Hi and welcome back! Last weekend, we watched American Gospel: Christ Alone. It’s a documentary about the true and accurate form of the Gospel, presented by a group of Christians who think they’ve got it right. Immediately after its release, other Christians who disagreed with them went on the attack. One of their main accusations involves the documentary’s nature as ‘Calvinist propaganda.’ This accusation caught my attention — I wanted to examine it, because I wasn’t sure it’s an accurate criticism. So today, let’s explore the heady world of Christian infighting to test a claim.
A Really Dumb Meme.
Over on the Facebook page of the documentary, one finds this meme:
To be fair, it’s a silly meme. The admins of American Gospel’s Facebook page helpfully pointed out exactly why: Peter Parker’s vision is actually perfect without glasses. That’s the whole point of the scene in Spider-Man. A radioactive spider bites him and it turns him into a superhuman. When he puts the glasses on, that’s when his vision is distorted.
If we were going to be doing this right, we’d see Velma searching for her glasses in front of a backdrop of American Gospel imagery. Then she finds her glasses, puts them on, and realizes she’s on the set of SpongeBob SquarePants selling the trash can of Calvinism. I mean, if you wanted to do the meme right. When I first encountered this image, I didn’t yet know for sure one way or the other if it was accurate.
But the accusation itself interested me.
In fact, very few reviews seem to exist of American Gospel: Christ Alone. But the phrase “Calvinist propaganda” pops up in that exact form in quite a few Christian criticisms of it.
Over on Coyle Neal’s blog, Schaeffer’s Ghost, that phrase pops up almost immediately in his comments. And it appears to come from someone who identifies specifically as a Word of Faith believer. (The documentary considers Word of Faith as interchangeable with the phrase prosperity gospel.)
An entire long video from YouTuber “Jew and Greek” discusses the concept as well — and devastatingly so, I might add.
“American Gospel: Documentary or Propaganda?” Uploaded July 24, 2019.
So let’s check out the evidence for this accusation.
::whispering:: I see Calvinists…
Some potent evidence exists to back the accusation of this documentary being nothing more than Calvinist propaganda.
First and foremost, almost every single speaker featured in the movie is a Calvinist.
Only two people featured in this documentary are anything but Calvinist. The documentary creator was kind enough to supply me their names. They are nobody you have ever heard of: Chris Rosebrough, a pastor and radio personality, and Steven Kozar, a blogger and YouTuber who created “The Messed Up Church.” (In the second installment of the series, they feature three more non-Calvinists. I doubt anyone here will ever have heard of them, either.)
So all of the biggest names in this thing are Calvinists. But strangely, none of them identify themselves as such in the documentary. If you didn’t already know they were Calvinist or understand the dogwhistles they constantly use to announce their Calvinist leanings (several mention aspects of the concept of total depravity), you’d have no reason at all to suspect it.
J.D. Greear in particular tries to keep his Calvinism on the down-low, probably because about only half of Southern Baptists have succumbed so far to this ideology.
The Sola Situation.
Second, the documentary names one of the Calvinist pillars of faith, or
solas solae, word-for-word.
However, the documentary never sources this idea as being, in fact, a sola of Calvinism. And it is. It’s called sola fide, or “by faith alone.” It means you can’t earn the approval of the Mad Blood God of the Desert (MBGD). You can only get his approval through faith in his religion. One could easily argue that the documentary combines this idea with solus Christus, or “by Christ alone.” That means that no intermediaries can help you with this god — which includes both Catholic saints and priests/pastors themselves. It’s just you and MBGD.
In fact, I just went back and rewatched that scene (it’s around 15 minutes in). As far as I can tell, they don’t even breathe the name “Calvin” anywhere near the sola slide above. It’s a little weird.
Now let’s explore some other signs of this documentary being “Calvinist propaganda.”
The Calvinist Ideas This Documentary Forgot to Mention.
Strangely, the documentary entirely omits the really awful parts of Calvinism — the election/predestination concept, especially. I’ve never understood why anybody who believes in this notion performs evangelism in the first place. Oh, I know the blahblah explanations for why they simply must do it. Plenty exists. However, it never actually answers the question. Ligonier, for example, literally just punts to mystery on the topic:
If the Lord has chosen those who will be saved, and if they are certain to be saved, what is the point of evangelism? Does not this teaching on predestination mean that we do not have to preach the gospel because God is going to save His elect anyway?
The simplest response is that we do have to preach the gospel, and we have to do so because the Lord has commanded us to preach the gospel. [. . .] What He orders us to do, we must do, regardless of whether we fully understand it.
So there you have it. (See endnote regarding Ray Comfort.)
However, you will not find a single breathed word about election and predestination in this video. Nor will a single person in this video talk about being Calvinist at all.
A Not-So-Strange Omission.
The documentary makers say they omitted these concepts because they don’t view them as “essential.” Fair enough. By the lights of their actual documentary, I agree in principle.
They’re really not essential. To anyone. Ever. Anywhere.
For that matter, I also get why the documentary’s speakers and creators might not want to announce themselves as specifically Calvinist Christians. As J.D. Greear has very obviously discovered, non-Calvinists tend to have a very negative view of Calvinism.
American Gospel sells a distinctly Calvinist package of beliefs to Christians. Unfortunately, that package includes the nonessential bits that make Calvinism the truly grotesque and inhumanly cruel ideology that it is. Once their audience figures out those other bits exist, it’s going to make them wonder why they should buy the less-offensive bits. Signing on to one plank in the platform almost obligates them to accept the rest.
And y’all, if viewers figure out just how far these creators went to obfuscate the Calvinist influences on their beliefs, that discovery may even make them distrust the sola/solae presented as essential.
Mischaracterizing the Enemies.
The documentary takes potshots at three main perceived enemies:
- those awful Word of Faith people who preach Prosperity Gospel nonsense and scam people with fake magic-healing sessions
- Catholics who worship Mary and pray to saints and confess to priests, while condemning the idea of salvation-by-faith-alone
- Bethel Church just in general and for taking the Bible’s promises about magic healing wayyyyy too far
The anti-Catholic angle gets dropped after being introduced and explored a bit.
Interestingly, the Council of Trent represented a salvo from the Catholic Church against Martin Luther’s ideas. But that link about it clearly states that the problem they had wasn’t with faith vs. works as the path to salvation:
After months of intense debate, the council [of Trent] ruled against Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone: man, the council said, was inwardly justified by cooperating with divine grace that God bestows gratuitously.
After the documentary forgets about Catholicism as an enemy (except to complain later on about them being way too suspiciously friendly with the adherents of other religions), that leaves us with Word of Faith/Prosperity Gospel preachers and Bethel Church.
For some reason, this documentary’s creators think that their worst Protestant enemies believe that people can get to Heaven through their own behavior (which they define as “works,” used as a noun). They imply that “works” involves stuff like doing charity, following the right set of rules, and performing Christian devotions. Under Calvinist beliefs, “works” can mean simply thinking that humans have anything whatsoever to do with their ultimate eternal fate.
Of course, very few Protestants I have ever encountered really believes that any human can earn their way to Heaven without holding proper beliefs. Y’all, even Catholics don’t think that.
After the video’s release, adherents of Word of Faith reacted quite strongly to what they saw as the smearing of their beliefs and leaders. That “Jew and Greek” video explores those mischaracterizations in excruciating detail.
At one point, the documentary features Benny Hinn insisting that the members of the Trinity each have three parts, meaning there would ultimately be nine members of the godhead rather than three. However, Hinn quickly retracted and apologized for saying it. In fact, in the same interview in which he did this, he also retracted a lot of his most egregious teachings about magic healing and prosperity. (How contrite was he really? I don’t know. But he did formally renounce this stuff. He still does.)
At many other points, the documentary shows various Prosperity Gospel preachers crowing about getting wealth and expensive luxury toys in exchange for their obedience. But that “Jew and Greek” video also shows them preaching the same true-and-correct “Gospel” that the documentary makers insist is the only accurate version of it.
It’s sad to see a decently-made documentary with a decently-good message about Prosperity Gospel getting hung up on the typical Christian “sins” of cherry-picking and quote-mining. (See endnote regarding the worst of these “sins” as applied to Joel Osteen, of all people.)
In short, it seems like every one of the Prosperity Gospel hucksters this documentary hates so much actually believes in the correct form of “the Gospel” — and preaches it exactly as American Gospel would like to see.
As the Night the Day.
One is left wondering why American Gospel felt such egregious mischaracterization was even necessary. They really want to link greedy Prosperity-Gospel hucksters with the wrong “Gospel” message. We’ve seen that link before, many times. The idea is that correct behavior flows from correct beliefs, as the night the day. So incorrect beliefs bring about incorrect behavior.
However, all of the greedy hucksters profiled in American Gospel certainly seem to believe the exactly same “Gospel” message that American Gospel insists is the only correct one.
And their opening/closing speaker, the ex-Muslim Nabeel Qureshi, figured that out for himself.
After he got diagnosed with Stage 4 stomach cancer, he attended Bethel Church — the faith-healing wackadoos that American Gospel hates perhaps most of all. As “Jew and Greek” reveals with receipts, Qureshi was surprised to discover that the leaders of Bethel Church seemed to preach exactly the correct message! Of course, he was there to seek magic healing — which had suddenly become A-OK for him to seek.
Weirdly, however, Qureshi’s observations never made it into American Gospel. The documentary details his struggles with cancer (about 1:55:00 in), but I don’t think they ever mention that he attended Bethel and liked it just fine. They even show him praying at the end of his life for magic healing. Just as happened to my pastor years and years ago, though, nobody magically healed Qureshi despite many Christians’ prayers. Sadly, he died of his illness.
However, now that I know Qureshi went to Bethel for magic healing I suddenly understand this section of the documentary much better. The speakers who knew him at the end of his life all dance around this whole situation with him at Bethel.
Let’s Bring It All Home: Spotting Propaganda.
A library guide helpfully shows us how to spot propaganda:
- Name-calling. The documentary doesn’t really do this, but they do make their opponents look like fake Christians — constantly.
- Glittering generalities. Obviously, every Christian wants to embrace the real “Gospel,” right? So by calling their approach “Biblical” and “the Gospel,” they make all other approaches look like the opposite.
- Transfer. Every bad trait I could name about Calvinists that I’ve personally encountered ends up being assigned to their outgroups. Similarly, the Calvinists who appear in this documentary tend to be shown in flattering lights, in offices, holding Bibles, etc., making them seem more scholarly and educated.
- Testimonials. Oh, we get tons of these.
- Plain folks. All of the Calvinists try to paint themselves as normal people who certainly wouldn’t ever own or even desire big mansions, private planes, and other such luxuries. Their enemies, however, absolutely do.
- Card stacking. Tons of this. They only use the bits of Calvinism that support their “the Gospel” view, and only use clips and writing from opposing viewpoints that makes their enemies look just terrible.
- Bandwagon. Maybe not so much. Instead, we get a sense of impending martyrdom for those who pursue TRUE CHRISTIANITY™. It definitely pushes a more-hardcore-than-thou version of the religion.
So yes: this documentary represents Calvinist propaganda by any reasonable definition of the term. It’s subtle, but almost all of the signs are there.
The speakers in this documentary embrace a belief system that repels most people. They’re totes fine with a god who condemns their own children (and indeed most of humanity) to eternal suffering, who lets them die in misery and pain of illnesses he could totally heal but mysteriously doesn’t, and who insists that his salespeople use terroristic threats as a marketing tactic instead of informed consent. In a lot of ways, these folks are way worse than the enemies they attack, and that’s before we get into the actual behavior of Matt Chandler, Ray Comfort, et al.
I don’t think they’ll poach a lot of Christians by pushing this hard on threats and extortion in evangelism. Oh, they’ll win those few people who needed an extra jot of authoritarianism in their Jesus-ing. No doubt. But these tactics win fewer and fewer people — and alienate more and more people.
That’s good. Their utter embrace of threats, cruelty, and extortion means they’re running scared. They know that there’s no more luxury time to waste with tactics that they know don’t work. That means no more Mr. Nice Jesus. No more lovey-dovey Jeebus wubs you!
Now they’re in it to win it.
This documentary could only have happened during Christianity’s decline. So consider it thusly: a very biased tribal salvo against the outgroup, one that ultimately hasn’t — and won’t — and can’t — change much.
NEXT UP: A downright stunning story of catfishing and deception — committed by the controversial leader of a #MeToo group. See you tomorrow!
About Ray Comfort apparently being a Calvinist: At first, it really surprised me to learn that Ray Comfort buys into Calvinism, given how fervently he evangelizes. But given how dishonest, skeevy, and downright manipulative his approach is, I came around to the idea surprisingly quickly. Of course he buys into the worst flavor of Christianity that has ever existed since the religion’s invention almost 2000 years ago. What on earth else would Ray Comfort buy into? (Back to the post!)
About Joel Osteen: The documentary offers a clip of Joel Osteen preaching that most people are basically good at heart. They condemn it because obviously, nobody is truly good (in Calvinism as well as in other flavors of Christianity — it means everybody needs MBGD’s forgiveness and grace to escape Hell). However, “Jew and Greek” helpfully offers the full context of the quote.
Suddenly, that clip pops into focus as a small part of Joel Osteen’s overall message about the true-and-correct “Gospel.” In that message, he says that people often need love and kindness from their fellow humans to reach their full potential in this life. As much as I dislike Joel Osteen, it’s a good sermon and he’s quite right. (Back to the post!)
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