1: “Religion”Posted: January 13, 2012
I’ve been toying around with the idea for this blog for almost a year, but a recent viral video prompted me to begin now. On January 10th, Jefferson Bethke posted a video of a poem he recites called, “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus.” At the time of this blog post, the video already has over 3 million hits and his been linked to and commented on from a variety of online sources.
Let me say at the outset, I am primarily satisfied with the message of the video and happy that it has reached so many people and caused us all to think. I took special notice of it the day after it went viral, in which many of my friends on Facebook were sharing the video, most favorably. Some other friends commented on the poet’s misuse of the word “religion,” and several discussions ensued.
Here is the video:
Before delving into the issue about the word “religion,” I want to note the things I enjoyed from brother Bethke’s poem.
One of the first things he says is, “Voting Republican really wasn’t his mission. . . ‘Republican’ doesn’t automatically mean ‘Christian.'” At first, this strikes me as off-topic. But it’s obvious who he’s trying to reach, and in doing so he’s spot on. The video, as I see it, was intended to dispel the notion that Christianity is an empty religion with its own set of rituals that makes it on par with every other religion. He’s trying to separate Christianity from all the stereotypes about political involvement, judgmentalism, and rote performance. Bethke refers to the “mask” of religion as “perfume on a casket” and “behavior modification.” His candid testimony illustrates his desire to sincerely present the gospel (and he does highlight the grace of God in Jesus Christ in the poem) to a world seething in ignorance. One of my favorite lines includes an autobiographical statement about his “whole life building a facade of neatness, but now that I know Jesus I boast in my weakness!”
If by “religion,” this brother means “vain tradition,” then this video is a tremendous blessing. If by “religion,” Bethke means “man’s attempt to cover his own sin,” then the adage he includes, “man searching for God vs. God searching for man” actually fits. If the poem meant to convey the idea that “religion” means “self-righteousness,” then I can say “amen” to the line, “Religion says ‘do’ but Jesus says ‘done.'”
I have no reason to doubt that’s precisely with this brother means to say. And I’m thankful for all the ears who have heard the message in this way. However, many have used his words to legitimize their own disdain for true religion.
In the video, Bethke states that “Jesus came to abolish religion,” a statement quite intriguing in light of Matthew 5:17, which states, ““Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” I wonder how such an oversight could have been made. Bethke calls religion a “man made religion” that “Jesus hated.” These are very strong words and can be taken in a variety of ways.
The Internet audience is diverse. Some may hear the poem and think, “Yes, that’s what I’m looking for! I’m tired of the empty traditions, the self-centered performance, and hypocrisy of organized religion – but I love Jesus!” In these cases, we rejoice. However, how many times has “I don’t believe in organized religion” been said to justify a downplaying of the church? (I realize at one point brother Bethke clarifies himself and says he loves the church, but his anti-religion message is too confusing). What concerned me were comments like this that I saw on social networks: “I’m not a Christian I just have a relationship with Jesus.”
See, the problem goes way beyond this video. Had the video not been posted, I would have eventually come to the term “religion” because of how much it takes a beating today. I am convinced that one of the prevailing problems in Christianity today, and particularly in modern, Western evangelicalism, is rugged individualism. Church is unnecessary. All that matters is “me and my Bible” and/or “me and Jesus.” We don’t need religion but a relationship.
I submit to you that religion is one of the primary ways that God has given to us to build our relationship with Him!
And just what is religion anyway? Webster’s says,
Recognition on the part of man of a controlling superhuman power of powers entitled to obedience, reverence, and worship; a particular system of faith in and worship of a Supreme Being or a god or gods, an object of conscientious or encompassing devotion.
Biblically, religion is defined similarly to that above. In the Oxford’s Guide to the Bible edited by Bruce Metzger, “religion” is said to mean,
. . . (narrowly), actions, especially cultic or ceremonial, that express reverence for the gods. (Broadly), religion involved a complex of faith and conduct. . . Isaiah 11.2 translates is “fear of the Lord.”
The Apostle James has no problem talking about religion:
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.
(James 1:26-27 ESV)
I find it interesting that James also includes things you do as part of “pure religion.” These words coincide nicely with the actions of our Lord and his apostles. After all, Jesus fulfilled the Law. He kept ceremonies and feasts and customs. In fact, he even celebrated Hanukkah (John 10:22-23). While it is true he rebuked the Pharisees for their self-centered, overzealous, hypocritical religion, Jesus did not shy away from religion himself. The fact that the very embodiment of the gospel is religious should teach us the truth that religion and relationship are not mutually exclusive.
In fact, as I said above, the Christian religion is the primary means by which we grow in our relationship with Christ. It cannot be stated strongly enough: God does not call any of his followers to be alone. The idea that we can live the Christian life in isolation is a devastating lie. You need the church. The church needs you. Believers need each other. And if we get together, we’ll need a common confession. And we’ll need some organization, too.
So, that leaves us with an organized group of devoted followers of God in fellowship, helping each other live out a common confession through encouragement, obedience, and practice. Sounds like religion to me! Pure, biblical, Christian religion. We need the word “religion.” This is our word. Let us redeem this word!
I love Jesus, and I love his religion!
Check out a 2008 article by Voddie Baucham on the “religion” issue – worth your time!