A lot of folks on facebook have been posting links to this video, where political science graduate and non-profit worker Jefferson Bethke seeks to “highlight the difference between Jesus and false religion” (text of video description). Mr. Bethke is a self-proclaimed healed pornography addict, and attends the Federal Way campus of Mars Hill Church (dot com) in Washington. For those keeping track at home, that’s the mega church pastored by Mark Driscoll (as opposed to Mars Hill Bible Church [dot org] in Michigan, pastored by Rob Bell– man, did that confuse me for a while). I won’t try to articulate my concerns about pastor Driscoll, but will refer you to the excellent critique of his particular brand of (in my mind, masochistic) Christianity by Rachel Held Evans here and here.
Jefferson Bethke’s YouTube video has some merits and some pitfalls in my mind, and so I’m torn when I see it on facebook on my friends’ feed or as a recommended link by The Christian Left. Here are my thoughts on religion and Jesus and this particular video.
The video is thought-provoking and invites reflection and discussion. Case in point. Anything that encourages us to think about our faith instead of blindly following gets bonus points in my book.
The video challenges certain assumptions about religion and Christianity, which I think is helpful. For example, Bethke says that being a Christian and a Republican are not the same thing (nor are being a Christian and a Democrat!), and that we should be freed by Christ, not enslaved by what he calls “behavioral modification” through the rules and chores that he sees as religion. I think breaking free of the rule-based way of thinking about religion is important.
The speaker insists that Jesus doesn’t support self-righteousness. I agree, although I’m not totally sold that the video succeeds in demonstrating that.
The video clearly separates Jesus from religion with what I see as a beautiful distinction (if phrased in gendered language that makes me gag) “Religion is man (sic) searching for God; Christianity is God searching for man.” Further, the words separate religion, which Bethke says he hates, from the church, which he says he loves, and that makes for good reflection as well. I fully agree with leaving behind some or all of institutional religion to follow Jesus, if that is what is needed.
We are asked “Would your church let Jesus in?” Not a new question, but an important one.
Finally, there are some beautiful words, phrases, and ideas here. I like “Religion says ‘do'; Jesus says ‘done’.” But my favorite:
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.
I’m not sure what the speaker thinks religion is. He distinguishes it from “Christianity” as well as from Jesus, says he hates it, calls it an infection, and blames it for wars. But I’m not entirely sure what he means by “religion.” I suspect he may mean “institution,” but it’s not clear. I would define the broad concept of religion as a set of beliefs about the Divine (theology) and a particular way of living out beliefs (praxis), held in common by 2 or more people in a given place and time.
The video then blames this ambiguous concept of religion for war and attacks it for failing to feed the poor. Since religion, as I define it, is a series of beliefs and practices, it doesn’t really *do* or fail to do anything. Rather, religious people carry out actions and explain them using their theology and praxis. Religious people have gone on crusades and committed genocide, slavery, and rampant discrimination, claiming religion as their motivator. Religious people have also preached civil rights, resisted apartheid, lived among lepers, and given all their wealth to the poor, claiming their religion as their motivation. Maybe this is a little like saying guns don’t kill people, but I see religion as a tool, an implement, and in the wrong hands, yes, a weapon. It’s what we do with it that matters.
Bethke also decries religion for being a human invention. While I like the above-mentioned distinction that religion is humanity’s search for God while Christ is God’s search for us, it is presented as if this is a bad thing. We cannot simply receive God’s searching for us separate from our human responses. Yes, religion, church, prayers, worship songs, cathedrals, ministry programs, global institutionalized church, and YouTube videos are all human-made. And they are imperfect. What else would they be? The fallible, broken, human construct of religion is humanity’s response to and search for God. We’re still working on it and we don’t get it right, but we’re in it together with one another and with the Holy. We might show *that* a little grace, too. We never know how the God of the Universe might be able to use even the broken vessels of the church, her people, and each individual person of faith. I hear God’s good at that.
Having rejected and resented “religion,” Bethke replaces religion with something else that looks a lot like… religion. He replaces it with a series of beliefs about the Divine and implies a way of living out some of those beliefs in practice.
Furthermore, I don’t like the theology he presents in place of “religion.” It’s very strong on substitutionary atonement (the belief that Jesus took on our sin and bled and died and did we mention the blood? for us– you can read some of my reactions to this theology here). It’s also very dominated by masculine, hierarchical, and violent language. I get squeamish about blood dripping down Jesus’ face and him dangling on a cross thinking of me. Just not my thing. It may move us away from adherence based on fear to adherence based on guilt, but I’m not sure that’s a drastic improvement.
Finally, rejecting religion undermines the important function of accountability it serves. The video itself suggests some good theology and some bad, and the praxis is largely unknown or perhaps irrelevant. In the context of a “church” or dare we say a “religion,” there are other believers present against whose wisdom we check our theology and praxis. If my relationship with Jesus teaches me to hate gay people or club baby seals, who is to correct me if “religion” is vile and my personal interpretation is all that matters? Rather, the institution of religion, for all its faults, serves as a clearing house, a sounding board, a discernment group. Call it what you like, but it keeps the crazies at bay. When corrupted, yes, it mistakes the prophets for the fanatics (because there are fine lines already), and Jesus is crucified. But when it tries to let God work, it can also lift up the Desmond Tutus and the Mother Teresas, and it can resist the false prophets of Fred Phelps and his ilk. All of us individually searching for God are bound to make mistakes. In the grouped-together theology and practice of religion, our mistakes can indeed be amplified and multiplied, and more to our shame. But the good that we do, the times that we reject discrimination and violence, the voices we lift for the outcast and oppressed, the compassion we extend in word and deed– these can also be amplified and multiplied and tested, empowered, and equipped.
I applaud the video for raising questions and provoking discussions, for challenging outdated assumptions about religion and for lifting important, beautiful, inspirational concepts about what the love and grace of God are like. I support the sentiment of serving Jesus, even where that breaks from the institutionalized church (perhaps especially there!). I agree with the critique against what the video’s text description calls false religion. I hate false religion, too. But I remain unconvinced that the theology and (lack of) praxis lifted up here in place of such false religion are better, or a place that I would feel comfortable, and I believe the demonization and rejection of religion as a whole is throwing the baby (possibly the baby Jesus) out with the bath water. Instead, I would affirm the rejection of false religion, and the call to make the church and individuals therein more faithful to the true ministry of Christ. Let us swim in the ocean of grace.