The haunting question left with me after watching this documentary was: why is it so easy for Christians to overlook Jesus? Drawing on pastors from every corner of the US, and telling the story of rank and file believers, “American Gospel” presents a series of reflections on the state of the church in contemporary America. Leaders and academics across various denominations and seminaries – male and female, black, white and Latino – give us insights into their own spiritual (and occasionally physical) journey, so that the Gospel might be placarded before our very eyes (Gal 3:1). It is not a flashy or expensive production, but it is deeply moving and intensely refreshing. Americans are known as committed patriots, but when American Christians speak out against the great blind spots of the American church, and call out distinctly American sins, it is gripping to watch.
When American Christians speak out against the great blind spots of the American church, and call out distinctly American sins, it is gripping to watch.
The first phase of the documentary highlights the dangers of an approach to life which assumes we are good enough for God. You know the self-talk: I have never done anything wrong. I am basically good at heart. Others are way more evil than me. Through a series of conversational vignettes, we meet several average-looking people who came to realise that their lives were on a highway to nowhere under their own steam. With God’s guiding, they met Jesus Christ who offered them himself as a gift that they couldn’t refuse.
The Real Agenda
But we discover that this is not the final destination of the documentary, but merely the opening gambit. After this sweeping introduction to the less culturally specific sins of moralism, or perhaps nominalism, which focus on self-righteousness, the real agenda of the film is unveiled: how Americans have come to believe in and preach the prosperity Gospel. The editing is genius: with every criticism of the movement from a renowned pastor or scholar, we get a celebrity preacher saying exactly the words that a moment ago we agreed were horrendous. Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyers, T.D. Jakes, and Kenneth Copeland (with an appearance of Oprah Winfrey as well) give their opinion on how right faith leads to health, wealth, and happiness. No wonder it is called the “Word of Faith” movement.
Of course, in some ways the problem begins in the American myth itself. Tales of rags-to-riches optimism; of immigrants making good; the promises of the world’s best health care in the world’s wealthiest nation—all of these reinforce theology which has misquoted and misused the Scriptures. But the documentary leads us back to the teaching of E. W. Kenyon in the late nineteenth century. It was Kenyon’s understanding of the power of the mind and the godlikeness of human beings that merged with early twentieth century Pentecostalism to create an amalgam of incredible power.
Just as Kenyon’s world was about “invisible causal forces,” so Christians started to believe that harnessing the latent powers within could radically rearrange our external circumstances. His background was the evangelical movement and his commitment was to higher forms of holiness, so in his estimation sanctification promised more than had previously been believed possible. From this start, according to the documentary, ultimately comes Creflo Dollar’s aspiration to own a multi-million dollar jet—because donkeys in Jesus’ day were a luxurious way to travel. The makers here seem to be mining Kate Bowler’s brilliant book Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel.
Though parts of the documentary almost become “gotcha” moments as the tricks or failings of the prosperity celebrities are exposed, the overall tone of the two hour movie is more Four Corners than A Current Affair. Benny Hinn’s nephew renounces the movement of which he once was a part, Matt Chandler lets us into his own experience of battling a brain tumour, and an extraordinary woman from Alabama named Katherine Berger confronts us with images of her chronic health condition and relates to us her conversion to Christ. These make the movie a profoundly uplifting experience. The theology is nuanced as speakers recognise the possibility of healing alongside the reality that suffering and sickness are not signs of disobedience.
The theology is nuanced as speakers recognise the possibility of healing alongside the reality that suffering and sickness are not signs of disobedience.
Beautiful visuals present verses from the Bible which the presenters use to offer careful exposition and thoughtful pastoral care. The radically me-centred prosperity Gospel is turned fully on its head to preach a Gospel which points away from us towards Christ and all his benefits. In fact, the subtitle of the documentary, “Christ alone,” captures something of this agenda. As Michael Horton of Westminster Seminary in California says, we don’t need “more stuff,” we need resurrection from the dead.
The documentary is great viewing and would be useful as an event at a church or in small group. As evangelical Christians over the last three hundred years we have proved adaptable and successful in carrying out our evangelistic task. The danger remains that in trying to reach the host culture, we have often succumbed to its values. A Gospel for America becomes an American Gospel. Or an Australian one too if we are not careful.