There’s a new YouTube video out called “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus.” It was released January 10th, and as I write this on the morning of January 14th, it’s already racked up nearly 10 million hits, so it’s definitely gone viral.
I’ve had a bunch of requests for a response, so here goes.
The video is quite painful to watch. Check it out for yourself . . .
The video is painful to watch for a number of reasons. For one, the creator–Jefferson Bethke of Tacoma, Washington–is not that great a poet. He uses weak assonance when he should use rhyme. He has non sequiturs, so his thoughts don’t flow from one another. And he can be unclear in what he is trying to say.
I’m not so interested in critiquing what he has to say on an artistic level, however. The main thing is the painful content.
He starts by asking, dramatically, “What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion?”
This is preposterous, of course. It creates an immediate reaction of incredulity, and it causes anyone who is religious to wince. Here we go with another self-righteous, religion-bashing session.
You often hear religion dissed by people who say they are “spiritual” rather than “religious,” which implies that they are on a higher plane. Being “spiritual” is set up as a good thing, in contrast to being “religious” which is either bad or inferior by comparison. For those of us who are religious, that comes off as an insult.
This kind of claim is often made by people who don’t explicitly identify as Christians. It’s something that the unchurched or people in the New Age movement say.
Mr. Bethke does not fall into either of those categories. He’s working the “religion = bad” concept from a different angle. I don’t know that Mr. Brethke identifies himself with the “Emerging Church” movement, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he does. His whole manner of presentation suggests it, and within that context, it wouldn’t be surprising to find this kind of “Jesus vs. religion” schtick. There have been elements of that before in certain Protestant circles.
Mr. Bethke’s poem goes down a number of rabbit trails that we won’t dwell on in detail. The first occurs in the second two lines of his poem, where he takes swipes at Christians who are also Republicans. He repeats the politically liberal cliche that they identify Christianity with Republicanism. While it’s certainly true that people have a tendency to identify their political affiliation with their religious affiliation (that’s a human temptation that has been around since the days of Pharaoh or Caesar, to name just two recent god-kings), his poem really isn’t the place to go into that.
A couple of sneer-filled lines doesn’t do the subject justice, but that’s all he gives it since he immediately ditches the political discussion in favor of his anti-religion rant.
He repeats the cliche that religion starts lots of wars, which is nonsense. Religion is a powerful motivator, and thus is often invoked in wartime, but the real reasons most wars have been fought have nothing to do with it. Instead, they have to do with political control–either allowing certain political leaders to gain or remain in power (e.g., who is the rightful heir to the throne) or they have to do with gaining political control of resources (e.g., land, money, food supplies, transportation and trade routes) or they have to do with a particular leader’s ambitions (i.e., being remembered as a great man, or not being remembered as a weak man). When leaders aren’t being totally naked about those things, they dress them up with national pride or religion, but ultimately they are not at the root.
The reason political leaders invoke religion when going to war is that religion is a powerful motivator that is built into human nature, which is why religion appears in all human societies. It’s a human universal, and religion in that sense is not something Jesus came to abolish. He didn’t come to root the religious impulse out of mankind but to shape it and channel it properly (e.g., “Blessed are the peacemakers”).
Bethke’s slam on religion as the cause of war is thus a shallow, sneering cliche that fails to get to the root of the issue.
He then asks why religion builds great churches but doesn’t feed the poor.
Historically speaking, the Christian Church has been the greatest, most effective charitable institution in world history! It has fed more hungry, clothed more naked, and cared for more sick than any other institution!
And if you know your Bible, as Mr. Bethke seems to, given that his speech (including in other videos) is littered with insider Christian lingo, including numerous terms and phrases from the Bible, then you know that honoring God through architecture is important as well. God has some rather particular instructions regarding the construction of the Tabernacle and the Temple. Honoring God in this way is also built in to human nature.
It reflects the love of God, just as helping the poor reflects love of man. These two goals are not at odds with one another. The Church must pursue both.
Then Bethke says “religion” tells single mothers that God doesn’t love them if they’ve ever had a divorce.
I’d like to hear Mr. Bethke name one person who has done that. I bet he can’t. And I’m quite sure that he can’t show the existence of enough people to warrant making this a general slam on the religious community, which–to the contrary–has been instrumental in setting up crisis pregnancy centers, creating homes for unwed mothers, providing assistance to single mothers, and extending care and compassion to countless individuals who have had broken marriages–and reassuring them of God’s love!
It is unfortunate, but Mr. Bethke has chosen to repeat uninformed cliches as a way of adopting the pose of a prophet. He comes across as a spiritual poser who does not know what he is talking about as he sneers and looks down on others.
There are simply too many things in Bethke’s rant that call for a response to give them each an individual treatment, so let us look at the big picture.
What we have here is a rap-battle-inspired slam on the concept of religion in favor of what Bethke considers to be the truth, the authentic cause of Jesus.
Unfortunately, the sneering, self-important, self-righteous tone of a rap battle does not lend itself well to this purpose (not that he’s actually rapping, but that’s what he’s aping).
It’s true that Jesus did have some stinging things to say about the hypocrites of his day. St. Paul was similarly harsh with his opponents. But it’s all too easy to justify our own self-righteousness and arrogance by appealing to these passages. One is playing with fire when one goes in this direction.
Mr. Bethke’s rant against the judgmental who put on an artificial show of piety is filled with both judgment and affected piety. There’s a moment in the video where he says, “Now I ain’t judging, I’m just saying quit putting on a fake look.”
Bethke, let’s be honest. You are so totally judging.
Your whole video is filled with scorn and sneer. Each line drips venom on other people.
And as for “putting on a fake look” (a clumsy set-up for a rhyme on the word “Facebook”), your whole schtick–the rap-battle insults, the disjointed poetry, the awkward assonance, the attitude of the earnest, hip nonconformist–the whole thing is as artificial or “put on” as one could wish.
This isn’t who you really are. Not at your core. This is you giving a performance.
And it’s a performance that, just coincidentally, shows how pious and “real” you are compared to your religious peers.
Who is putting on pious show here? You’ve got some mighty wide phylacteries, Mr. Bethke.
But let’s move past that and get to what really sets people off about your video: The dissing of religion.
What is religion?
Bottom line: Religion is a set of beliefs about the divine and/or the afterlife. All religions (atheism included) make some kind of claim about one of those two subjects. Most make claims about both.
But Jesus didn’t come to abolish beliefs regarding the divine and the afterlife. He came to proclaim them.
In another sense, religion is the life and the actions that flow from those beliefs. So what did Jesus think of religion in that sense?
Well, according to the Bible (James 1:26-27),
26 If any one thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is vain. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
Notice that here religion is spoken of as something positive, as something to aspire to, and something that can be pure and undefiled before God.
And it requires things of us. Bridling our tongues. Visiting orphans and widows. Keeping ourselves unstained from the world.
We needn’t quibble about these points, and we all fail in all of them, but they are things we are supposed to undertake, by God’s grace, in order to please God.
Jesus did not come to abolish these things.
And because he didn’t, the word “religion” has become part of the Christian heritage. It is something that has become part of how we as Christians identify ourselves–something that goes to the core of who we are.
We Christians have a religion. We Christians are a religion. We Christians practice religion.
So if you are a Christian, Mr. Bethke, if you love the Bible and the Church the way you say you do in your video, then who are you to overturn 2,000 years of Christian history and start ranting about how Jesus came to abolish religion and that religion and Jesus are contrary to one another.
And what ignorance of the Christian heritage that has been bequeathed to you!
Now, I can’t blame you for some of that. If your YouTube username–bball1989–is any indication, you are 22 or at most 23 years old.
You haven’t been alive long enough to get a broad perspective on history, and you may well not have been exposed to or encouraged to read broadly in the history of Christianity.
Being angsty and wanting to rant against the religious hypocrisy you perceive around you is also often part of being 22. I mean, a lot of us have been there.
And many of us look back on that time in our lives with a bit of embarrassment. I know I do. As I’ve gotten older, I continually realize all the more just how much I don’t know, and how I need to be more careful in what I say and what I claim.
You are also likely to look back with embarrassment on this, only on a larger scale since you now have almost 10,000,000 hits–and undoubtedly will have far more than that by the time your video’s popularity is played out.
Things may seem awesome now. For example, you have a recent Facebook post saying:
My buddy just called me and said he was driving 60mph down the freeway and a car came up along side him and on the entire back window in shoe polish was written “YouTube the video ‘Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus” LOL God is good! Man. It’s a craze right now but He is faithful and He is my judge! It’s all Grace!
But already you are seeing some of the harm that your video can result in, as you quickly followed up with a post saying:
If you are using my video to bash “the church” be careful. I was in no way intending to do that. My heart came from trying to highlight and expose legalism and hypocrisy. The Church is Jesus’ bride so be careful how you speak of His wife. If a normal dude has right to get pissed when you bash His wife, it makes me tremble to think how great the weight is when we do it to Jesus’ wife. The church is His vehicle to reach a lost word. A hospital for sinners. Saying you love Jesus but hate the Church, is like a fiancé saying he loves his future bride, but hates her kids. We are all under grace. Look to Him.
Just as you can’t separate the Church from Jesus, you can’t separate religion from Christ and his Church.
It can’t be done, and it’s foolish to try.
If you want to rant against legalism and hypocrisy then call them by their names. Don’t go on a futile quest to get people to start using the term “religion” in an unfamiliar way that is, frankly, contrary to the way it’s used in the Bible.
Religion is something very, very important to people, and telling them that Jesus opposed religion is not only preposterous, it’s offensive–particularly the way the claim is presented in your video.
So ditch the sneer, ditch the mocking, self-righteous attitude toward your fellow believers, and show some consideration for them and for their feelings regarding the word “religion”–feelings which are, frankly, more attuned to the way Scripture uses the word than yours apparently are.
May I suggest an apology?