I vividly remember the first time I heard someone use “abominate” as a verb. It was John Piper and he was talking about the prosperity gospel.
In the U.S. there has arisen a particularly virulent form of false teaching—a gospel which promises cash and comfort to Christ’s followers, and in so doing bilks the poor, the needy, and the ill. It’s a gospel which elevates man and deposes God. The film American Gospel: Christ Alone by Transition Studios tackles this teaching, along with several other false gospels, in a sensitive and thought-provoking manner.
One of the great blessings to the church recently has been the emergence of quality Christian documentary filmmaking. We’ve been blessed by the fruits of the creative labors of folks like Media Gratiae and Stephen McCaskell. The work of Brandon Kimber and his Transition Studios adds to that growing library of excellent films which are educational, entertaining, and edifying. In American Gospel: Christ Alone, we are treated to the melding of excellence in craft with excellence in content.
I want to share five features of American Gospel which set it apart and make it a must-watch for believers who love the precious truths of the gospel.
An Admirable Craftsmanship
This film would be laudable even if we set aside the content and just looked at it purely as a specimen of documentary filmmaking. The story is composed of interviews, archival footage, and animated graphics. And if viewers aren’t paying attention, they may not even notice that this film has no narrator stringing that content together. This is an impressive feat. But Kimber pulls it off to great effect. The craftsmanship of this documentary speaks to Kimber’s talent as a filmmaker and story-teller.
I can’t tell you what joy that brings to me. The lack of quality Christian media has long been a gaping hole in the efforts of the true church. Just this past weekend the so-called church of Scientology spent millions to air a well-produced, high-quality recruitment ad to millions of souls around the world. Yet, so much of Christian film making is shoe-string budget hack jobs with poor acting, atrocious scripts, and if we’re lucky the films will at least not say something heretical. The best we can usually hope for is a moralistic plot. Ironically, hoping for gospel truth in a well-made Christian film is usually a pipe-dream.
What is truly encouraging about this film from an artistic standpoint, therefore, is that such skilled film making is used in service of even more admirable content.
A Striking Depth
I was impressed by the theological depth of American Gospel. Even as it took aim at the worst of the worst in the health and wealth movement, Roman Catholicism, and other sub-gospels, it didn’t take the low road of mere mockery.
A film like this could have surrendered itself to easy potshots at heretical crackpots. It’s a sad feature of so many believers, who are otherwise sound theologically, that they often simply mock false teaching. Though it’s easy to laugh off the clownish Osteens of the world with their Cheshire grin, awe-shucks platitudes, and brazen money-grabs, the truth is millions are deceived by these people. And they will not be shaken from those philosophical bonds just because some Reformed guy jeered at them.
No, American Gospel takes the high road and thoughtfully, carefully tears down every philosophy that raises itself up against the knowledge of God. This film isn’t a takedown of false gospels, it’s a dissection. There is a theological depth to this film that speaks to the theological acumen of its creator and his interviewees.
It’s a great cast of people who make up the interviews, too, by the way. The film features voices like Ray Comfort, Mark Dever, Costi Hinn, Paul Washer, Michael Horton, and our own Steven J. Lawson and John MacArthur. Additionally, there are interviews with many people who were saved out false movements to a living hope by the true gospel.
The interviewees don’t waterski over theology, they take a deep dive. You’ll find more open Bibles than mere opinions here. There are discussions of subjects like the theology of trichotomy—the teaching that man is made up of body, soul, and spirit. And they show how this belief actually stands stands behind the “little god” theology of the worst corners of the self-exalting health & wealth movement.
They point out how that old heresy of Gnosticism is expressed through the law of attraction, “the Secret,” and from the pulpits and the books of prosperity charlatans. At one point R. Scott Clark wryly remarks, “If your teaching is being promoted by Oprah, that might raise some warning flags.”
They also spend time talking about exaggerated views of kenosis (that Christ actually emptied himself of deity), the doctrine that Jesus performed His works as a born again Christian and not as God, and that convenient huckster’s trick of claiming that if you speak against the “man of God” you will be cursed. The film doesn’t just say these things are bad teachings, it explains why from the Scriptures.
In fact, it is so biblical and kind in presentation, that I found myself thinking of people I know who believe some of these things with whom I’d like to watch this film. You could watch it with someone who entertains some of these beliefs without immediately making them feel attacked or putting them on the defensive.
In the film, Sean Demars, states it plainly, “Bad theology hurts people.” And that’s really what this film is about. It exposes the false gospels of the American church with particular attention given to the massively influential movement often called the prosperity gospel—a false gospel homegrown in the United States of America which is now being exported all over the world.
A Damning Indictment
At the Strange Fire conference in 2013, hosted right here on the campus of Grace Community Church and The Master’s Seminary, Conrad Mbewe begged the American church to stop exporting the false gospel of the prosperity movement to Africa. In the film, Justin Peters echoes this sentiment when he sadly notes that most of the so-called “Christian world” is characterized by the false gospel Americans spread. It’s a damning indictment.
Missionaries from these false movements are going to the world and replicating a message of false hope, twisting God’s Word to turn men away from eternal hope. Paul Washer says it well, “It is a pain to know that people do not know Jesus. It is a greater pain to know that often times Jesus and Christianity is being distorted.”
This is precisely the sort of thing John MacArthur, president of The Master’s Seminary, who makes an appearance in this film, has stood against for decades. This is no minor deviation, no principle of only secondary importance which needlessly divides us from otherwise sound brothers in Christ—this is a different gospel entirely. And if the true church will not stand up against this abomination, who will?
As I watched, I found myself convicted for the times when I have simply laughed at internet memes as though no serious person could possibly fall for the message of these frauds. The truth is, the people who are being caught up in these false teachings are the most vulnerable among us. It is the suffering and the down-trodden, desperate for hope, who are most often caught in the net of a message which promises healing and financial safety.
An Unexpected Balm
Another feature that struck me about American Gospel was the interviews with precious suffering saints. I was frequently brought to tears by people struggling under illness who sought hope in the prosperity gospel, but after coming up empty-handed, finally found true and lasting peace in the gospel of Jesus Christ. They no longer sought for God to change their circumstances but accepted that God was using their circumstances to change them.
I think suffering Christians will discover an unexpected balm in this film as they are reminded of the true hope provided in Christ Jesus, a hope which transcends suffering, sanctifies us, and increases our dependence on the Master. True and lasting joy cannot be found in the short-sighted hope of mere physical comfort. It is found in the fount of all blessing Himself, and in the trust that He is a faithful and loving God who does not cause suffering to His creatures without a loving purpose.
A Clear Gospel Message
But what stood out most to me in this documentary was the juxtaposition of truth and falsehood. Like a sparkling diamond against a black velvet backdrop, the gospel shimmers in all its glory when set against the vapid, self-serving, abominable putrescence of the false gospels presented in this film.
May the Lord use this film to open the eyes of many to the insidious wickedness of false gospels, and more importantly, to the truth of the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ, for His glory and for their eternal joy. And may it be a reminder to believers of the wonderful gift we have in the gospel. May it cause us to praise God with renewed thankfulness for opening our eyes to the truth.
You can rent American Gospel: Christ Alone on iTunes, Vimeo, and Amazon now.