If you have a Facebook and have Christian friends, it is highly likely that you have already seen (or at least heard of) this youtube video, “Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus.” For those who haven’t, the video is a presentation of a short spoken-word poem by Jefferson Bethke contrasting Jesus and Religion. I think this video deserves some thoughtful reflection, especially since it went viral so quickly.
There are two things I want say, though, before I go any further. First, if you haven’t watched the video for yourself, please do so. Listen to Bethke’s words, reflect on them, put what Bethke is saying against what you know to be true, and form your own opinion. Isn’t that what we’re encouraged to do in 1 John 4:1? In The Message Eugene Peterson puts it like this: “My dear friends, don’t believe everything you hear. Carefully weigh and examine what people tell you.” Second, while I may disagree with some of Bethke’s theology, I want to say that I admire how he desperately wants the world to know Jesus and encounter God’s life-changing grace. If I knew Bethke, I’d probably really like his passion for sharing Jesus with the world and his willingness to call out the problems he sees in our social and religious institutions. But mixed in with some things in this poem that I find true and insightful, there are also quite a few things that present theological problems for me.
As I was seeing this video show up all over my Facebook feed, I sort of felt that I should “Like” it and repost it like several of my friends had done—but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. At first, the message sounds really good. But I had a vague, lingering sense that something wasn’t quite right about it. This is my attempt to put that into words. I assume Bethke’s intent in this video was to spark conversations. And, if anything, he certainly did that—so many responses have been posted online both critiquing and praising Bethke. What I have to say may have already been said before (and probably by better writers), but I just want to enter into this conversation with him and with you.
I suppose I was most concerned by a point Bethke makes in the first line of the poem: “Jesus came to abolish religion.” I think what Bethke means when he says “religion” is “legalistic/self-righteous/false religion(s) where salvation is earned by one’s works and ignores any relationship with Jesus.” For Bethke, religion is a way for humanity to make it without God’s intervention; it is only rules (“like a long list of chores”), hypocrisy, and fakeness (“religion’s like spraying perfume on a casket”). If that is true, then Jesus would be opposed to all those things, and Bethke’s sometimes harsh remarks would certainly be deserved. But the problem is that’s not what religion actually is. Perhaps religion has the potential to become those things, or perhaps that is the way some people have experienced or viewed religion… but that’s not what religion is.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, religion is simply “A particular system of faith and worship; a pursuit, interest, or movement followed with great devotion.” Even when someone preaches the “Jesus > Religion” message, following Jesus is still “religion” in the strict sense of the term. Not all religion is the harmful legalistic kind. And Jesus certainly didn’t hate it. Of course he reserved his harshest criticism for the legalistic, self-righteous religious leaders of his day, but Jesus was himself a Jewish rabbi—clearly a participant in “religion”—who described his mission this way: “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” (Matt. 5:17). Jesus didn’t have a problem with religion; he had a problem with legalism. As a typical first-century Jew, Jesus observed Jewish dietary laws and holy days, attended services at the synagogue, and did all the rest of the religious things first-century Jews did (with some of his own reinventions). As a typical first-century Jewish rabbi, Jesus taught some difficult things and insisted that people accept those difficult teachings and obey his commands in order to follow him. Jesus also instituted new rituals (baptism and communion) and founded a new church. To put Jesus against religion is to create a false dichotomy—they are too closely intertwined to be on “opposite spectrums.”
The reason why a message like Bethke’s sounds so good is that we like a God that is all love and no rules, and we love the idea of Jesus as an individualistic radical who hated religion. The only problem is, God does have rules and Jesus didn’t hate religion. And buying into the Jesus who hates religion ends up being really harmful for something that Jesus deeply loves: the Church, the Bride of Christ. Jesus is working through the Church (which is, in fact, “organized religion”) to bring the Kingdom of God. Granted, the Church has not always done this well—doing missionary work driven by cultural imperialism rather than the gospel message, excluding people from the fellowship of believers, using the pulpit for political propaganda, and I could go on. I don’t deny that many people have been caught in legalism and many (myself included) have been deeply hurt by the Church when some churches have claimed to love grace, but have given none. But the fact still remains: the Church (meaning the general organized body of believers working to follow Jesus and obey his commands) is God’s plan for the salvation and healing of the world. There is no Plan B. When you separate Jesus from the Church, what’s left is no longer the message of Jesus—which is a message for everyone, by the way, even those self-righteous religious people (who may be a lot more like us than we often want to admit).
As a writer, I completely understand why it was convenient for Bethke’s poem to simply say “religion” instead of a long complicated phrase, and I can’t imagine a bulky phrase like that working well in a tight, condensed, spoken-word poem. But even while I understand the need for simplification, I still find his use of the word religion here misleading. As a writer and a student of literature, I fundamentally believe that words have power and, as a result, I am careful about how I use them in relation to what they mean. Because I believe that words matter and shouldn’t be defined however we want, my main problem with this video is Bethke’s misuse of the word religion. There are other things I could point out in the video that I disagree with, but they have already been pointed out elsewhere by people much more talented than I. Finally, I want to thank Bethke for reminding us about Jesus and for being the instigator of so many conversations about the work of Jesus and the Church. But I wish he had been more careful with his words while talking about religion.
Author: Alicia McClintic