Casting the Gospel Spell (And Botching the Roll)

Casting the Gospel Spell (And Botching the Roll) October 23, 2020

Hi and welcome back! Of late, we’ve been talking about the gospel, that set of right-wing Christian demands and threats that evangelicals have imbued with magical powers. Lately, they’re leaning really hard on this idea that the gospel can totally reverse their decline. Today, let me show you how evangelicals think ‘the gospel’ can return them to power forever — and what it actually does.

preaching the gospel at the great awakening, theoretically
The Great Awakening, apparently.

(Previous posts about ‘the gospel’: Meaning and Magic Amid DeclineThe Gospel’s Magical Powers. “Botching the roll” is a gaming term. It refers to players rolling dice to see if a proposed action succeeds or fails. A “botch” is a massive, catastrophic fail. So here, evangelicals cast their spell, roll the dice, and the spell fails spectacularly badly. Clever game-masters love coming up with entertaining botches. See: Learning to Love the Botch.)

“Raw, Explosive Power.”

J.D. Greear is a Calvinist megachurch pastor who leads the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). He got the job by promising he could reverse their ongoing decline. In a post he wrote last year, he revealed the magic pixie dust that reverses decline:

The Apostle Paul explains in his letter to the Romans that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation for all who would believe (Romans 1:16). The gospel is God’s power to create, to redeem, to heal, to bring back from the dead. It doesn’t offer insights on a new or superior technique. It is raw, explosive power.

And it’s to that power that the church must return.

He doesn’t say how this magic pixie dust ought to be applied, of course. Nor does he explain exactly how Southern Baptists stopped casting their spell correctly in the first place.

That’s one of the beauties of magic, though, isn’t it? Instructions only cheapen its glamour.

J.D. Greear’s Promise.

In his post, Greear feels certain of three things:

  1. Evangelicals quit doing the gospel at some point, somehow.
  2. They must “return” to it now.
  3. If they do, then their decline will reverse.

Of course, this opinion runs very counter to that of some other evangelical leaders, who insisted around that same time that evangelicals have actually never lost “the power of Jesus or the gospel message.”

And yet here we find Southern Baptists in solid decline. Hilariously, Greear promises that if they just Jesus harder, they’ll bounce right back into power again!

Hold the Line! Or Else!

Evangelicals like doing some truly awful stuff, like waging culture wars, enforcing white male supremacy, and committing acts of spectacular hypocrisy. They accuse anybody suggesting changes to that itinerary of watering down the gospel.

(See also: Compromise.)

And watering down the gospel is the worst thing any evangelical can possibly do.

I see this exhortation to hold the line everywhere in evangelicalism these days. “The message never changes. The mission never changes,” intoned one guy on Christianity Today last April. “We’re still charged by our Lord to take the gospel to the ends of the earth.”

Yes. Of course they are.

The SBC’s blog, Facts & Trends, sniffed disdainfully at the very idea of changing course. Their writer advised in March:

It’s not our job as Christians to “save” Christianity. God did not call us to revise the gospel to make it more palatable to the world. Rather, He calls us to believe it and proclaim it faithfully.

Then, that writer offers a listicle of non-solutions that he promises will “ensure that Christianity is here to stay in our hearts—and in our world.” The implications are absolutely absurd, considering evangelicals’ growing reputation for hypocrisy.

This is a very weak and ineffectual godling indeed, at least whenever TRUE CHRISTIANS™ need him to be.

The Problem With Testable Claims.

It’s very easy to test evangelicals’ real-world claims. You’d think they’d avoid making them at all, but they can’t help themselves.

This one, about the gospel being magic pixie dust of success and dominance, is very easily tested.

Remember, the gospel is just a set of claims and demands that are bundled with gruesome threats to force marks’ compliance. Evangelicals deploy it to sell a specific product: active membership in their particular group.

All we need to do is ask if there are any churches out there that do not proclaim the gospel that evangelicals have defined as correct — and yet succeed anyway.

Then, we can ask about churches properly proclaiming the gospel, and see how they’re doing.

As it turns out, testing evangelicals’ claims about the gospel returns the same results as testing anything else they claim.

Testing the Claims.

I don’t even have to pull up a search engine to know immediately that the gospel has little bearing on the success of a church or denomination.

Dominance Without the Gospel: The Catholic Church has never proclaimed the evangelical gospel. And yet it dominated a big chunk of our planet for centuries. The gospel had nothing to do with its rise to power.

More Dominance Without the Gospel: Megachurches get immensely huge and dominate their local communities. And yet many evangelicals do not think they Jesus correctly at all. In fact, criticizing megachurches‘ watered-down gospel is a favorite pastime among salty little evangelical communities. Check out “Nate’s” comment here:

As Michael Spencer so well observed, it’s the ethic of church growth and attractionalism that ultimately water down the Gospel, and dehumanize people into cogs in a resource-devouring machine that’s designed to move people from non-member to member rather than invite people into the life of Christ.

It’s clear that Nate, like most rank-and-file evangelicals, is aware that megachurches grow very large without Jesus-ing the way he prefers.

(Other evangelicals defend megachurches, of course. They do so love their doctrinal slapfights.)

No Dominance With the Gospel: Meanwhile, churches that these judgmental Christians think are correctly preaching the gospel remain tiny — or close for good.

Most of All, Oops: Southern Baptists in particular very deliberately pushed their denomination into becoming the abusive dystopian nightmare it is today. They considered this move essential: part of the gospel itself. And yet the denomination began to decline very soon after the change. The SBC continues to inch further and further into a hateful tribe of outright wackaloon conspiracy-theory-embracing wingnuts, and yet somehow they just keep declining.

Gee, y’all, it doesn’t seem like the gospel has any bearing at all on how well a church does — or how much cultural power Christians wield. It’s just soooo strange!

The Magic Power Pastors Just Don’t Wanna Use, Apparently.

Despite this real-world evidence, evangelicals take for granted that the gospel is magical. It can rescue Christianity from decline and stuff churches full to bursting, and also absolutely change bad people into good people.* Yes, all that derives from a set of smug doctrinal assertions and over-the-top threats!

And yet for some bizarre reason, evangelicals also think most pastors shy away from this magic power. Evangelicals think most people are offended by the gospel. They’ve thought this way for years. I found a 2002 article by an evangelical who definitely internalized that message:

We must be confident in the effectiveness of God’s ordained means. The pressure to lay aside gospel preaching is all around us. [. . .] We must not allow the fear of man to become a snare for us. We naturally want to be accepted, so it is a difficult thing to preach what people naturally do not want to hear.

To be fair, the way evangelicals deploy the gospel is smug-sounding, and it does involve over-the-top threats. But if it really did what evangelicals believe it does, then I can’t imagine any church leader not firehosing it at audiences at every opportunity! If it did offend some people, then one wouldn’t even notice them stomping away in the rush of visitors to the baptistry.

But that’s not what happens, ever, when pastors do manage to sprinkle some pixie dust around.

I think those pastors evangelicals criticize so much live a bit more in the real world than their critics do. Those pie-in-the-sky exhortations from the top tend to adjust considerably for reality by the time they reach the front lines.

(* Terms and conditions apply.)

Sidebar: Wait, Who’s Getting Offended, Again?

Yes, non-authoritarians do indeed tend to get offended when some blustering windbag asserts stuff we know isn’t really true, then threatens us if we don’t obey a set of ridiculous demands, and then probably insults us when we decline their invitation.

However, let’s keep in mind that most of the offended people hearing pastors preach the gospel are already Christians who already attend that church. I’ve heard from many pastors over the years — not all of them ex-Christians, either — who lament that they can’t even nudge their flocks into Jesus-ing harder, and who explode in outrage at being preached at too forcefully.

Remember that book we talked about earlier, The Scandal of the Evangelical ConscienceThis criticism of super-squiffy evangelicals who refuse to Jesus right has been going on for decades — if not longer.

So, it seems to me that the vast majority of people who reject the gospel are evangelicals themselves. Pastors’ incomes and homes are dependent on their flocks — so if they’re not preaching the gospel even knowing their Dear Leaders want that, it’s because they know their flocks would be outraged by it.

After all, J.D. Greear sure ain’t gonna whip out his checkbook to help any pastors who take his advice, offend the tar out of their churches, and lose their jobs as a result. 

The Real Identity of This Godling.

That is strength, boy! That is power! What is steel compared to the hand that wields it? Look at the strength in your body, the desire in your heart! I gave you this!

— Thulsa Doom, Conan the Barbarian,
regarding his power over his followers

Once again, we encounter covert goals hiding underneath stated goals. The gospel doesn’t do what evangelicals claim it does, but that doesn’t mean it’s useless to them. Not by a longshot!

All Christians build themselves a god who reflects something inside their hearts. This construct drives them or comforts them, abuses them or inspires them.

Evangelicals’ god takes the form of their own power-lust and fear. He magnifies those base impulses and writes them across the sky in giant blazing letters. He represents their collective id, that growling monster pacing and circling at our doors while impatiently waiting to rend us. Evangelicals’ allegiance to their id is absolute — at least until they think of some other, easier way to get the gratification they crave.

This is why holding back evangelicals’ grabby little hands enrages them like little else ever could.

And people who likewise ache for an unlimited permission slip to mistreat others and grab for control already know the song evangelicals sing when they cast their magic gospel spell.

Just as Biff did over thirty years ago, these frustrated tin-pot dictators instantly recognize the opportunities evangelicals set before them. 

The Real Magic of the Gospel.

In this way, the gospel serves evangelicals’ interest like little else ever could.

With it, they can stoutly insist on never changing anything they’re doing. It doesn’t matter how hard their behavior repels most people. Nor does it matter how their behavior slashes their credibility. Whatever happens, they can stare the consequences in the face and mutter like mules about how the gospel cannot be changed for anyone, ever, or their mad blood god will become very upset with them.

One of their ultra-authoritarian leaders, John MacArthur, insisted that this was the case even as negative attention swirls around him for his probable role in spreading COVID-19:

“The Church does not exist to protect people from flu,” he said. “It exists to protect people from eternal punishment and Hell, and we will continue to preach the Gospel because that is the message the world must hear. We are the stewards of the only saving message that rescues men and women from eternal judgment. That is a far higher calling than trying to protect a few people from the flu, realizing that all are ultimately going to die.”

Who cares if we’re soaring into another big resurgence of sickness and death from this disease, largely thanks to lunatic Christians just like John MacArthur? The gospel cannot be changed at all.

Authoritarians Hate Change.

And in a weird kind of way, they’re actually right.

The gospel ultimately reflects that very authoritarian part of themselves that they don’t dare change. It represents their ambitions, their need to gain and flex power over others, their overwhelming hatred of others, and their dread of anything new or challenging.

Evangelicals’ conceptualization of the gospel can’t change because it would destroy the very reason they’re part of their tribe in the first place.

NEXT UP: A convicted murderer tries to work some Jesus-osity into his emotional manipulation. And he’s got at least one older evangelical guy fooled, thanks to their shared tribe’s mythology. I’ll show you what I mean tomorrow — see you then!


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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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