Equipping God's People to Create Missional Culture

Mark Van Steenwyk on The Good News

Illustration by Nidhi Balwada from India

Illustration by Nidhi Balwada from India

This entry is a part of an on-going blog series called The Good News, which is taking place throughout the Easter Season, from Easter to Pentecost. A full list of the contributors can be found here. Mark’s local newspaper is City Pages, an alternative weekly newspaper serving the Minneapolis-St Paul metropolitan area, featuring news, film, theatre, restaurant reviews, and music criticism. Here is Mark Van Steenwyk on the Good News.


“Gospel” is one of those old-timey words. It either conjures images of emotional choirs in black churches or southern white preachers wearing brown suspenders over button-up shirts with rolled-up sleeves sweatily shouting hellfire words to people in tents. American culture associates these images with “gospel” because they have become well-used clichés in American cinema; the first image being an image of religious hope, the other being one of religious oppression.

Unfortunately for our world, the gospel has often been used as much as a tool of oppression or of hope. And this is hugely unfortunate – especially given the origins of the “gospel.”

The word “gospel” simply means “good news.” Back in first century Rome, “gospel”was a particular sort of good news; it was something publically proclaimed on behalf of the emperor. Sorta like when George W. Bush, aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln declared a “mission accomplished” for the conflict in Iraq. Such “good news” – either in ancient Rome or modern America – is usually BS.

In first century Rome, an itinerant lay preacher named Jesus started wandering the countryside… and he took the word “gospel” from the Emperor. In his life and message, he communicated an entirely different sort of good news. In an empire of oppression and exploitation, where the rich got richer and the poor poorer, Jesus said that the poor were blessed and the oppressed were liberated. In an empire of violence his was a message of peace. In a society of hierarchy and alienation, his was a message of equality and inclusion. Jesus message upset those in power so much that they killed him like a common criminal. And, for a while, the movement Jesus sparked remained faithful to Jesus’ subversive message, found meaning in his execution, and rejoiced in the belief that this Jesus conquered oppression and death so completely that he was raised from the dead.

Over the years, this beautiful gospel of Jesus got replaced with the old gospel of the Empire. The Jesus movement (the church) embraced a message and methodology of oppression, violence, hierarchy, exclusion as they clambered for wealth and power.

Interestingly, while this message of Jesus has been twisted and reshaped, the society in which we live isn’t all that different from Rome. Instead of a Roman Empire, we live in an American Empire. And if Jesus was seen as a threat to the Pax Romana, then he is no less a threat to the American Dream.

Jesus would make a lousy American. He works little, lives like a bum, holds no official role or office, befriends the scum of the earth, rants about wealth, is critical of traditional authority, and exposes the evil of corruption and oppression wherever it is to be found.

Now, I am one of those silly Christians that thinks that Jesus is alive and well today. He is here. He is real. He is present among the lowly and active wherever the Church is faithful to his life and message (which, granted, is increasingly rare these days). And his gospel is still good news. However, if it was considered bad news to the powerful in Rome, than it is probably bad news to many in America.

If to you the American Dream is more like a nightmare, then the good news is that Jesus has shown us another way to live… a way of liberation and peace and justice and love. And all who long for such a way are freely invited to sign up with Jesus. But, unfortunately, those who enjoy privilege and power and wealth… who are on the upper rungs of the imperial ladder… are likely to find Jesus’ good news to be a frustrating bit of propaganda. But to all who have ears, let them hear.

Mark Van Steenwyk is a member of Missio Dei (Missio Dei is an Anabaptist intentional community anchored on the West Bank of Minneapolis that pursues Jesus’ way of simplicity, prayer, hospitality, and peace). Mark is the general editor of JesusManifesto.com. He is a speaker, writer, and a grassroots educator (which means that he labors to spark people’s theological and socio-political imaginations outside of an institutional setting…though he is an adjunct at Bethel University as well). Mark is also a co-conspirator with the Common Root: a movement of prophetic communities committed to embracing the nonviolent way of Jesus in creative and sustainable ways. Part of his conspiratorial duties include helping foster new radical communities. He and his wife Amy have been married since 1997. They, along with their son Jonas, live at Missio Dei’s “Sattler House.”

22 Responses to Mark Van Steenwyk on The Good News

  1. evan says:

    “Jesus would make a lousy American.” I love it! It’s so true and it’s the opposite of the ‘gospel as oppression” story, isn’t it? If Jesus was to be a good American, he would have to submit to not just the authorities, but the lived values, hopes, and dreams of America. That’s oppression.
    The irony is that Jesus has his own set of hopes, values, and dreams and while they aren’t American, they hold the key to true freedom.

  2. Ian says:

    Thank you for your reminder that the good news of Jesus isn’t all that compatible with our comfortable lifestyles.

    Never lose your fire, for it is of God.

    Especially love he parallel you made between Pax Romana and American Dream.


  3. Dustin James says:

    Mark, unfortunately, for myself, and I’m sure many others, the American dream is not a nightmare, but a quiet hope and goal to aspire toward. We need folks like you and other prophetic voices to breath Jesus’ message again to us so we can repent of the dangers of “gaining a world of comfort and losing our souls in the process.”

  4. Ben Mordecai says:

    There are true facts in the article, but isn’t Jesus crucifixion and resurrection inseparably tied to the gospel? Jesus did teach us “another way to live,” but this is not the good news, because it can only address my behavior, but it can’t reconcile me to God, nor can it change my heart to one that gives birth to acts of mercy, kindness, and generosity out of love.

    Jesus did something that no one else could ever do: die for our sins. A hand full of people could teach what Jesus taught, but only Jesus could do what Jesus did.

  5. For the record…as an overweight educated American male, the American Dream hasn’t been all too tough on me. More often than not, I’m eating at McDonalds when I should be working towards solidarity with the marginalized. So many of us are like the Rich Young Ruler who is asked to choose between wealth and the Kingdom. For us, however, it isn’t simply a yes/no proposition. We are constantly confronted by that choice in sophisticated and subtle ways. But unlike the Rich Young Ruler, we get the opportunity to come to the choice again.

  6. Sean says:

    “Jesus would make a lousy American. He works little, lives like a bum, holds no official role or office, befriends the scum of the earth, rants about wealth, is critical of traditional authority, and exposes the evil of corruption and oppression wherever it is to be found.”

    Powerful reminder, of criticism Christ did more than just justify current behaviors and norms. He challenged, them.

  7. Ben,

    Yes, the crucifixion and resurrection (and ascension and pentecost) are all a part of the Gospel. But so is Jesus’ call to live another way. That cannot be taken out either. After all, that call is central to how Jesus himself defined the Gospel. That isn’t to elevate that way of life above the Cross or Resurrection…but the whole Gospel begins with the Incarnation, includes Jesus’ Kingdom message and way of life, finds its climax with the Cross and Resurrection, and is continued in the life of the Spirit-empowered Church who experiences Christ in its midst. You cannot take any of this out, or it isn’t the Gospel.

    The Gospel isn’t at odds with behavior. That is a false dichotomy that is a bad habit of the weaker parts of Reformation theology.

    Yes, only Jesus could do what Jesus did. That includes his perfect life. There aren’t a handful of people who could teach and live the way Jesus taught and lived when he walked among us. Only Jesus. We worship Jesus, not the Cross.

  8. Ben Mordecai says:

    The issue that I have is that the gospel you have described is really just a new law. I agree that the crucifixion and resurrection are not at odds with a new way of life, but I argue that the new way of life is not a part of the gospel itself, but rather a fruit of it. It may sound like I am just arguing semantics, but I think this distinction is actually very important. It comes down to the question of, “Am I saved because of what I do, or do I do what I do because I am already saved?”

    Jesus himself talks about good trees bearing good fruit and bad trees bearing bad fruit. When Christians are born again through the gospel (1 Peter 1), they become young saplings in Jesus’ metaphor. By abiding in him as the vine (John 15) we bear fruit.

    So liberation, peace, justice, etc, which you have spoken about I would point to being fruit. That problem is that the news of Jesus death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins received through faith by grace is missing, and people consequently will not be born again through this news. This will mean that in the long run the fruits are going to fizzle away, because they are not abiding in the vine.

  9. The problem is that Jesus referred to this way of life as a new commandment…a new law. The difference of our perspectives (which isn’t just semantics) depends upon, I suspect, whether you start with Jesus’ definition of Gospel and then read Paul and the other Apostles as essentially inspired midrash or you start with the epistles and then work backwards to Jesus. Because I guarantee, left with the GOSPELS themselves, one is likely to center on the Gospel as a way of life. That isn’t to say that one must do the right stuff in order to secure the Gospel.

    Part of the problem here is the fact that folks have artificially separated faith from action. The fruit cannot be separated from the fruit. I’m not advocating that we simply embrace some sort of hippy way of life that is divorced from the Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension, etc. But when the Cross is the only non-negotiable part of one’s Gospel formulation, that formulation is dead.

  10. Ben Mordecai says:

    You cannot pin the gospels against the epistles, because Jesus gave his apostles authority to speak his word in the gospels!

    John 14
    25 “These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. 26 But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.

    John 15
    26 “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. 27 And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning.

    John 16
    12 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

    I could go on, but we see (hopefully) from these texts that Jesus had new things to teach through the apostles that was going to come after his ascension.

    You can do a word-search for gospel and all your results will be New Testaments, but none of the gospels actually spell out what the good news is. It is implied that it has to do with the coming of the kingdom, which is tied to the coming of the Messiah, but most of the Jews at the time had false beliefs about the Messiah. They did not see that Jesus kingdom is not of this world (John 18).

    This makes sense though. The Gospels are biographies or narratives, whereas the epistles are more systematic and expository. The clear definition of the gospel from Paul is this:

    1 Corinthians 15
    1 Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.

    3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

    Then we see perfectly spelled out, that justification is not by works, but by faith alone:

    Romans 3:28
    For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.

    Sorry for the long reply, but I think I needed this much room to begin to adequately talk about this.

  11. Ben, I am not pitting the Gospels against the Epistles. I am simply saying that you have to read it all together when explaining what the Gospel is. Too many people make some sort of theological leap by putting all pre-Cross stuff as somehow fitting into the category of “law” and all post-Cross stuff in the category of “Gospel.” That is a profoundly sloppy way of reading the New Testament.

    I could go on, but we see (hopefully) from these texts that Jesus had new things to teach through the apostles that was going to come after his ascension.

    What do you mean none of the Gospels actually spell out the Good News? Why are you looking for a formulaic synopsis? Each of the Gospel writers claimed that the entire text, in its entirety was the Gospel. That is why each of the four is referred to as “the Gospel according to…” Read the first words of Mark to see what I mean.

    The Gospel is more than implicitly linked to the Kingom. The coming of the Kingdom is in fact the Good News.

    When the Kingdom is said to not be OF this world, it isn’t to say that it is other-worldy. It is to say that it isn’t a kingdom of human origins. The outworking of the Kingdom is not just future and spiritual, it is also present and tangible.

    1 Corinthians 15 isn’t a definition of the whole Gospel. Modern readers often make the mistake of equating Gospel with a formulaic summary. And because of this bias, we read it into the text. Instead we should have a broader understanding of “Gospel.” Just because the chronology of 1 Cor 15 is Gospel doesn’t mean that other things aren’t also Gospel. And it isn’t to somehow privilege the events in 1 Cor. 15 as more central to the Gospel as a whole. There is no reason, given the full works of Paul to do this. Rather, Paul highlights the events in 1 Cor 15 for a very particular reason: to discuss the utter necessity of the resurrection of the dead.

    Does that somehow diminish other times when something is referred to as “gospel?” Not at all.

    I think it comes down to this:

    Do we start with something clear and concise like Paul’s summary in 1 Cor 15 as our core insight in understanding the Gospel? Or do we start with Jesus’ message of the Kingdom? That is most certainly NOT to pit Jesus and Paul against one another. But where you start matters. How you put the story together shapes how you understand the Gospel and work out its implications. So, while I would never say 1 Cor 15 is optional or secondary, I would say that it can only be understood properly if one first understands the fuller story of Jesus’ kingdom life and message.

  12. I would love for folks to chime in on some areas other than what Ben and I are discussing. Does anyone think that my anti-imperial smack distracts from the Gospel or does it help put it in proper context? Does comparing Rome with the USA seem lame or is it helpful? Etc…

  13. jrwoodward says:

    Mark and Ben,

    I thought I would join in the lively discussion that you guys are having on the good news. Part of my hope in hosting this series was to help people see how robust the good news is. I can appreciate the conversation happening here, because it is one happening in the church with a capital C and one that I have within myself and community at various times.

    As I read what you have written Mark, I appreciate your emphasis on an invitation into kingdom living that Jesus gives us and how in your response you point out the importance of every aspect of Jesus, from the incarnation, to his life, message, death, resurrection and ascension and consider it all good news. I don’t get the sense that you are minimizing Paul and the other apostles writing, but in fact you are putting the writings in a helpful order.

    For I think there is a need in our culture to move from getting people to assent to four spiritual laws or points-on-a-bridge diagram to inviting people to “switch stories”, so that they might enter into the kingdom of God in all its glory.

    This is a kingdom where the life and teachings of Jesus give discipleship real teeth – where we learn to follow the Liberator of those who have been oppressed by the system, the Love of those who have been rejected by society, and the Deliverer of those who have been seduced by consumerism, which includes us all in some way. I Our story is not just a private one dealing with personal morality but also a public one dealing with powers and principalities that need redemption. Our story is centered on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. I don’t get the sense that Paul was ready to give up on any part of the good news

    I love how Moltmann talks about the good news, when he says “It is not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfill in the world: it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father that includes the church.” And the good news is that we not only get the chance to proclaim to the world that God’s reign is at hand, but our calling is to embody it as well.

    That is my two cents to the conversation at this time, cause I need to prepare for a meeting tomorrow.

  14. Hokielady says:

    As much as I like reading a Christian article that stirs the heart and mind to remember our path here on earth, I find it disappointing that anyone feels safe in writing about a group of people as if they are all of the same mind. Just becuase someone is wealthy and successful in ways that can lead to material things, that doesn’t mean they are any more or less frustrated or challenged by Jesus’ news. I don’t know if you’ve noticed how many less fortunate people waste their money on materialistic junk to feel more self worth. I know many wealthy and privileged individuals who I look up to because of how they live their lives following the good news and use their success on earth to help those less fortunate. It is never safe to assume that because one man has money that he is more challenged than the man without. It is the character and strength of a man that makes him, not the ‘things’ he’s able to obtain; and, at no point should those ‘things’ make it ok to judge him any more than those without, especially in a Christian article.

  15. Ben Mordecai says:

    I am definitely not one to make that leap to say that pre-cross is law and post-cross is gospel. Clearly this is not the case. The OT and the pre-cross NT is filled with gospel, and the NT has its share of law. We could go over a huge mass of examples to this effect, but I think about this point we are in agreement.

    My issue is that the gospel itself is not a new law. Certainly there are new laws (or you could argue, fulfillment of old laws), but this is not the gospel. The gospel is about reconciliation with God first and foremost. This is the heart of salvation.

    When Isaiah 49 says,

    “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
    to raise up the tribes of Jacob
    and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
    I will make you as a light for the nations,
    that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

    God makes it clear that his gospel will be for the whole world. There is no one on earth for whom the gospel is not relevant. All need Jesus to be saved. Yet all are not in imperialism! The deepest problem of mankind goes back to the fall, where all people became sinners and needed redemption. Until the cross, we only had shadows of the redemption, but at the cross we have the fulfillment.

    This kingdom is not simply a kingdom where everything works well on earth (although insomuch as we are able, we ought to emulate the heavenly kingdom), but the kingdom of heaven is primarily about Jesus being king. The liberation Jesus brings is not Jews from the Romans, but the world from spiritual slavery to the devil.

    Without Jesus crucified and raised, the news is impotent for delivering people the new birth that frees them from spiritual slavery.

  16. Lauren says:

    The gospel is a tricky thing to communicate, God had four different guys write it out and we try desperately to boil it down to media-sized soundbites. Which I have no real objection to except when we lose sight of the rest of the story. I have been enjoying reading this series and the varied perspectives brought to the table, drawing our attention to different parts of the story. The comparison here between America and Rome is flawed, but I don’t think we can be reminded enough that materialism is a huge distraction from the gospel.

    In the comments, it seems that there is issue with the author not discussing “Jesus crucified and raised.” But I thought it was there. Mark writes, “Jesus message upset those in power so much that they killed him like a common criminal. And, for a while, the movement Jesus sparked remained faithful to Jesus’ subversive message, found meaning in his execution, and rejoiced in the belief that this Jesus conquered oppression and death so completely that he was raised from the dead.”

    Death? check. Resurrection? check.

    The cross isn’t specifically mentioned, but I think sometimes we focus a little too much on the cross anyway. It’s only part of the story, and it’s key to the story but it’s not even the good part! The amazing, miraculous, wonderful, fantastic part of the story culminates in the resurrection! Lots of criminals died on crosses. But only Christ was dead and buried and then rose back to life to bring us hope, freedom and love! Hallelujah for that!

    The post and comments were all interesting to read – thanks everyone for sharing!

  17. I know Rome and USA aren’t 1:1 by any stretch, but in what ways is my comparison flawed?

  18. John Santic says:

    Mark, good article and I have enjoyed the comments. I think the correlation between Rome and the US empire are different in their cultural manifestations, but they share the same spirit. The spirit that John spoke of in Revelation in his reference to Rome is prevalent in the ways our modern day super power carries itself as well. there is a book called Colossians Remixed that was helpful to me in understanding the relation to gospel and empire and I think that work engages deeply the connection you are trying to make.

    i think that it is a necessary practice for us all to consider the notion of power and empire in every attempt to eek out faithfulness in our contexts. The church’s misunderstandings in the past (which you highlighted well) are reason enough to keep this in mind. thanks for your great writing.

  19. Ryan Bell says:

    Interesting conversation here. I’ve enjoyed reading these comments. A lot happened here since I originally read this yesterday morning.

    Just for what it’s worth, I think it’s important that we don’t conflate the gospel with the theological category of “soteriology.” In other words, the gospel includes theories of the atonement (how people are saved from sin for a future life with God) but the gospel cannot be reduced to theories of the atonement. I’m guessing what JR has asked all of us to do is reflect on the “gospel” not just theories of the atonement. I’m also guessing that an irreducible part of Mark’s vision of the gospel is that the death and resurrection of Jesus (and the ascension and Pentecost) inaugurated a new world which we are now invited (commanded?) to live in, remembering that the gospel is not just a get out of jail free card, but a way of life. You can’t have this life without Jesus and what he (and only He) could have and did accomplish, but this life is about more than going to heaven. Am I in the ball park somewhere?

  20. Yeah Ryan: you’re definitely in the ballpark. Well said.

    Hokielady: I really don’t intend this to be a flippant response, but I honestly believe that if anything I’m generalizing the wealthy far less than Jesus does. Compare my statements like:

    “But, unfortunately, those who enjoy privilege and power and wealth…who are on the upper rungs of the imperial ladder…are likely to find Jesus’ good news to be a frustrating bit of propaganda. But to all who have ears, let them hear.”


    “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” or “Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.”

    I’m not trying to be cute. Nor, do I think, am I being naive or simplistic. I fess up to being wealthy from a global standard. Jesus’ view of wealth, as I understand it, is that it is INTRINSICALLY a dangerous spiritual distraction. Yes, the poor can be preoccupied with wealth too, but that in no way diminishes the spiritual toxicity for the wealthy. The argument that the poor can be materialistic too only serves to downplay the spiritual danger of wealth and justify the one who has wealth. Such a line of thinking assumes that the only issue is one of character and intention.

    However, the issue from a Biblical perspective is more that if one hoards wealth one is stealing from God. If you accumulate more than you need (no matter your socio-economic class) you are stealing from the poor.

    Saying these things hardly makes me feel “safe.” I am guilty of hording too. My response to to confess and name my own stuff-love as I move towards a deeper practice of hospitality and love. But instead of justifying myself, I need to honestly assess Jesus’ teachings and the teachings of the Apostles, and they make a very clear case that the poor are blessed, that wealth isn’t something to hold onto, and that the wealthy are in peril.

  21. Lauren says:

    My apologies, Mark, it was not my intention to come across as critical. I was just trying to say that it’s an imperfect (since as you said it’s not 1:1, there are big similarities but also big differences), but valuable comparison.

  22. Sonja says:

    That was a genuis discovering about the Roman Empire – American Empire.I just wondered what empire Europe could be…
    I found these phrases in your 4th paragraph very thoughtful chosen
    ‘In an empire of oppression and exploitation where the rich got richer and the poor poorer, jesus said that the poor were blessed and the oppressed were liberated
    In an empire of violence His was a message of peace
    In a society of hierarchy and alienation His was a message of equality and inclusion’
    ‘And how Jesus was seen as a THREAT
    His gospel is still good news.
    However if it was considered bad news to the powerful in Rome, that it is probably bad news to many in America’
    Will Jesus still be seen as a threat in these days?

    One of the first impressions which came to my mind was how in Europe the good news is fading and i wondered if 2 thessalonians 2 is happening…
    How the secret power of Lawlessness is already at work and where God has send a powerful delusion verse 7-12, of course there is hope verse13-17.
    What are your thoughts on that?

    ‘To know there is another way- of liberation, peace, justice and love’

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