Thursday, January 12, 2012

If you really love Jesus, you would have to love "religion", too.

Lately there has been this YouTube video popping up everywhere of Jefferson Bethke reciting a poem of his composition where he contrasts what he calls false "religion" with Jesus. I think it is an excellent example of what I see as a prevalent mentality among many of my peers.  If you want to read the full text of this poem click here. Let me say what I like about it first, then I want to offer a couple of critiques.

Jefferson is correct to be critical of hypocrisy. In every generation, there have been hypocrites and there have been sincere believers. I agree that it isn't ok to continue being involved in all sorts of sinful practices while pretending to be a strong Christian. I would also agree that there have been people in authoritative places within churches who have abused their power and have failed to show enough grace and mercy toward Christians who have made mistakes. He is right to urge that mercy, forgiveness, and grace should be shown to those who are struggling.

 But there are a number of issues here that I find extremely problematic.

 First, he equates all religion with hypocrisy. This is simply not true in history or in my personal experiences. I've known many people who like to skip out on church involvement who love to play the hypocrisy card. "Some church people do _____, and I just don't want to be around hypocrites." He is right to critique aspects of church life that are hypocritical or overly harsh, but it isn't true that all experiences with religion are inherently hypocritical. Many of his attacks are misdirected, in my judgment, because they seem to operate off of this assumption. He makes a rather weak statement near the end about how he loves church, the Bible, and believes in sin, but he hasn't left much room in his mindset for where these could take part in what is going on. I've known many Christians who are not hypocrites at all, and who would go out of their way to show repentance toward anyone they had treated in a way that was taken badly. He really overstates his case against whatever he means by "religion."

As is common with those influenced by Calvinist teaching, he goes too far in reducing the responsibilities of a Christian in response to Christ's sacrifice. It is absolutely true that Jesus paid the price for our sins and that nothing we do is capable of meriting our salvation. But he sets up some really bad dichotomies connected to his view of what Christ did and what Christians should do.

  • He says, "Jesus and religion are on opposite spectrums. See one's the work of God, but one's a man made invention." What do you say, then, about all the times in the Gospels that Jesus shows a clear dedication to following the laws, holidays, and teachings of the Torah? There was much patternistic behavior, both in Judaism, and later in Christianity. To suggest that anything involving rules and routines is man-made is misstated at best. 
  • He says, "See because religion says do, Jesus says done." Jesus indicated that his work upon the cross was finished, but upon his resurrection, he certainly didn't tell us we are "done." In fact, his last words begin with, "Go!" Jesus was very interested in our doings. 
  •  He says, "Religion says slave, Jesus says son. Religion puts you in bondage, while Jesus sets you free." This line, to me, reveals a disturbing lack of Scriptural knowledge for someone making bold faith statements. I'll probably never have trouble remembering the Greek word for slave (doulos!) because it shows up in the New Testament so frequently to describe Christians. Romans 1:1, Romans 6:18, Ephesians 6:6, James 1:1, etc. We are to be slaves of Christ. We're set free from the bondage of sin, but we are also meaningfully committed to serving our new Master, and not just kneeling at his cross.
  • He says, "Religion is man searching for God, Christianity is God searching for man."  I would think it is much more accurate to say that Christianity is God seeking man, but man also seeking God.  Paul says in Philippians 3:10, "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection."  Jesus instructs us in Matthew 6:33, "But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness."  Yes, God has sought us out and paid the price we could not pay, but if we are to find him, we must seek him. Seeking God is not the opposite of Christianity.  I think all of these dichotomies are really unfortunate.  
I think he is correct in saying that we're all sinners, and we shouldn't pretend that we've been otherwise.  But I don't agree with his harsh words about "behavior modification" not addressing some of the roots of the problem.  Jesus said in Matthew 12:34, "Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks."  Actions are an indication of what is inside of us.  Behavior modification should positively be an outcome of faith in Christ.  I think Jefferson would acknowledge this point, as he is so critical of people going to church while living promiscuously.  But his harsh words about the apparent non-merit of behavior, combined with his echoing of the false accusation of Jesus' enemies--that Jesus was a drunkard and a glutton--pave the way for tremendous moral laxity, despite his critique of hypocrisy.  Yes, you'll never be good enough to justify salvation on your own accord, but you are a much better person for trying to live by patterns, rules, and principles that the Church has tried to embody since the beginning.

I guess these days, people have started using the word "discipleship" to talk about what I think was really meant originally by the word "religion."  Religion came from a latin term that described the behavior of monks, who had very strict ways of ordering their life's rhythms.  Everyone has a religion.  Your religion is the way you prioritize and organize your life, combined with the way you live out these priorities.  You really can't get closer to God without regularly putting yourself in the presence of God through prayer, worship, Scriptural study, and other acts of obedience.  You can become a Christian, regardless of what you've been doing recently, but without a plan and pattern of action, you'll not likely be a very good one.

I am probably overstating some of my critiques, and I imagine that Jefferson would say his main interest is in taking on hypocritical practices that rely on legalism rather than on truly loving and knowing Christ.  In that area, I agree with him.

He has put together a really thought-provoking poem, and I appreciate his candidness in talking about the importance of Christ in his life.  I just think some of his Calvinist underpinnings end up causing him to create a set of priorities that doesn't ultimately make for good disciples.


  1. Amen! You hit a home run with this post. I thought the video's false dichotomies were especially irksome.

  2. Thanks, Luke! The video, as Matt said, inspires great feelings of "YES!" and "NO!" for me at the same time. And like you, it bothers me how many people don't detect a lot of the problems here.

  3. Good stuff Mark. At first I thought, "I should have thought of that." Then I realized that I am blessed to have heard it from you first. Thanks for sharing this!

    1. Thanks, Matt. This all makes me think that those of us who have it all figured out (wink wink) should start making more good video productions, such as the one that this guy made. There are great artists. There are great scholars. We need people who are a little more proficient in both areas working together.

  4. This really is top-notch work, Mark. Sorry I'm 3 years late!

  5. This really is topnotch work, Mark.