My apologies for the long post, but I thought this video, which is quickly going viral, is in need of some thoughtful reflection.
If you have Christian friends and you’ve been on Facebook in the past 48 hours, then chances are you’ve already seen it.
As of “press time” the video was already closing in on 1 million views on Facebook after having only been posted on Tuesday. No question about it that’s impressive.
Aesthetically speaking it’s not hard to see why. It definitely has “the look” and “feel” (however you define those words) that appeals to a 18-35 year old demographic (with a little leeway in both directions).
As a Christian person in that demographic I should probably “like” it and share it with all of my Facebook friends.
But I don’t like it.
Now, to be fair I do think Jeff Bethke (the guy in the video) makes some good points about voting Republican, sexuality, and Christian identity being defined by your Facebook status.
And, once again, the production quality is great and the speaker is very articulate. That’s not my issue.
My issue with this video is that it panders to a false, but widely accepted Protestant Evangelical narrative; one which has come to supplant Christianity itself as the “true gospel.”
Here’s the narrative in brief:
Jesus came to abolish religion. Then the church came along and re-instituted it, telling people there was a particular way to live in order to be a Christian. Now, we need once more to be liberated from the shackles of religion in order to be able to “freely” worship Jesus.
It sounds nice. And if you were to survey most people walking out of Protestant churches this Sunday morning, I feel pretty confident is saying that most of them would agree it’s the gospel, or at least pretty close to it.
But it’s not. In fact, there’s very little in either that narrative or the narrative presented in the video above that are actually true.
Here’s the problems as I see them…
1. We don’t know what our target is.
Religion is not the evil Bethke or so many others portray it to be. Simply defined religion is “a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor or faith.” See? Not that scary.
In fact, religion can be very good.
For example, how do we know what Jesus taught? We read it in the Bible. Where did that book come from? Well, as much as we may not want to hear it the Bible is a product of religion. It didn’t magically fall from the sky one day. It was written by men (and possibly a few women) who were members of a religious community which was marked by a common “cause or system of beliefs.” It was that religious community that gave importance and meaning to these particulars books, letters, and writings and not others. Then that religious community organized and appointed councils to canonize those books and called them the “Holy Bible.” In other words, without religion there is no Bible.
Likewise, there are countless soup kitchens, food pantries, medical clinics, and schools that minister to countless men, women, and children across the globe every day. Who organizes, funds, and operates the vast majority of these places? Religious organizations.
Simply put, Christianity is and always has been a cause (Jesus) or system of belief (the gospel) that we hold to with ardor and faith. And that’s ok.
2. When we seperate Jesus from the religious community then we are left with a Jesus out of context whom we are free to shape and mold in any way we see fit.
In other words, the “Jesus and me” gospel this video and so many of us proclaim is a path that has only one destination: idolatry.
Not the kind of idolatry that has us bowing down to golden calves, but the kind that has Jesus looking and acting suspiciously like ourselves.
At the end of the video the claim is made, as it is in so many of our churches, that when Jesus was “dangling on the cross he was thinking of you.” As nice as this might sound I find it to be the height of egomania. Aside from the fact that we have no way of knowing what Jesus was thinking on the cross (not least of all because the Bible doesn’t tell us), when we direct all of Jesus’ thoughts and actions to ourselves as individuals, then both the narrative of Jesus as well as the understanding of that narrative are exhausted by our own personal experience. In other words, Jesus becomes all about “me”, so we shape and form him in our own image, in ways we see best to meet our own needs and desires.
“I” don’t own Jesus and neither do “you”. Jesus belongs to the church and the church to Jesus. This is why we are “the body of Christ.” A hand cannot say to the body “I don’t need you”. Likewise, we can not take Jesus outside of the church and have any hope of truly understanding him or what he taught.
3. Jesus didn’t have a problem with religion, he had a problem with legalism.
Obviously legalism stems from religion, but anything can be turned into legalism, even grace. People have been spreading the “Jesus is here to abolish religion” message since the beginning of his ministry on earth. Since he was around to actually respond we should probably listen to what he thought about this message. It may come as a shock, but he wasn’t a fan. In fact, he rebuked these people saying “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.”
Jesus’ issue wasn’t with the Jewish faith, i.e. religion, which he himself was a part of. He took issue with those who would use God’s commandments to exploit and oppress others. This is a profoundly important distinction.
Furthermore, what do we do with Jesus’ declaration “on this rock I will build my church” if we think Jesus hated organized religion? Sure, we could take the popular sentimental route and talk about how the church isn’t a building or an institution. Which certainly has some truth to it. But if we go in that direction we’re going to need to explain our reasoning to the early church who would strongly disagree with us. Likewise, we’ll need to go ahead and toss out the New Testament since all of Peter and Paul’s writings (along with at least Luke-Acts) address the life, structure, and function of the church both spiritual and physical.
4. If you’re looking for the person that hated organized religion, by which you really mean “the institutional church”, then you’re looking for a guy named Martin Luther, not Jesus of Nazareth.
Without Martin Luther Bethke doesn’t make this video. Likewise, without Luther we’re all Roman Catholic. Not that that would be an awful thing.
It is Luther, not Jesus, who raises such a fuss about the institution of religion and rightfully so. The church during his day was profoundly corrupt at the highest levels and was in deep need of reform. Note, however, that even Luther was interested in “reform” (thus the term “Reformation”), not “abolishment”.
Likewise, nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus say he hated religion, neither does he ever call anyone fools for being religious. That’s the popular mythos, but go back and actually read the Bible. It’s not there. Certainly Jesus wasn’t a fan of Pharisess and Sadducees, but once again he hated their legalism and exploitation, not the religion to which he, as a Jew, was also a part of.
If you say that Jesus, who was a devout Jew, hated religion then you also have to say that Jesus hated himself because he was religious.
5. Jesus never preached that we are saved by faith alone.
If there is anything that is at the heart of the modern Protestant Evangelical gospel it’s the belief in “sola fide”; the idea that we are saved by “faith alone.” Once again, your champion for this cause is Martin Luther, not Jesus. Jesus didn’t preach this idea and if you think there is such thing as a “Christian life”, then you don’t really believe in sola fide either. Absolutely, it is Jesus’ faithfulness to the Father that is the mechanism for our salvation, but we cannot willfully continue in sin and claim to have accepted this free gift.
Bethke says that religion is just “behavior modification, like a long list of chores.” I think this speaks to a profound “don’t tell me what to do” attitude that dominates, if not defines, my generation. If you don’t want to be told that you’re not perfect and are in need of change, then Jesus is not the guy you want to speak to. To claim that “religion” is trying to tell you how to behave, but Jesus doesn’t want to tell you what to do demonstrates at best a profound ignorance of the Bible, in particular the Gospels themselves, and at worst a dangerous self-centeredness that is fundamentally antithetical not only to the Christian faith, but to Jesus himself. Jesus’ entire ministry was centered around how to live a particular way of life, or as Bethke puts it “behavior modification.” To call it “a long list of chores” reveals a true lack of interest in fulling Jesus’ command to bring the kingdom of God “to earth as it is in heaven.”
Likewise, Bethke says “salvation is freely mine and forgiveness is my own.” Well, yes and no. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer would be quick to remind us “ye were bought with a price…and what was costly for God must also be costly for us.” Likewise, we don’t have ownership of our forgiveness. If we did then it would be something we purchased or earned which would be counter-intuitive to Bethke’s argument. And while he’s right that that forgiveness stems from the actions of Jesus and not our obedience, our obedience is the demonstration of our acceptance of that forgiveness. The two are not as separate as we have come to believe.
Of course, Jesus does tell us exactly who will be “saved” and who will not and he makes he clear that “not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of God.” When Jesus does describe how he will decide “who gets into heaven” he is pretty clear that he’s not all that interested in who “believed” that he existed. Rather, according to Matthew 25, he will ask each of us “I was hungry. Did you feed me? I was thirsty. Did you give me something to drink? I was naked. Did you clothe me? I was sick and in prison did you come and visit me?” These are the questions we need to be really worried about answering “yes” to, not whether or not we think Jesus existed, was crucified, and rose again. For, “even the devil and his angels believe these things and shudder.”
6. The premise of this video and the gospel it proclaims is simply disingenuous.
If you go to, participate in, and support a local church, whether it’s a huge mega-church, an “average” sized rural church, or a small house church that meets in somebody’s living room then you support organized religion. And that’s ok.
Even Bethke says he loves the church, but I think completely destroys the case he is trying to make. The church is organized religion.
When we try to deride “organized religion” as the instrument of Satan out to deceive the world, and then joyfully participate in organized religious activities like sanctuary worship on Sunday morning, Sunday School, Bible studies, mission trips, volunteering at the church’s soup kitchen, or even playing church softball then we ourselves are just as duplicitous and hypocritical as the message of this video.
7. When we create a dichotomy between Jesus and religion we simaltaneously create an unnecessary and dangerous antagonism towards the church and the people that participate in it.
Bethke says “If religion is so great, why has it started so many wars? Why does it build huge churches, but fails to feed the poor?” I’ll give the guy a pass for the first half of this statement. I assume he’s a product of our American educational system and if so, it explains his understanding of history or lack thereof.
It’s popular, if not cliche, to say that religions are the cause of all the world’s wars. Have they been that cause from time to time? Sure. But if do a little more digging (beyond what you see on the History Channel or in this case what Richard Dawkins tells you) you will discover that the vast majority of battles that have been fought were not started for religious reasons. And even those that supposedly were, often simply used the guise of religion in order to gain more territory or wealth for the king who went to battle. Obviously, we have the Crusades and the Protestant/Catholics battles in Britain, but beyond that the pickings get slim at least as it pertains to battles or wars that you’ve heard of. For example, did the conquest of the Roman empire (that’s several centuries of warfare) have anything to do with religion? Nope. Revolutionary War? Nope. Civil War? Nope. World War I? Nope. World War II? Nope. Korea? Vietnam? The Gulf War? Nope. Nope. Nope Sure you could make a case that the current battles in the Middle East have religious connotations, but it’s murky water there and that’s the point. Religion isn’t the great starter of war we’ve been told it is.
As for the second accusation that church fails to feed the poor. I don’t know how to label this charge anything but absolute ignorance. Even the biggest mega-churches that so often get ridiculed for any number of reasons, almost always have ongoing outreach ministries. There are very few outreach organizations in this country or any other that are not faith-based or at least affiliated with a religious organization.
There are several other points in this video that I could nit pick, but to sum it all up, what I think we have here, if not across the greater swath of protestant evangelicalism, is lazy, soundbite theology. We take bits and pieces of information that we hear on the news, read on the internet, or hear about through gossip at church and in turn create a narrative of a lost and dying church that is in need of our rescuing from the evils of religious boogeymen out to take over, or at least corrupt, the world.
That’s not to say there aren’t bad churches or bad church leaders out there. There are. But to make such broad sweeping claims is naive, arrogant, ignorant, and dangerous.
Despite what Bethke claims religion and Jesus are not “two different clans” full of all the dichotomies he lists. The religion called Christianity exists only because of Jesus. It is certainly “man searching for God” (which is in no way a bad thing), but it was founded by “God (Christ) searching for man.” Simply put, false dichotomies do far more harm than good.
To make a long story, just a bit longer, I don’t think Jeff Bethke is evil, or that he’s out to deceive anyone. In fact, I’m sure there are plenty of things we would agree with. He’s just off-base with his theology.
So, please don’t get your theology from the internet. Find a church, also known as a religious community, to be a part of them. Listen to what they have to say. Learn from them. If they’re connected to the broader, orthodox church (and they probably are even if they play the “non-denominational” card) then they’re part of a people who have been doing this for at least 2,000 years. There will be bad apples in the bunch, but they are good people who have organized around a common cause (Jesus is Lord) and system of belief (the gospel) in order change the world. And in many corners of the world they are doing just that.
Grace and peace,