The other day I heard from a reader who took issue with my scathing critique of “God’s not Dead.” He didn’t take issue with the objections I raised to the film per se, but he did object to the unremitting negativity in which I couched the critique. His concern was borne by pastoral concern for those who may have been buoyed in their faith after watching the film. Could I not have raised the same objections to the film without the harshness while showing a deferential pastoral concern to such individuals?
I don’t take such concerns lightly. Certainly in the past I’ve been unnecessarily harsh in offering various critiques, though I’ll refrain for the moment from providing any hyperlinked examples! And I recognize that one must be a good steward and shepherd: the vocation is as much reconstruction as deconstruction. But should I have softened this particular critique? I’m not convinced.
Let me give you an example. Some years ago New Testament scholar Gordon Fee wrote a critique of the health and wealth gospel. His critique was levelled at teachers like Kenneth Hagin and Kenneth Copeland who taught that physical and financial prosperity are guaranteed by Christ’s work and need only be appropriated by the right words verbally spoken in faith. Fee’s critique was, by any measure, harsh, straight on down to the choice of title: The Disease of the Health and Wealth Gospel. He could have said “error” or “mistake” or “bad theology”. But he chose “disease”.
The fact is that I know somebody (we’ll call him Bill) who was saved thirty years ago at a Kenneth Hagin crusade. What is more, Bill insists that he was physically healed at that same crusade. His faith was born of the ministry of Kenneth Hagin and to this day he believes God was working through Hagin. There is no doubt that Bill’s faith is real despite its origins in the ministry of a false teacher.
So ought Fee have chosen a softer title and a more moderate presentation in his critique of the health and wealth gospel in deference to folks like Bill? I don’t think so. I agree with Fee that the health and wealth gospel is a disease, a corruption, a perversion of the gospel and it behooves Christian teachers to call it such out of pastoral concern as much as anything. It is simply impossible for Fee to write in a way that anticipates the circumstance of every possible person who might read his book. And so the best thing he can do is tell it straight.
What is more, if the health and wealth gospel really is a disease, then I don’t think we do Bill a service in the long run by calling it something less shocking. I remember having a friend over for dinner years ago. Farmed salmon from Scotland was on the menu. When my friend discovered that the salmon was from a factory farm, he informed us of the many health concerns raised by factory farmed salmon. It led to an awkward meal, to be sure! But in retrospect, I’m glad for the difficult conversation and I haven’t eaten farmed salmon since (at least not knowingly).
I’m sure it would be difficult for folks who converted to Christianity through the ministry of a health and wealth preacher to hear that this theological view is a “disease”, but I don’t think we do people favors by soft-selling the degree of error in a theology like this.
The same goes for “God’s not Dead”. Does it have some value? I suppose so. For example, it has better production values and acting than other evangelistic films like the 1980s classic (that’s tongue–in-cheek by the way) “Never Ashamed“. But I see little value in singing the praises of production values when they are invoked in service to a film that functions as mere propaganda. I also concede that many people go away from the film with a deepened confidence (even triumphalism) in their Christian faith. But what value is that if it is bought at the cost of a fundamentally false picture of reality?