Jefferson Bethke’s spoken-word poem “Why I hate religion, but love Jesus”, has garnered plenty of attention over the past couple of weeks, going viral from YouTube, causing plenty of ripples in the Christian community and abroad. I loved Alicia McClintic’s thoughtful responselast week on the Awakening blog, and I agree with everything she had to say, so this is not an antithesis to her words, but merely a small addendum. Please read that first if you’re going to read this, because it deals with more of the core issues.
I would like to address a couple issues related to the video and people’s response. The first thing is the need to balance passion with discernment. Alicia touched on this, but I’d like to elaborate. With this video we have seen the problems that arise when someone spreads a passionate message without ample consideration of God’s Word and the way one’s words are going to be received. I know I’ve done this a lot myself. Out of a sincere love of Christ and a burning desire to see people come to know Him, I’ve said and done things in an untactful way, to the detriment of the very message I was trying to impart. I think we can see something similar with Bethke’s poem.
Now I don’t want to say that Bethke’s message hasn’t done good. It’s brought up a lot of healthy discussion within and without the church, and I know has challenged me to consider Jesus more closely. But reading up on his responses to some reporters, Bethke seems to show a bit of regret over the way his message was received, as you can read in this article by the Christian Post.
I’m someone who can let my heart go ahead of my mind and I think a young twenty-two year-old like Jefferson Bethke is similar and consequently made some miscues in putting together the words of his message. Therefore, I want to address the importance of keeping ourselves steeped in God’s Word and “testing the spirits to see if they are from God” (1 John 4:1). We must test new ideas, our emotions and our excitement, especially if we’re going to go broadcasting them to the world.
Now Bethke has creative license in presenting a poem, as opposed to a sermon. I think it’s fair for him to say things in a way you couldn’t say them at the pulpit. But I think he takes this license a little too far in this poem, saying things like “What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion?” without using even one line to define what he meant by “religion”. Now what he really meant by “religion”, as I’m quoting Bethke’s actual words from the interview I referenced above was “It has nothing to do with the actual church. It’s a synonym used for Pharisee-type legalistic, self-righteous people that are opposed to the church and opposed to Christianity. So that’s my definition of [false religion].” (Again, please read Alicia’s explanation of religion, as she ties it back to scripture). Yet he never makes the distinction clear between his poetic definition of religion and a scriptural definition in the poem, and confuses a lot of people. If he had taken more time to consider what he was really saying and how it would be received his poem would have had a better effect and wouldn’t have caused so much confusion.
We see lots of scriptural exhortations to weigh our words and be tactful with our tongue, which I think Bethke would have been wiser to heed. James talks about taming the tongue and how “it is a small member, yet it boasts of great things” and “it is a restless evil” (James 3:5,8). He starts the section of scripture by explaining “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1). Bethke went into the realm of teaching with his poem and he’s being judged strictly for it. So we must be careful when we’re teaching people, and make sure our message is grounded in scripture and well thought out, ensuring that we’re acting not on emotion but in wisdom and with sober thinking.
The second thing I wanted to address is unity within the Church in light of the tension this spoken word poem has stirred up. Bethke seems to be a true follower of Christ and is preaching Christ, which we can’t fault him for. He says on his Facebook, “I love Jesus, I’m addicted to grace, and I’m just a messed up dude trying to make Him famous.” And in this we as Christians must stand side by side with him, on the same team trying to make Jesus famous. In the poem, he may not be explaining Jesus in the best way, but he’s still made millions of people consider Him afresh.
Jesus himself told the disciples “Anyone who is not against us is for us” (Matthew 9:38-41). And when Paul has opponents preaching Christ with the wrong heart, he reveals his desire for Christ to be proclaimed as greater than his desire to be in the right. He tells the Philippian church, “Only that in every way, Christ is proclaimed, whether in pretense or in truth, and in that I rejoice” (Philippians 1:17-18). Jesus’ final prayer for his disciples and all disciples following them was that “they would be one” (John 17). This was at the center of Jesus’ heart and he knew unity amongst the Church was crucial to His message of love effectively going forth into a broken world.
Rather than letting this degrade into a war of words, let’s use this as an opportunity. This generation is more interested in spiritual things than many of those past and Jesus is getting talked about right now. Think of some people you can talk to about this video. For me it’s my co-worker who probably would like it even though he doesn’t follow Jesus. We had a conversation two weeks ago about Jesus, and he just so happens to think Jesus is cool but organized religion isn’t. I’ll have to clarify some things for him about who Jesus is, because we should never rely on a video – or anyone else for that matter—to explain it all for us. You may also have a spiritually interested friend who you could explain Jesus to starting with discussion about this controversial poem. Lets use the doors that Bethke has opened for us to help make the gospel go forth in San Jose.
Author: Jeff Oleson