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The Gospel of victory

Benjamin Boivin

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Mosaic from Pammakaristos Church in Istanbul, Turkey. The image of Christ Pantocrator, portraying Jesus as the ruler and sustainer of the whole world, is popular in the Eastern Christian tradition, and a version of it appears on the cover of Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick's new book, Arise, O God: The Gospel of Christ's Defeat of Demons, Sin, and Death. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Fake news and misinformation have been topics of concern in recent years, and rightfully so. The abundance of content to which we are exposed on a regular basis makes it difficult for us to distinguish the works of devoted reporters, writers, and content creators more generally from the lesser productions of those who have been flooding the new media with poorly crafted, mediocre, or even disingenuous contributions to the global conversation.
We have seen a number of tools emerge as a reaction to this new situation, with varying levels of success. At the end of the day, though, nothing helps to fight this trend better than its corollary: high-quality, well-meaning content.
We could say the same about apologetics, the area of theology that focuses on defending the faith. Whether it’s an overemphasis on liturgical and legal exactitude which loses sight of the works of mercy or an all-consuming focus on social justice issues at the expense of deeper questions about the meaning of life, we can all think of examples of an approach to apologetics that misses its mark. And if we Christians really take our faith seriously, it should be obvious to us that the problem of bad apologetics is a serious one.
It is out of frustration over self-defeating apologetics that Orthodox Christian priest Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick wrote Arise, O God: The Gospel of Christ's Defeat of Demons, Sin, and Death, a pocket masterpiece.
In this new book, Fr. Damick takes stock of the Eastern Orthodox Church's tradition to provide an account of the Gospel that would set aside what he calls "the sales pitch", a common yet disappointing approach to apologetics which tends to present the Good News of the Gospel as an answer to a problem each and everyone of us has, whether we know it or not, that is to say, the problem of our own personal salvation: Jesus died on the Cross to atone for your sin.
Although the answer to the question "How can I be saved?" is important, it is only one aspect, albeit a very significant one, of the truth revealed in the Gospel. And the common understanding  in the West of Christ's achievements in a way that is centred above all on their implication for our own personal destinies leaves us unable to see the greater picture, to embrace the cosmic vision of the Scriptures.
The purpose of this book is therefore to provide a fuller account of the Gospel, within the context of the tradition to which the author belongs.
For example, Fr. Damick starts off by addressing the significance of the word "gospel", in light of etymology and cultural history. He tells us that the Greek word for gospel, most commonly used in its plural form – evangelia – was actually fairly common in the ancient world and constituted a literary genre. Evangelia were public pronouncements of victory, made by a herald on behalf of major military and/or political leaders in the Roman empire. These pronouncements included three major pieces of information: the identity of the proclaimed victor, the nature of his accomplishments, and the expectations he had for his subjects.
For Fr. Damick, the Christian Gospel cannot be fully understood while ignoring the meaning of this word within its historical context, a meaning which would have appeared obvious to contemporary writers such as the authors of the Gospels. In this sense. he urges us to understand it in light of this meaning: the Gospel tells us about Jesus Christ, his victory over sin, yes, but also over demons and death, and the expectations of Christ for his loyal disciples.
This is at the same time an explanation of the nature of the Gospel and also a framework to understand the dynamics of salvation.
After pondering the nature of the Gospel – what it is, what it is not – Fr. Damick addresses the necessity of the Gospel as it relates to biblical cosmology. The Gospel, as a proclamation of victory, constitutes the reconquest of a fallen world through the Incarnation, the sacrifice, and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, our Lord.
The remainder of the book constitutes a simple, short, and yet profound account of the identity of Jesus Christ, the nature of his accomplishments, and the expectations he has for us. It is within this context that we should understand, according to Fr. Damick, the importance of the commandments and the necessity for us to keep them: as an expression of inner faithfulness and trust, not as servile obedience to an arbitrary set of rules, motivated by fear of punishment.
One of the most interesting characteristics of Fr. Damick's book is his insistence on the objective nature of the Gospel and its significance. What we learn from the Gospel, he tells us, happens regardless of our response. In some ways, it constitutes a benevolent warning. Instead of insisting on the subjective interest of a person in adhering to the Gospel's teaching – which is quite real – Fr. Damick hopes to demonstrate that the events accounted for in the Gospel are true regardless of our belief and should be taken seriously. Or to put it another way: the Gospel is not about you or your ability to be saved (even though that's great news to you). Rather, it is about God reconquering the world cosmically and you choosing which side you're on.
Fr. Damick's good apologetics, his language and his approach to the Gospel, are all the more convincing when we are reminded of the words of John the Forerunner:
''Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.'' (Matthew 3: 2)
Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick, author of Arise, O God: The Gospel of Christ's Defeat of Demons, Sin, and Death, recently spoke with Salt + Light Media's Benjamin Boivin about his new book, the deeper meaning behind the Gospel, and the narrative of reenchantment. Read the interview here.

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