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The Gospel According to John Krasinski

Updated: May 10, 2021

On March 29th 2020, John Krasinski launched the YouTube channel, “Some Good News” (SGN), with a tweet: “Alright everybody, how about #SomeGoodNews! Send me the stories that have made you feel good this week or the things that just made you smile!”

SGN was exactly what it sounds like, an online channel dedicated to sharing good news during a tragic and uncertain time that viewers shared via social media. To the millions of community members who participated in the show, Krasinski’s “Some Good News” was an “online positivity movement” and a “life raft during very grim times.” The show coincided with and was in direct response to an abrupt end of in-person gatherings, and therefore an unprecedented disruption of the conventional practice of religion - which was already in an unprecedented decline.

In 2009, regular worship attenders outnumbered those who attend religious services occasionally or not at all by a 52%-to-47% margin. Today those figures are reversed. Less than half of adults in the United States belong to a church, mosque or synagogue for the first time in history. The Pew Research Center reports that 65% of adults still identify as Christian but 26% of the population identify as religiously disaffiliated. This complicated category of “None” is now the largest “religious” group in North America. Despite this decline in affiliation and participation, a lesser known trend has surfaced over the last thirty years: the number of people who say they experience a deep sense of spirituality has risen. This less acknowledged reality begs questions related to where we look for things “religious” - especially post-COVID.

During a year of stay-at-home orders, faith, spirituality, and community appears to have improved for many in the United States. One Gallup study reports that half of North Americans feel the pandemic has not affected their exercise, diet, personal relationships, mental health, faith or spirituality positively or negatively. Out of these aspects surveyed, the net "gotten better" versus "gotten worse" gap is the most positive for faith or spirituality” The only other aspect of life that reported a net positive is personal relationships. This survey suggests that what North Americans missed during this unprecedented disruption is eating out and gym memberships, not participation in conventional “religion.”

That said, transitioning from life’s disruptions is a meaning making exercise and I believe it will continue to be the realm of the “religious” - including new networks that emerge to serve these needs. As a practical theologian, I am interested in how the pandemic has disrupted our lives, but more so in how it might influence our recovery.

A Gospel According to John Krasinski

Before the word, “gospel” became synonymous with the Christian Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; the term “evangelion” broadly described the process and content of making good known. SGN certainly did that. I wonder if it did more.

Although he began each show humbly - “I’m John Krasinski and if it isn’t clear already, I have no idea what I’m doing” - Krasinski intuited something that resonated. Between March 29th and May 17th 2020, he produced eight 20-minute episodes with his wife, his daughters, and other talented friends. The first episode alone gathered 17 million views. The channel attracted 142 million views. Nearly 5 million people either followed the show or subscribed. Its impressions topped 1 billion. To its community members, however, SGN was more than a binge worthy internet show. SGN set itself apart during a rush of other shows and religious services streamed online by its crowd sourced stories and DIY production, but more so by an affirming worldview and convening style. This community response and contributions made it one of the fastest-growing YouTube channels ever.

In the final episode, Krasinski began a segment titled “What this show means…”Well, … on a very personal note, I can tell you that I will never be able to properly articulate, just how much this show has meant to me. And what a tremendous honor it has been to share in all of it with you. Because the truth is, I have been so blown away by the messages I've received saying how joyful this show makes you, how uplifted and inspired you all can be. But I assure you, all the pleasure and all the inspiration, has been mine. I told you from the very first episode I only deliver the good news, you are the good news. And that's why every single week. If you can look past the goofy guy wearing half a suit, you'd see what resilience really looks like, what unbroken really means. And through witnessing each and every simple act of kindness and generosity you would see what the true definition of good really is.

Krasinski then offered a video montage to answer his own question: “What is SGN?” The review reminded viewers of people and stories they had shared/encountered during the show to the song Rise Up by Andra Day. That series included essential workers of all sorts like the taxi driver who brought COVID patients to the hospital without charging, mail carriers turned care caregivers, and love stories like the 80 year old husband who climbed to a third story window to sing to his wife … and astronauts. Yes, astronauts calling home to share the view and message that, “an earth in crisis is still an earth worth returning to.” Krasinski then ended episode eight by modifying his usual sign-off: "I'm John Krasinski, no longer needing to remind you that no matter how hard things get, there is always good in the world. Thank you, all of you, for making this show so very special." During this final segment, like many moments during SGN episodes, and anytime I found myself scrolling through the comments, I admit … I teared up. When I say “teared up,” I mean wept… and hugged my family.

Is This “Religious?”

The question of whether something like SGN is or is not “religious” has challenged theorists, well... from the very beginning. The Roman philosopher, Cicero, credited with coining the word emphasized a process of reflective action by using the Latin root legare to imply an intense looking back “to read thoughtfully or to pick, to gather, or to treat carefully.” He writes: “those who carefully took in hand all things pertaining to the gods were called religiosi.” For Cicero, “Relegare” signified the action of understanding what one does by a “redoubling of one’s attention.” Despite this early emphasis, “religion,” as it has been commonly used in the west, stems from the Latin root leig and usage in ligare meaning to bind. The origins of this more dominant meaning lie in texts like Lactantius's Divine Institutes (early 4th century) and Augustine's On True Religion (early 5th century) that adopted the adherence-focused religare to imply both affective and the effective ties of dependence re-binding a person to the one G*d. We hear this early tension when Lactantius writes: “We are tied to G*d and bound to him by the bond of piety, and it is from this, and not, as Cicero holds, from careful study, that religion has received its name.”

This same debate continued as modern social scientists offered their distinct perspectives to the study of what we mean by, “religion.” Emile Durkheim, for example, determined that the required markers of religion are not beliefs in spiritual beings, but practices that address a certain need, integrate individuals into a larger relationship, and provide guidance for a meaningful life. This integration of individuals into a collective, he suggests, creates a self-transcending higher reality of its own - and reflection on the nature of that reality provides tools for participants to interpret and act in the world.

As an educator and practical theologian, I often frame “religion” to my students in a similar way - as the history of human beings trying to figure out what it means to be human in relation with each other and the god(s) of our understanding. I often then shorthand this definition even more to what matters most to people and why, and how people hold their lives together. I believe the benefits of such an inclusive definition outweighs any liabilities. Those of us interested in this area of human behavior and/or the sacred itself will always struggle for fixed parameters because “religion,” whatever it is, is interpretive by nature. So, I wonder now how faith communities and theologians might theologize about and with expressions like SGN that are shaping people’s shared lives and are providing a basis for meaning when more and more people are living just outside the known parameters of conventional “religious” communities or services.

SGN reached out to ordinary people during a tragic and uncertain time, offered an affirming hope, the need for faith, and reasons to maintain it by showing them what was hidden all around and within them. Then, the show’s convening style invited more and more people into that experience, and thereby shared a way to work through the crisis. I suggest expressions and networks like SGN are worthy of our theological attention - especially in the current context of decline and recovery. Krasinski’s Good News offers those of us interested in things “religious” further evidence that what we call “religion” is not disappearing. It might just be changing.

(James Michael Nagle, Ph.D is the author of “Out on Waters: The Religious Life and Learning of Young Catholics Beyond the Church.” He teaches theology at Xavier High School in New York City and studies contemporary movements of religion and spirituality, and their implications for wider culture. James also works with church and other non-profit groups to develop content and curriculum for young adult audiences).

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