews to do this and that, and then he’d save them. According to this guy, Yahweh just told them, I’ve redeemed you and now here’s the way out.
Um, that is not what happened. Did he not read that myth?
First, the Jews had to do all kinds of stuff to obey their god’s weird instructions. They had to slaughter a lamb, cover their doorways with its blood using special herbs, then eat a very special meal and demand money from their neighbors. Any Jew not following those instructions might die — or see one of their kids die — in hideous fashion.
Second, after all those instructions were correctly completed, their god told them to skedaddle out of town. But it was them walking and them working out the logistics for the most part, and Moses was the one relaying those instructions.
So now we’ve caught this documentary making several incorrect claims.
True Christians vs. Fakey-Fake Christians.
So far the documentary’s hammered hard at the idea that a lot of Christians aren’t TRUE CHRISTIANS™. Worse, it insists that many of them don’t even realize it.
Well, a lot of those fake Christians would say the exact same thing of the TRUE CHRISTIANS™ in this documentary. And they’d have Bible verses and arguments-in-lieu-of-evidence aplenty as well to bolster their own counterclaims.
(Have I mentioned that I’m drinking limoncello and San Pellegrino orange soda right now out of a Japanese-style teacup printed in frogs copulating in different positions with Japanese labels? Yes, my attention is wandering.)
Logical Fallacies, Strawmen, and Bad Arguments Ahoy!
In addition to seriously not understanding what the Gospels actually are, this documentary makes liberal use of really bad logical fallacies. I’ve caught a bunch so far, but the one that stands out right now is the old Lord/Liar/Lunatic argument.
One very red-faced smirking pastor holds out his hands as he tells us that Jesus was either a megalomaniac “or he is who he said he was.”
Um, this is a false dilemma. Jesus could also have been sincere but simply wrong, or he could also be nonexistent because his ghostwriters just made him up and they weren’t always in touch with what their peers were writing about their new idol.
Then a smirking dude gets mad because pastors preach messages that are not sufficiently Jesus-ified for his tastes. Seriously. He complains that a sermon called “Dare to be a Daniel” is not completely centered on Jesus.
One of the wilder-eyed smirking pastors then tells us what The Big Problem Here is with fake Christians: they don’t understand that the entire Bible is about Jesus, and every story in it relates to him somehow!
(This would be total news to literally all the Christians everywhere who Jesus incorrectly according to this judgmental Christian. That was the crux of my entire big scene debating the M.Div as a college fundagelical.)
The Danger of Prosperity Gospel.
At 38 minutes, we meet Katherine, who converted as a teen with her friends. She drifted out later after meeting an atheist man. But he converted to TRUE CHRISTIANITY™. Around this time, she fell sick with a claimed lifelong chronic illness and she converted too.
At some point she began listening to various Word of Faith preachers. I can’t tell if this was before or after her conversion to TRUE CHRISTIANITY™. Either way, Word of Faith is another way to say prosperity gospel. It means that if a Christian totally believes a miracle will happen for them, it will.
She claims an Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS) diagnosis as well as some other diagnoses that, combined with her behavior, raised serious Munchausen flags for me. A lot of munchie women join evangelical church groups, which is how I ended up learning about their very disturbing world. Christians tend not to have any idea how to assess real-world claims, so they’re fish in a barrel to such folks.
Katherine and lots of other Christian laypeople talk about prosperity gospel and how they fell in with it.
One of these others is a smirking ex-drug-dealer who only talks out of one side of his mouth. His half-smirk is legend. And he’s very proud of having dragged his young family out to a dangerously-undeveloped country so he could go play Jesus Messiah to brown people. I guess there weren’t enough heathens in his own hometown. Oh wait, he made clear that there sure are. Hm.
Another critic is Benny Hinn’s nephew, who worked as a “catcher” for the preacher’s praying/preying sessions. We heard that term during the Toronto Blessing — specified people stand by to “catch” peers who fall down while in the throes of religious ecstasy, so they don’t hit the ground too hard or disarray their clothes too much. This ex-catcher says that his sportsball coach jarred him out of prosperity gospel by talking about divine sovereignty, which here means their god’s control of all the universe. Calvinists are big on that.
Oof. Gonna need more limoncello.
And Now, They Slam Seeker-Sensitive Churches.
Another guy in a gym tells us that prosperity gospel is an awful outgrowth of seeker-sensitive churches. Remember those? We talked about it very recently.
This documentary does not approve at all of seeker-sensitive churches. Bunches of smirking guys come on to tell us how very non-Jesus-y it is. One guy compares the seeker-sensitive god to Satan! (Oh, he wishes!)
They all seem to disapprove mightily of anybody who tries to sell product by appealing to potential recruits rather than disapproving at them.
This section appears to end with all these smirking men telling us their testimonies and insisting that Jesus has totally fulfilled all their needs and desires now that they’re away from prosperity gospel, whereas when they were into prosperity gospel they were never truly satisfied.
It’s worth noting that one of them, a preacher with Ravi Zacharias’ group, claims that he bought a sportscar and that the joy wore off quickly, back in his pre-enlightened days. He was already thinking of the next car he wanted! Well, I had my Miata for many years. And my joy with it never wore off. That car delighted me from the first moment I saw it to the last moment its new owner took it away. I was always thrilled with that car.
Maybe the difference between us involves our outlook on life. I’ve been sufficient within myself for a long, long time, and I know now not to look to religion to provide that which all along needed to come from inside myself.
American Gospel: It’s All About the MONEY.
SUDDENLY, Kenneth Copeland hysterically screams “MONEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEY!” at the top of his lungs to wild applause from a massive congregation.
American Gospel starts ramping up now. They show clips of all these leaders who Jesus incorrectly. The documentary creators are downright outraged about anybody wanting Christianity to help them live better lives. They harp on salvation by works all the time.
One thing a couple of their speakers have noted so far, including the ex-drug dealer who only speaks and smirks through one side of his mouth, is their disapproval of any sermon that a non-TRUE CHRISTIAN™ might like and enjoy. That possible enjoyment could only happen if a sermon isn’t Jesus-y enough.
By the way, because this documentary is totally boring I looked up Katherine online and discovered that her husband was fired from his job at Crossfit for being a homophobic dickhole. That happened in early June 2018, and this doco came out in October 2018. I wonder if this couple came to the documentary-makers’ attention because of that firing. If he expected to find a new job or replacement income through this documentary, it definitely didn’t happen.
But We Were SOOOOO Empty Inside, Y’all.
Many of the TRUE CHRISTIANS™ talked a lot about how prosperous, fun, and luxurious their lives were when they Jesus-ed wrong. But y’all, like Sportscar Dude was, they were all unhappy. They weren’t happy till they gave that up and began Jesus-ing correctly.
American Gospel talks a lot about stuff we talked about much earlier when we discussed the Toronto Blessing. They show clips from pastors and scenes from The Secret. Needless to say, they do not approve.
I’m trying to organize this review, but the documentary really jumps around. It entirely lacks a clear narrative or point. This review probably gives it way more cohesion than it actually contains.
At 1:23:00, we finally meet Todd White. Turns out he’s only one of the pastors at his big megachurch, if not just a lay speaker like Biff was (this tweet indicates he’s not a pastor at all but just a member of his church, so seriously, I don’t know). He’s also a street preacher who conducts impromptu magic-healing sessions. (Remember this. It’ll become important later.)
My goodness. Also, White super likes Kenneth Copeland. The movie offers us a clip of the two men together and y’all, White even pulled back his dreadlocks and put on a long-sleeved shirt for this meeting with his idol!
Suddenly A Wild Mr. Captain Appears.
Mr. Captain suddenly spoke up. I wasn’t even aware he was listening! But he was.
We’re at about 1:25:00 now and Kenneth Copeland’s talking about “spiritual DNA.” He asserts repeatedly in clips that Adam was just like Yahweh, that he was part of Yahweh, and that by extension so are Christians today. He says, in a clip, that his flock has “the same spiritual DNA as Jesus” and are “a twin to the Master himself.” Further, Adam was “God manifested in the flesh.”
Mr. Captain said:
This guy’s preaching the sin that condemned Lucifer forever and made him the biggest villain in all of Christianity. He’s literally preaching takes-itself-seriously Christian Satanism. That’s what his version of prosperity gospel is: You can control Creation. You can do what Yahweh does and hold his power. It’s not just the worship of Satan. It’s preaching the sin and hubris that got Satan cast into Hell.
The hubris! The arrogance! And the crushing ignorance of what the Bible says! I’m speechless!
Has anybody ever brought this up? I can’t be the only one who’s ever noticed it.
Boy, a Christian dun goofed if even Mr. Captain notices and gets mortally offended. I wish I could show you all the hand gestures he made while talking. I mean, I’ve written so much about prosperity gospel before, but he’d never really connected the dots before now. Ultimately, he was impressed though. He thinks prosperity gospel preachers are, collectively, the Antichrist now. (He’s drinking with me and refers to his current state as “nicely comfortable.”)
This doctrine also deeply offends Phil Johnson of the ministry Grace to You. Okay…?
Word of Faith BlahBlah.
We’ve talked about this so much already with the Toronto Blessing and I don’t want to retread. But American Gospel reeeeeally wants to talk about it, because of course that’s a big part of prosperity gospel. It’s officially called Word of Faith, and Kenneth Copeland is one of this movement’s biggest names.
(Mr. Captain won’t stop talking about writing a novel about the Endtimes and making the Big Bad Villain the collective Antichrist.)
Eventually, American Gospel slides into a big slapfight over the Trinity. It made my eyes glaze over. They had three circles sliding around and around each other as if that helps explain anything or makes their take on the topic less heretical.
But I will say that it was funny that one of their criticisms of Word of Faith is that it tries to destroy the concept of an immutable god, in other words a god who can stop being a god. They think their enemies try “to take Jesus and diminish his deity” so they can “exalt humanity.” I’ve run into the very most toxic of Christians who use the word immutable like it’s Peter Pan’s fairy dust making their wackadoo ideas sound reasonable.
That will likely come as news to anybody who disagrees with them.
At least these Christians accurately recognize exactly why Word of Faith blames Christians themselves when they don’t get what they demand from Jesus: because the message must remain perfect. That leaves only humans as the element that malfunctioned.
Over-Emphasis on Miracles.
Word of Faith, of course, involves a big emphasis on miracles.
(Mr. Captain: “I just want to say. Tell them. I’d make such a better Christianity. It would be such a badass story. Y’all think you’re all Christians, but you’re really following the will of Satan!”)
As it turns out, Todd White’s magic-healing streetscapades involve none other than leg-lengthening! Seriously! That stupid obvious conjob scam! Someone’s still doing it! I cannot even.
But this movie reveals exactly how it’s done and accurately reveals that it is in fact a scam. I liked how they revealed that.
Now if only they’d apply that kind of critical thinking to their own claims. Ray Comfort alone would be out of work if they did that.
They contrast Todd White’s antics with street preachers screeching about sin and repentance. Amazingly, however, they approve wholeheartedly of these guys.
American Gospel and Its Favored Sales Techniques.
This documentary really doesn’t like love-based evangelism. They vastly prefer disapproval and authoritarian demands. Therefore, anybody who refuses to disapprove at people or make authoritarian demands is Jesus-ing all wrong.
It really amazes me that they present these obnoxious street preachers with complete approval. I guess these preachers will make sales with those who respond to such things. Those folks will be authoritarians themselves, either leaders or followers. These tactics don’t work on others.
And these speakers are totally convinced that any Christians who criticize them are doing it because they feel guilty about not Jesus-ing as hard as these TRUE CHRISTIANS™ do. Indeed, they’re happy to alienate themselves from the Christians in their families and friends circles who don’t agree with them. And they’re proud of saying they love their imaginary friend more than those real-life friends and family members, even their own children.
A big part of the documentary’s endgame involves Christians talking about how their god ordained everything, including sickness. I assume they mean coronavirus and child abuse too. How nice of this god.
Oh yeah, they’re definitely Calvinists.
Yikes. It amazes me that so many of this movie’s fans think it will totally convert non-Christians.
One Gospel to Rule Them All.
Toward the end, one earnest TRUE CHRISTIAN™ declares that Christians need to unify around the Gospel, so they need to agree on what that Gospel means. But they can’t.
Obviously, he means he wants every other Christian to agree to unify around his version of the Gospel.
Good luck with that, dude.
All those other Christians think these folks are the ones who Jesus all wrong. And y’all, they have lots of highlighted Bible passages to support their ideas too.
The Problem of Evil.
We’re about fifteen minutes from the end now, and I guess this is where they have to explain the Problem of Evil. It doesn’t work and it’s largely the same blahblah we’ve heard a million times, but gosh darn it, they sure try.
Eventually, Katherine, the lady who sent off all those munchie alarm bells for me, dominates this part of the documentary. The alarm bells continue to ring and get louder as she poses in hospital pictures and shows off all her medical props and toys. We get very quick glances at apparent diagnosis sheets that may or may not be actual ones from reputable doctors. She earnestly informs us that she went past asking for magic healing for her two main diagnoses, and eventually she just wanted her god to “be in control” of her life, meaning to take the situation in hand I guess. And now of course she is very, very happy compared to how she previously Jesus-ed.
Her inclusion and dominance of this section confuses me. There are tons of Christians with serious illnesses who’ve made peace with it and are still Christians, and I’m sure a lot of them are Calvinists. Indeed, one of their favored speakers has cerebral palsy and he briefly rationalizes the Problem of Evil for us as well. But he’s not the focus here, and I don’t understand why not.
Instead, they just have to have the main part of this section given by a woman whose husband just so happens to have been recently and very publicly fired for being a homophobic dickhole-for-Jesus.
In the end, all the TRUE CHRISTIANS™ all express their acceptance of magic healing in principle. Oh yes, of course that totally happens for a lot of Christians, yup yup. But then they all declare they’re cool with their god’s decision either way. If he wants people to die in agony and terror, well, them’s the breaks and they’re totes fine with it.
At the very end one guy says he wishes people saw more suffering and death, so they’d be more scared of Hell and thus more likely to purchase his product.
Mr. Captain’s reaction to this statement cannot be printed here, and neither can mine.
UGH JUST END ALREADY: -10/10
Choice of spokespeople: 0/10
Ray Comfort in particular: -10/10
Interdenominational slapfighting: 10/10 did not disappoint at all
Shutting up about Word of Faith: 1/10
Hamfisted emotional manipulation: -10/10
False claims: -10/10
Explanation of the leg-lengthening scam: 8/10
Likelihood of persuading non-believers to convert: Haha no
Chances of them being the one and only TRUE CHRISTIANS™: LOLWUT
I see smirks, smirks in the deep: THEY ARE COMING
Total: -21/10. Not worth slogging through to reach its few good points.
Ultimately, this documentary was way too long and accidentally painted its makers as stone-cold asshats who completely lacked real compassion. Their hatred of their ideological enemies was fine — Word of Faith preachers are notoriously awful people — but their own approach doesn’t come off as any better at all.
The creators of American Gospel entirely lack discernment regarding their tribemates. Ray Comfort never comes off in this thing as anything but a dishonest buffoon using fear to sell product. The amount of emotional manipulation he uses in these encounters is extremely distasteful.
But their problem hardly ended with that huckster. Did they think we’d all forgotten about Matt Chandler’s disgraceful handling of Jordan Root? Could they not find someone more credible than Katherine to explain the disappointing reality of Prosperity Gospel’s notion of magical healing? Was there not any street preacher they could find who isn’t obnoxious, nasty, control-hungry, or terrified of death to display the correct way to evangelize?
Even worse, they made a multitude of false and misleading claims and fallacious arguments that undermined the few good points they made about leg lengthening and Word of Faith.
In summary, this documentary will make Calvinists very happy while enraging anybody who likes the preachers, ideas, and groups they rail against. But it won’t do much for anybody else. As someone who stands well outside both those tribes and dislikes/disagrees with them both, I found little to recommend in this documentary.
NEXT UP: The finale of This Present Darkness heats up! Sort of.
Please Support What I Do!
Come join us on Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, Twitter, and our forum at rolltodisbelieve.com! (Also Instagram, where I mostly post cat pictures. About 99% of my insta consists of Bother being adorable.)
Also please check out our Graceful Atheist podcast interview!
If you like what you see, I gratefully welcome your support. Please consider becoming one of my monthly patrons via Patreon with Roll to Disbelieve for as little as $1/month! My PayPal is firstname.lastname@example.org (that’s an underscore in there) for one-time tips. You can also support this blog through my Amazon Affiliate link–and, of course, by liking and sharing my posts on social media! This blog exists because of readers’ support. I appreciate every single bit of it.
Penultimate Note: I’ve been told I might have EDS. However, I won’t officially cop to it unless I get a genetic test for it. Conversely, I’ve got osteoarthritis, and that’s been tested and verified through multiple MRI scans. That one comes with very few medical toys so far and isn’t glamorous at all.
Last Note: Mr. Captain reiterates for posterity: “Prosperity doctrine literally consists of the majority Christian sect preaching and praying and donating money and practicing a version of Christianity based around an ideology that got Satan thrown out of Heaven. This needs to be a book.”