Where’s the Good News?

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

This Week at Plymouth, May 10, 2024

What I need first of all is not exhortation, but a gospel.

—J. Gresham Machen

The long-awaited day of spring I had been coveting had finally arrived. It was the first day I could walk for an extended time without a jacket and warm enough to produce some sweat. The sights and sounds of a warm Minnesota day greeted me—the screech of young peoples’ sneakers on the basketball court, neighbors walking their dogs who can sense the change in the season, and music coming from cars whose drivers feel more comfortable with the outdoor breeze cooling them than air conditioning. Just as I settled into the rhythm of my steps and the voices of podcasters coming through my earphones, I could hear someone speaking (or screaming) loudly, trying to get my attention. I turned around to see a middle-aged man, shabbily dressed but smiling. He doesn’t speak but hands me a piece of paper and turns around.

The man had given me a religious tract. A little larger than an index card, the tract was a comic featuring what looks to be a Black man and woman in the first panel, which also includes the tract’s title: “How to Get to Heaven.” The man and woman face a golden path leading to a golden castle nestled in the clouds. The tract quotes carefully selected, abridged scripture texts warning about sin and hell as punishment for sin. It also featured a substitutionary atonement lens on the crucifixion and resurrection to explain how one can escape the fires of hell, declaring that Jesus’ death paid for our trip to heaven. With a message simple enough to be grasped even with a cursory glance, I immediately despaired that there was no good news—just a focus on doom, judgment, and punishment. Did the man believe this? Perhaps he was making a little extra money passing out the tracts. Does such a message still work?

I know many religions still rely on myths and monsters to create meaning, order, and control out of a chaotic, frightening culture distorted by poverty, violence, materialism, and individualism. For a long time, this was the only message I heard. I cannot recall hearing what can be described as good news in the church I grew up in. Yes, church folks talked a lot about Jesus, his birth, and his death, but the news I heard most often articulated was how disappointingly sinful we were, underserving of so good and perfect a savior. I don’t think I heard the good news of Jesus Christ, love incarnated and grace unlimited no matter who we are or how much we fall short, until my thirties when I returned to church after many years of estrangement. Where are the tracts highlighting God’s love, grace, and mercy as sources of hope and beloved community? What’s the message of our faith? I pray it’s good news.