Why I Love Religion AND Jesus
Today, I am going to be the party pooper. Sorry, but I cannot just let this one lie. This video has been circulating around Facebook and Twitter (at least among my friends across the country). While I find it convicting, I do not think it is whole. Jeffrey Bethke makes some very good points, but there is something missing.
I’ll start with those good points, as it is always good to be positive before launching into any sort of criticism.
(1) What if I told you getting you to vote Republican really wasn’t his mission?
Amen, my friend. I think this point is becoming clearer and clearer to Christians around the United States. Such a reality makes me glad. Why? I am tired of seeing a religious tradition co-opted by political agenda totally contrary to the aims of the faith. Jesus is not a Democrat or a Republican; he isn’t even an American. It is nice to see more people waking up to that.
(2) Why does it build huge churches, but fails to feed the poor?
Again, good question. I think this point should ring all too true with the Protestant mega-church phenomenon of the late twentieth century. Let’s stop that pattern and get back to the work that needs doing in our communities. Let’s abandon the enterprise of attempting to create our own shelters and start making them for others.
(3) If grace is water, then the Church should be an ocean.
Enough said. Thank you.
(4) If Jesus were here today, would your Church let him in?
Again, good question. I agree that too many Christian communities aim to exclude rather than include, and it might just be bad enough that they risk kicking Jesus out with everyone else they won’t love.
Now, there’s more Mr. Bethke says that is perfectly acceptable and beneficial for the Church to hear. There is most certainly a place for speaking harsh words to the Church. If it never happened, the situation would be worse than described in this video. However, not everything Bethke says is good. I’d like to point out a few points of contention before we go crazy posting his video all over the place.
(1) I … I … I … I … I …***
One of the things that stands out the most about this piece to me is the individual focus of it. I’m not saying that Bethke is self-centered or narcissistic. If we take him at his word, he certainly is not.
What I am talking about is the focus on the individual or even individuals.
He says little about community. Granted, “community” is a buzz word of the last decade (and even now), but hear me out. Nothing that Bethke wants to address can be solved as a single individual or as individuals working apart from each other. People need to come together to address problems, and that doesn’t just mean coming together in non-profits or Facebook groups, but in actual living, breathing communities.
We need to be living together and impacting the people we live with and around, not just subscribing to a social justice newsletter or attending a conference once a year.
(2) [Religion]’s just behavior modification, like a long list of chores.
Bethke shows the typical evangelical response to anything that smacks of ritual or tradition. In some senses, he is correct. If we let prayers, candle lighting, confession, and even communion become simply acts, they are just a “long list of chores.”
Rituals find their value in their participation in the divine, the meaning that gives them life, and the sort actions they ought to provoke.
Everything that the Church has passed down through the ages that may seem like “behavior modification” or “chores” has a deep meaning. If your Church has not conveyed that meaning to you (and its consequences!), I apologize. Next Sunday, make them explain it to everyone.
The tenants of Christianity and its sacraments don’t just aim to keep you in line. They aim to change the world.
(3) Jesus and religion are on opposite spectrums or This is what makes religion and Jesus two different clans
If Jesus was for a community persisting through time attempting to make the world a better place, Jesus is not against religion. He is against the worst of religion, as we all ought to be. However, Bethke’s language is too strong in this video.
Jesus is not against religion but its perversions.
Christianity cannot be done alone or even simply in isolated communities. The Gospel is meant to be experience in the community of the Church. While I make no claims that the Gospel can only be experienced in the community of the Church, I see no reason to believe that we ought to get rid of the Church.
The Gospel is enriched and made alive in the community of faith more than it ever can be in the heart of a single individual operating alone. The Gospel also comes alive in the activities and not merely the existence of the Christian community. Religion and Jesus are not opposing forces. Sometimes the message gets construed, and that’s going to happen in whatever system you set up (or in any one person!).
Let’s tone it down a bit.
(4) One is the work of God; One is man-made invention
I’m sorry, friend, but you wouldn’t believe in Jesus if it weren’t for some “man-made invention.”
The Gospel you wish to spread does not exist except for the preservation by the institution.
The specific theology you espouse wouldn’t exist except for the careful thinking of institutional men and women.
“On this rock I will build my Church,” if you will. And that comes from the Bible you hold dearly, which I think is a fantastic thing. However, you don’t have that critical collection of books if it weren’t for the Church.
If it weren’t for religion, you’ve got nothing to lean on.
Again, I think Bethke’s work is good and he says some things we need to hear, but we need not throw away a whole concept of “religion” just because some things have gone bad. I can guarantee you, those who have made similar points in the past and their systems haven’t been any better. The Gnostic (read: knowledge gets you salvation) tendencies of this revivalist notion don’t do anything more for the poor than big cathedrals sitting empty on the street corners. So, let’s listen to these voices, but let’s not get wrapped up in them too much.
Remember, even rebellious St. Francis remained indebted to religion despite his earth-shaking displays of the Gospel.
Update: Here’s a video a few of us made addressing these issues:
*** The other point I’d make on this issue is the way he treats the Atonement. The line, “When he was dangling on that Cross, he was thinking of you,” is a kind sentiment, but it tends to make the Cross exclusive in my experience. It is better to speak of Jesus thinking of “us” rather than any “you.” We tend to make the Cross about less than the salvation of the whole earth when we make it about each one of us instead of about us.
It’s a minor point, and I’m sure it’s not what he intended, so I didn’t include it in the main argument. Same thing with the gender exclusivity. How hard is it to add one more syllable (human)?
One more thing — and this deserves more attention than this footnote or even a single blog post — why does the poem end in the crucifixion? What about the Resurrection? Isn’t that the news we really need to hear?