Hating Religion but Loving Jesus?

Never before has it been so easy for one person to communicate to so many. Thanks to the full range of social media, ideas and images are now limited only by the downloading speed of millions of digital devices. And like many of the developments of this highly technological age, it is a glorious and frightful power, capable of both great good and great ill, along with everything in between.

Which brings us to one of the latest videos to merit the moniker “Youtube sensation,” spoken word poet Jefferson Bethke’s “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus”:

As of this writing, the video has received over 13 million hits, certainly no small feat. But what to make of it?

If you’re a fan of the The Princess Bride, you might recall Inigo Montoya saying, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Along the same lines, Justin Garrett reminded me that one the professors we both had in seminary would say something like, “I know what I mean when I say ________, but I’m not sure what you mean when you say ________.” Both quotes point to the fact that definitions matter a great deal, particularly when we’re dealing with words that lend themselves to a wide range of possible meanings. Think for a minute about terms such as “evangelical,” “postmodern,” “liberal,” “conservative,” “evolution,” “intelligent design,” or even “love” or “God.” All of these are likely to be defined differently by different people, meaning that we may need to do a bit of work to understand what is meant by each in a given context.

All that said, I think one’s basic reaction to this video likely hinges a great deal on one’s definition of the word “religion.”

After viewing it three times and reading the explanatory blurb the author posted underneath the video, I think it’s fairly clear that Bethke is using the term to denote what could be otherwise described as self-righteousness, i.e., the various attempts human beings make to obtain God’s acceptance, approval, and love through their own efforts and merit. This often bears the fruit of empty, formalistic practices and a moralism that manifests itself in personal pride or despair (depending on how one is “measuring up”) and the condemnation of others for their failures, whether real or imagined. Biblically speaking, this is a borderline universal and doggedly persistent human tendency and one that we do well to fight against with all the resources of grace at our disposal.

But is this definition of religion demanded by the Scriptures? Not at all. Consider James 1:26-7: “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” According to this passage, there is such a thing as positive religion: one characterized by (and doubtless not limited to) a controlled tongue, care for the particularly vulnerable, and genuine holiness. To set Jesus in opposition to this religion would be to pit him against his own word. Again, I don’t at all believe this is Bethke’s intention, but it does illustrate one of the potential issues in framing his video in the way that he has.

I suspect the problem more likely problem to result from this piece has to do with those who would claim some kind of affinity to Jesus—or at least a certain perception of Jesus—but are quick to distance themselves from and even denounce “the church.” Again, definitions are important here, but these people usually say something like, “Churches are full of hypocrisy and a bunch of hoops to jump through. What really matters is my relationship with Jesus. I just want to follow Jesus and worship him in my own way.”

Given the past experiences some have had with the church, this sentiment can be understandable. It can even be well intentioned. Unfortunately, it’s just not biblical. This is probably worth a post in itself, but here it might suffice to say that there are too many “one another” passages, too many metaphors that picture the church as an interconnected body, too many places where the genuine community of the church and its activities are understood to be a primary means to foster our relationship with Jesus for this to be a considered a legitimate Christian mindset.

I suspect any encouragement Bethke’s video provides toward this way of thinking is largely unintentional. But we all tend to hear what we want to hear, and the danger is particularly acute in the absence of information that can provide greater clarity and nuance. And while no one can say everything that potentially needs to be said all the time, that’s certainly something to consider for anyone creating a piece like this one.

All in all, I think there’s much to commend in the final product. My first exposure to the video came from critical responses to it. But after watching the thing itself, I came away more sympathetic than I thought I’d be. Despite my reservations (both those listed above and others), the idea that salvation is the result of grace alone comes through clearly, and that is no small thing.

For those wishing to read a more comprehensive analysis of the video, check out Kevin DeYoung’s thoughts here. In a nice turn of events, Bethke actually ended up reading DeYoung’s analysis, prompting a very commendable exchange between the two which you can find linked in the latter’s initial post. All in all, it’s a great example in both giving and receiving constructive criticism. And that’s no small thing either.

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