Hating Religion, Loving Jesus, Accepting Imperfection

You’ve likely seen Jeff Bethke’s YouTube video that juxtaposes Jesus and religion in a poem/rap. If somehow you’re not one of the nearly 20 million people to watch it, check it out above. Certainly it exploded across my Facebook feed this winter, and the reactions raised from undying adoration to dismissive antipathy.

I confess that after I watched it, I felt more of the latter than the former. My objection, like many others, centered on Bethke’s seemingly poor understanding and/or lazy use of the word “religion” and its cliched juxtaposition with Jesus. “Jesus came to abolish religion,” Bethke stated, and it’s the curse of the journalist-academician to want to correct the sentence to add: “some forms of”.

Further, though I enjoyed the poem – the first half of it especially – the end felt weak. Richard Beck probably gave the best analysis of why Bethke’s closing lines failed to support the strength of his opening ones. After tapping into a stream of commentary as old as the Bible itself, what with its condemnation of religious festivals in Amos and dismissal of the pharisaical legalism in Matthew, Bethke ends with discussion of Jesus’ act on the cross – “Salvation is freely mine, and forgiveness is my own. … He absorbed all your sin and buried it in the tomb.”

What is really weird, theologically speaking, about the conclusion of the video is that Bethke doesn’t end up where the prophets and Jesus end up, with a cry for more mercy and justice. No, Bethke ends up with penal substitutionary atonement.  … Bethke’s argument seems to be this: What makes religion bad is that it’s a form of works-based righteousness, churchy things we do to earn our way into heaven. And that’s fine, but this isn’t the biblical criticism of religion. The prophetic criticism is how religion has become separated from care for our neighbors. It’s the point Jesus is making in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. And the Parable of the Good Samaritan isn’t a parable about works-based righteousness. Far from it. The parable is placing a behavioral demand upon us.

All emphasis mine.

All that to say, the poem has some flaws. It raises good points, generates healthy and needed discussion, but doesn’t seem to have totally hit the mark. And my tendency, at least – please understand I’m not trying to tar Richard with my own thoughts and opinions – is to simply dismiss it as a nice, but ultimately failed, attempt. Try again next time, Jeff.

Then along comes Bo Sanders at Homebrewed Christianity with a smack upside the head:

I now hang out with mainline folks and people who read books on theology. They are  quick to say

  • that shows a poor understanding of religion
  • that is a silly/stupid/shallow definition of religion
  • that shows little historical perspective on the role that religion has played

Like it or not – this is the definition that many young people are using for religion. When they say (increasingly) that they are spiritual-but-not-religious, this is what they mean.

All emphasis his.

It’s easy when you hang around academia all day every day to dismiss the thoughts of the unenlightened. Sanders’ post is a good reminder that the purpose of academia is to teach, and teaching cannot occur without respectful conversation.

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One comment on “Hating Religion, Loving Jesus, Accepting Imperfection

  1. Steve Holt says:

    Related: Today’s “On Point with Tom Ashbrook” with guest Diana Butler Bass speaking about her new book, “Christianity After Religion.” Listen for my online comment being read by Tom during the program — “Steve Online.” Here’s what I wrote:

    “I’d definitely put myself in the post-organized-religion religious person camp. It’s a similar phenomenon to what’s happening in politics, with young people getting disenfranchised and looking outside the mainstream for answers. Incidentally, I believe this was actually the call of Jesus and the first Christians — to leave behind the legalism of religion and oppression of politics and follow a third way. As I look around at broken and failing religious and political institutions, I’m staking my life on Jesus being the alternative to oppression, legalism and greed — the first “occupier,” if you will.”

    Link to the whole program: http://onpoint.wbur.org/2012/03/01/leaving-religion-behind

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