The Gospel: Meaning and Magic Amid Decline

The Gospel: Meaning and Magic Amid Decline October 21, 2020

Hi and welcome back! For years now, evangelical leaders have coped poorly or not at all with their overall decline in cultural clout. As that decline starts hitting closer to home than ever, though, they’ve been leaning harder than ever on a concept they’ve imbued with magical powers: the gospel. Today, let me show you what they mean by this popular Christianese phrase.

the gospel spread via science
(Robert Koorenny.) Spreading ‘the gospel,’ one self-contradictory talking point at a time.

(Evangelicals often don’t capitalize the phrase ‘the gospel.’ I vastly prefer that convention myself. In quoted material, I reproduce whatever convention the original writer used.)

Christianese: The Gospel.

In regular parlance, the plural form of the Gospels refers to the first four books of the New Testament. These four books relate the obviously-mythologized biography of Jesus.

Also in regular parlance, the singular form the gospel officially means “the good news.” The “good news” refers to the arrival of Jesus to Earth to save humanity from himself. Of course, Jesus’ offer only applies if people psychically apologize for offending him before they knew him. Then, they must comply with all of the demands his self-appointed spokespeople make of them while continuing to apologize endlessly for continuing to offend him for being exactly what he made them to be.

Amazingly, that’s all considered “good news” to Christians and not a hideous abuse of power on the part of what would, if he really existed, be the enemy of all humankind.

However, the gospel  means something slightly different in Christianese.

Used by mostly the sales-minded flavors of Christianity (notably evangelicals), it refers to the sum total of their message. It begins with the extortion demand above. Then, it ladles atop that demand their beautiful, universal message of endless culture wars, white male supremacism, xenophobia, bigotry, misogyny, willful ignorance, veiled and not-so-veiled aggression, narcissism, breathtaking hubris, cruelty, hypocrisy, and most of all their giddy schoolyard bully’s glee at the idea of destroying absolutely anything their tribal enemies hold dear.

The Christianese version of the gospel reminds me of a sundae made of three scoops of 2020, then topped with the mask evangelicals consistently refuse to wear.

Then, I guess, evangelicals piss on it and then set it on fire.

Because that’s our world now.

In the Wild.

Bible Project laments that Christians don’t seem to have a consistent definition for the gospel. Their solution: the Original Greek and Hebrew! Hooray! It’s been at least 12 hours since I saw evangelicals going there. Now we can reset our clock! After some effort, they land here:

The Christian gospel is the announcement that Jesus is the divine king of the world who lived, died, and was raised to be the ruler we so desperately need. And if a new king is in charge, this means that a new way of life is in order.

It’s almost impressive, how they managed to reframe such an obviously-authoritarian set of demands made without a shred of objective evidence as somehow being perfectly reasonable.

Like why yes, of course. How silly of us. Obviously, “a new way of life is in order” once one hears this evidence-free “good news.” And who better to tell us all what that new way of life looks like than the very people who know what the “good news” even is, despite not living like they do?

Gosh, y’all, it’s all so clear now!

But there’s more to the story. Bible Project spent who-knows-how-much-time on this laborious post. The results? Oh, the exact same definition that almost all evangelicals use as a default anyway.

A Hilarious Consistency.

I haven’t yet seen any evangelical definition of the gospel that varies overmuch. J. Warner Wallace defines it as I’ve described, as does Got Questions. When Christians don’t bother to define the gospel, they still use the phrase in ways that indicate that they subscribe to its standard evangelical definition, as this rather odd blog post does.

It’s amazing how all of these Christian leaders all think that their own hair-splitting definition differs hugely from that of all other competing flavors of evangelicalism.

Nor do they ever notice how odd it is that literally every one of them just so happened to pick exactly the correct definition out of all of these different ones that are so drastically (in their minds anyway) different.

Nope! All they know is that their own Bible studies and fervent prayer all confirmed that they were right, which makes everyone else wrong. Obviously.

Motivated reasoning is a helluva drug, I guess, especially to authoritarians who live in terror of being wrong about anything.

Reframing Wickedness as Good News.

Those mental quirks lead evangelicals to try very hard to reframe their “good news” to sound like anything but what it is, an extortion demand:

Guess what? Here’s this big important thing you need to know. No, I’ve got no objective evidence for any of this. In fact, reality itself contradicts my assertions in every way. But you must take my word for it. Now that you know it, you must obey me in every way. If you reject my–er, my imaginary friend’s demand, he’ll set your ghost on fire forever after you die.

Isn’t that the best news ever? I mean, *I* sure think it’s great! And it is — for me!

But they also want their quirky li’l take on the topic to sound radically different from any other takes. That way, you give them your obedience and money, and not someone from a competing group. As always, the real product offered by all evangelicals is active membership in their own group.

(This reminds me of “scandalous grace.” Oh my gosh. The cringe.)

Under Attack!

Because evangelicals love feeling persecuted (especially when they actually aren’t), they also constantly see the gospel as being under infernal attack from meanies who just hate them for their Jesus Auras.

Ligonier, long the self-appointed Calvinist gatekeepers of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™, asserts this point early on. In a 2016 post they ran on the topic, big-name Calvinist R.C. Sproul defines the gospel much as I’ve outlined above. Then, he adds this interesting bit:

The gospel is under attack in the church today. I cannot stress enough how important it is to get the gospel right and to understand both the objective aspect of the person and work of Jesus and the subjective dimension of how we benefit from that by faith alone.

Again, I’ve never heard any Christian define “the gospel” in any radically different way, especially not an evangelical. So that alarmist message caught my eye.

Overall, that whole post was quite a sight: R.C. Sproul wringing his widdle handsies hard over someone disagreeing with him about a key point in Calvinism and trying to wrestle sole ownership of the gospel from him! How dare this guy!

(Never fear, dear gentle readers! See endnote for Sproul’s brave victory over that total meaniepie.)

I’ve heard this exact same message many times myself. Evangelicals just come undone without a battle to fight.

So evangelicals take for granted that “the gospel” is both fragile and under attack from within and without, but also all-powerful and magically delicious. And evangelicals are pushing harder on this dichotomy the longer their decline progresses.

They must. The gospel is everything to them, for all the worst reasons.

NEXT UP: We’ll shed some light on the gospel as a dogwhistle term, and check out the magical powers that evangelicals think it holds. See you tomorrow!


Endnotes.

Staircase Wit in Action: In that post (relink), R.C. Sproul complained about someone who didn’t agree with his Calvinism. He took this grievous offense as a sign of “how delicate the preservation of the gospel is in our day.” What a powerful godling he serves! This mad blood god can’t even ensure that his own extortion demand gets correctly preserved! Naturally, Sproul himself got that message correct, while his tribal enemy, described only as “a Protestant seminary professor, supposedly evangelical” got it completely wrong. That goes without saying. It always does.

It also goes without saying that Sproul did NOT say any of this to that professor’s face, most especially that snide “supposedly” crack. Nobody Mean Girls like evangelicals. (Back to the post!)


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(Last note: Also, I tried — oh, how I tried! — to find a post online where I saw some Christian leader snidely just-asking-questions about the gospel. Specifically, he scare-quotes “wondered” if the tribe ought to water down the gospel and maybe even cancel the culture wars to slow its decline. I’ve even combed through my history in full trying to find it. No dice. It’s just gone. I wonder if the post, spotted on one of the regular news sites I frequent, was just too corrosive even for evangelicals. Too bad. It was hilarious, but I’ve already wasted several hours of my finite lifetime already trying to find it. If I do, I’ll update this post and link in whatever post is current. It was really that good.)

About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.

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