Friday, January 13, 2012

Why I'm Religious For Jesus - A Critical Response

The above video from Jefferson Bethke, "Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus" has exploded over YouTube and Facebook in the past 48 hours. At least forty of my Facebook friends have "shared it," inundating my news feed and offering lauds of praise.

So I finally watched it. And while I found myself wanting to like it, I found myself squirming uncomfortably.

I know where he's coming from. I think I've even preached a similar message at times. "Christianity is not a religion, it's a relationship." At the core, this is still true. I'm saved by grace and the immense love of a good God who desires restoration and reconciliation and whole-creation transformation. But to say that Christianity is diametrically opposed to religion in all forms is a false dichotomy. A basic definition of religion is, "the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods." I doubt very many followers of Jesus would disagree with this definition, nor would they say that they would not aspire to live it out. ("Nope, I don't believe in or worship God. I'm not just religious.")

My relationship with Jesus leads me to be religious.

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world (James 1:27). I think Mr. Bethke would agree. James goes on to say that faith without actions is essentially dead; a faith must be practiced, lived out, embodied. Even in a relationship, we must practice discipline and accountability and boundaries and habits. My relationship with my wife is not established on a simple feeling, nor is it without hard work. I love what Jeffrey Overstreet wrote in a Facebook thread on the subject:
When Christ gave instructions for remembering him through communion, for serving the poor, for guarding our hearts and minds, etc... that's religion. He said he would build a church. Can't have church without religion. Legalism and religion are different things. Hypocrisy is not religion, it's fakery. To say religion has nothing to do with Christ's love is like saying sports have nothing to do with athleticism, or songs have nothing to do with music. Without religion, words like "accountability," "communion," and "liturgy" become meaningless.
I believe that Mr. Bethke is reacting against this kind of legalism and hypocrisy, but using the word "religion" to encompass those practices. I can see how this jump in definition can be made, as many of the folks described as "religious leaders" are also described as hypocrites in Scripture. Hypocrisy isn't a fruit of following Jesus. He is reacting against the shallow Christianity of just showing up to church on Sunday, but rarely embodying any semblance of Christ. It is the same motivation that has caused many Christians to make the claim, "I'm not a Christian; I'm a Christ-follower," thus making a distinction between this shallow faith and true discipleship.

These kinds of reactions fail to take account for the thousands of years of religious history where our faith finds its roots. We have been called Christians from our beginnings; to reject the label feels flippant. Instead, redeem the label by actually embodying what Christ calls us to as His disciples. Practice what He preached. Be disciplined in prayer, service, worship, and living in community. We do this not out of a motivation to save yourself or adopt a certain moral code, but because Christ has bestowed infinite amounts of grace, and thus we are compelled to share that grace in our actions and attitudes.

On the other hand, many of the critics of the video have been less than loving, choosing to blast Mr. Bethke with pejorative rhetoric. In this opinion piece at Patrol, the author calls the video "lame" and "ridiculous," all with a tone that reeks of superiority and snark. In a comment below the piece, emergent author and theologian Tony Jones writes this: "People were posting this all over Facebook — people I trust — so I thought it would be good. It is, in fact, a piece of sh*t."

In our discernment of art, culture, and theology, we cannot become sponges who simply suck up and praise everything at first glance. Nor can we be funnels, letting everything pass us by with an uncritical evasiveness. We have to filter, like a sieve, testing everything and clinging to the good that we find. To dismiss the above video as "sh*t" in a public forum is unloving and unnecessary. We need to have good critical thinking skills and high standards for art, but we can express those critiques--even the unsparing ones--with a tone of grace that Jesus embodied.

We need to practice grace religiously.

In a final note, I am impressed with Bethke's courage for creating this video and putting it out there for the world to see. To share one's art and creative work is terrifying, for it allows others to see and critique the work of our hearts. Whenever I write--particularly when my writing is actually published--it is both invigorating ("I've created something that could impact the world!") and anxiety-inducing ("What if people hate it, and hate me?"). So I offer this critique with as much grace as I can: this poetry has effective moments and contains beautiful truths, but it isn't great art. It didn't move me, didn't stir my heart or challenge my mind the same way that Keats, Dickinson, and Whitman do. Spoken word poetry has far more creative and affective examples, such as this TED talk from Sarah Kay, or the following video from Christian poet, Propaganda:

G.O.S.P.E.L. from Humble Beast Records on Vimeo.

We must be religious in our creation and critique of art and culture, and religious in our efforts to love and serve the creation around us. As N.T. Wright once put it, 

Art is love creating the new world. Justice is love rolling up its sleeves to heal the old one.

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments!


  1. So well said Joel! I appreciate your review on this one,I think this kid sees how religion sometimes gets twisted and deformed in modern America and decided to discard it completely! Thanks for the biblical back up as a reminder of the kind of church God really called us to be a part of;the body of Christ. 1 Cor. 12:14 "The body is not made up of one part but many." Great reminder!

  2. As a non-artist, I don't understand the difference between this performance and Sarah Kay's? What did this guy do wrong that Propaganda and Sarah Kay got right?

    1. Great question! I'll try to answer as succinctly as possible.

      It's not a question of Bethke doing anything "wrong," per se, but rather that his work does not compare to both Kay and Propaganda on a number of levels. First, in terms of integrity of content. Bethke claims at the beginning that this poem is about Jesus being better than religion, but fails to give a compelling definition of what religion actually is (hence my response above). He rails against Republicans, apathetic Christians, and claims that religion starts wars...but then addresses that we need to love the poor and outcast (a decidedly religious practice). Kay and Propaganda's messages hold more thematic water, containing an integrity and continuity of thought that feels much more like cohesive.

      The content from Propaganda and Kay is decidedly original--this is clearly their work, and they have owned it enough that it comes out of them naturally. However, Bethke seems to have combined numerous Christian cliches and sermon points into a poem. Other posts have noted the similarly to this poem and Mark Driscoll's "Religion Saves" sermon series. Bethke's one line about "spraying perfume on a casket" sounds far too much like Propaganda's line of "spraying cologne on a corpse." While I don't want to claim plagiarism, it does cause one to pause and wonder.

      In terms of presentation, both Kay and Propaganda have presence. Their vocal inflections, tone, body language, and rhythm are confident, consistent, and creative. Having seen Propaganda live, he is just as compelling on stage. Bethke, on the other hand, is stilted and wooden, with a constant tiny half-smirk as he leans first left, then right, then left again, then back to right with each rhyme.

      This is simply my critique and opinion, and all art is subjective. But I think the difference between Kay and Bethke is akin to the difference between Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) and Justin Bieber. One is a genuinely talented artist that has created some truly original and critically-acclaimed work; the other is a YouTube-discovered pop icon.

  3. Good critique. I enjoyed some of his lines, but felt uncomfortable afterwards for some of the same reasons.

    You want to see a hard-hitting spoken word poem? You Just Lost One by Blair Wingo. Blows me away every time.