Religion that Loves Jesus

Posted: 25/01/2012 in Christian hipsters, emergent church, evangelism, iconoclasms, rhetoric
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By now, you have all already seen the “Love Jesus / Hate Religion” meme.   That video is exactly the kind of message I believed when I had been a Christian for about four years.  As I type this, I have been Christian for well over ten.  Please keep that in mind.  If you haven’t watch the video yet, please pull yourself out of the cave, and watch it now.

The video’s author,Jefferson Bethke, is sincere.  He wants all of us to see and understand something that he sees.   But what if we already see it?  What if Bethke, in his zeal, has missed a few things?

Now, the entire performance is a spoken word poem, which means terms can be little fluid.  Still, there is a very important question that has to come up here:

What is Religion?

I’ll share what Bethke says, and then offer my own definition.  No, we do not mean the same thing.  I have no problem being “religious.”

Religion according to Bethke’s poem.

Without picking out every section, I’ll comment on a few lines/stanzas.  Let’s start with the part I like.

Because if grace is water, then the church should be an ocean
It’s not a museum for good people, it’s a hospital for the broken
Which means I don’t have to hide my failure, I don’t have to hide my sin
Because it doesn’t depend on me it depends on him
See because when I was God’s enemy and certainly not a fan
He looked down and said I want, that, man
Which is why Jesus hated religion, and for it he called them fools
Don’t you see so much better than just following some rules

Bethke really wants people to understand how important Grace is.  He wants people to understand what Grace means to him and what grace means to everyone.  Yet, as someone who self identifies as “religious” I agree.  I get it.  I’ve been involved with Lutheranism for the last few years.  We’re so full of grace that I played drinking games with church friends.

Would it surprise Bethke to know I understand how tiresome the rules are?  That I too feel that they are foolish?  However, I learned those rules from people who preached like Bethke does.  People who told me that “it’s a relationship, not a religion.”  That probably doesn’t surprise many readers of this blog.  Those darken the doors of non-evangelical churches do so because we were tired of those rules.

Let’s look at another important line:

Why does it [religion] build huge churches, but fails to feed the poor

I attended a Lutheran Church in my hometown and I also attended a nice missionary church in Seoul South Korea.  We built churches.  That cost money.  It is little bit like pouring an expensive bottle perfume onto Jesus, even though it could’ve been sold and given to the poor.  (Check out John 12:3-5)

One church building was used to regularly house “families in housing transition.”  One of the families was a single mom and her five year hold daughter.  I spent most of the evening working on a coloring book with the child while the mom got much deserved evening of relaxation.

In Seoul, we were renovating our building.  We were also collecting money to pay rent for a woman in need due to medical emergencies.  Furthermore, we also held an event to collect donations for North Korean refugees.

Do church buildings fail to help us worship God?  Don’t Church building provide a means to serve the poor?

Here’s another verse.

Religion is man searching for God, Christianity is God searching for man

One of my favorite sayings come from an early Christian Mystic: do the crops grow because the rain falls from heaven, or because the farmer tills the field?  I think all Christians, even religious people like myself, believe that God gets our attention first.  Our response, though, might still be considered “searching for God.”

Here though is the real kicker.  Read these next few lines:

What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion
What if I told you voting republican really wasn’t his mission

I mean if religion is so great, why has it started so many wars
Why does it build huge churches, but fails to feed the poor

Religion puts you in bondage, while Jesus sets you free
Religion makes you blind, but Jesus makes you see

You can tell a lot about what people mean about a word by how they use it.  In these lines, Bethke tells us that religion is something Jesus doesn’t like, republicans probably do, and that it does bad things.  But what is “religion” itself?  Try this: re-read these stanzas, and mentally replace “religion” with the the phrase “bad thing” or “evil.”  Would the meaning of the stanzas change at all?

The word “religion” is an evangelical idiom, and is used like a curse word.  It is catch-all phrase to describe beliefs and practices that they don’t like -and indeed could be bad.  This can be anything from self-righteousness, to recited prayers, or in Bethke’s case, a self-accusation of hypocrisy.

Does everyone use “religion” that way?

Another definition of Religion

Here are a few of my own habits and beliefs.  You might share a few of these, and Bethke probably would too.

1. I believe in a specific, monothestic, God and accept a specific book as his revelation over all other books that allege divine inspiration.

2. I go to church about every Sunday.  I consider, at minimum, two other days of the year extra important.  These days are called “Easter” and “Christmas.”

3. I pray to the aforementioned God.  I often do this with other people who share my beliefs.

4. I believe that this God expects that I act in the world and has a purpose for not just people who worship him, but all of humanity.  In fact, my Church in Seoul was built specifically to introduce people to this God.

5. Certain rituals are very important to me.  “Baptism” is one, another is this thing called “the Lord’s Supper.”

6. While I have never done a Youtube video, I have a blog that often refers to this God, his followers, the authoritative book, and other the history connected with these three things.

Now what word would you use to describe me?  Would you say that I practice a religion?  Even if you do not agree, you have to admit that most people outside of the evangelical world think that the phrase “religion” applies pretty well here.

That then, is why I have no problem owning the term “religious” or “religion.”  I am a religious person.  So is Bethke.  So are you if you share a few of those beliefs/habits.  Why should religion imply ‘bad’?  Couldn’t the above list be morally neutral?

Now, some people might ask why bother harping on this?  Religion might be a curse word, but what is the big deal?  To some extent there isn’t a problem.  There is no need to begrudge Bethke on his differing usage of the term.  He is perfectly sincere in his beliefs and has even responded in a very fair and considerate manner to the criticisms of his poem.  Despite that there are two problems, one smaller and a another larger.

There is a problem with communication.  The Evangelical world wants to reach people outside of it.  I suspect then, that they might consider how their audience understands this word.  Many people know what Evangelicals mean, but I think others might be confused.  Can you imagine someone joining an Evangelical church because “it’s a relationship, not a religion” but then feeling tricked when they are expected to get baptized?

The more serious problem is one of association.  Evangelicals are not the only people who use ‘religion’ like a curse word.  The New Age, synergistists use it often too.  You’ve seen these people on Opera.  They call themselves “spirituality experts” and are quick to explain that all human spirituality is fundamentally the same.  According to them, god isn’t really Incarnate in Jesus, or Triune, or active as the Holy Spirit.  Those are rather subjective expressions of a spiritual whatever.  The spirituality experts often ask “Are you spiritual or are you religious?”

Why shouldn’t Christians say that we are both spiritual and religious?  As Christians we have a long tradition of mysticism, prayer, and devotion like any other faith.  We also have pretty clear cut, creedal, and religious doctrines that are fundamentally incompatible with New Age synergism.  The spirituality experts might call this short sighted, but I say that it is rude and superficial to lump all religions together.

I don’t feel that a “I got Jesus, not religion” attitude is as very strong when talking with people who keep trying to redefine Jesus for you.  Why not take ownership of the word religion, so that we can disassociate ourselves from the new agers?  They may accuse of us of never getting in touch with god, but we own them no justifications or explanations.

One final thought.

My friends who studied youth ministry have also studied developmental pyschology.  According to them, adolescence is often marked by radically disjunctive, black or white, thinking.  There is not always an appreciation for the grey in between.

Watch the video one last time, will you?

  1. When I began to understand the difference between spirituality and religion is when I began to become awake. At that point I stepped up out of religion and onto own spiritual path. There’s still a lot of learning to be done. Its important to be patient with those who don’t yet get it though. The journey is wonderful.

  2. Alexander says:

    I had heard of this video but hadn’t watched it until now.

    Surprisingly, after looking carefully at the words (reading was more helpful than watching after the first time) I think, if I’m understanding him correctly, I agree with him 100% with two caveats:

    1) “spiritual but not religious” and “Christianity is a relationship, not a religion” are terrible, hackneyed clichés that need to die forever
    2) many of the people who would consider themselves religious (myself included) are nothing like what he’s criticizing, and MOST of the people he’s criticizing wouldn’t consider themselves religious

    I had to reread the line about huge churches several times. When I did, I decided he’s not criticizing the churches but the inaction. I would agree and also ask why it spends tons of money to “get the gospel out there” but fails to feed the poor. I very much like your parallel between Jesus’ anointing and beautiful churches, by the way.

    While I wish people wouldn’t use the word ‘religious’ the way he does, I think it’s too entrenched in the Evangelical dialect of Christianese to ever root out.

    Perhaps, then, the onus is on us high church types to find a different word to describe our traditions. Or at the very least, we should treat the word like jargon. Because that’s really what it is. It’s a bit of jargon that has one meaning in Evangelical Christianese, viz, “Pharisaical” and another in High Church Christianese, viz, “High Church.” Sort of like “sanctuary” and “altar” refer to completely different things in an Episcopal church versus a Baptist.

    I think as long as we high church folks object to Evangelicals use of ‘religious’ in a pejorative sense, we will continue to talk past each other. The charitable thing to do, it would seem, is to say “Yes, you’re right. Jesus not religion,” just as I would say “Yes, we are in the sanctuary” if I were sitting in a pew at a Baptist church.

    • Jin roh says:

      That was a very nice reply.

      I too, am at a loss of exactly how high-churchers can communicate their values and beliefs into the evangelical dialect of Christianese.

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