This last year the youtube video “I hate religion, but love Jesus” travelled on the internet like a virus. Most of us have seen the video. Jefferson Bethke who produced this video is a guy from our city, Tacoma. He said he was inspired by the book by Tim Keller called The Prodigal God. I found it great read. There has been a reaction to the video by priests, pastors and even a Muslim guy. None, in my opinion, come close to Jefferson’s talent or edginess. Their rebuttal is not convincing. He gives a compelling explanation for his video (See below). He goes on to explain that Jesus goes against the prosperity Gospel and our indulgent society. His message is edgy and confrontational. With over 24 million hits to date, he definitely resonates with a young crowd. I wonder how many heard his further explanation. Perhaps this is all old news. But as I read Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics by Russ Douthat, the message of anti-relgion surfaced again.
I get the cynicism of the message. I agree with his criticism, but on its surface, I do think it is one sided. I hear constantly that “it’s religion that is bad, Jesus is what we need.” I agree, but disagree. It depends on what you mean as “religion” and what you mean to just focus on Jesus. It seems to me, we have a reactionary Christianity. Some cite that Christian practices are the problem. Christians have behaved badly, and that is true. Hypocrisy and judgmentalism is rampart. But these are human problems not just Christian problems. Some cite Christian belief has been corrupted, which also is true. It has become very nebulous for many people. Our beliefs are culturally twisted. What Ross Douthat points out is that it is not religion that is the problem but bad religion.
One issue he confronts is not only “Bad Religion” but also a bad view of who Jesus is. So when someone says, “I hate Religion, but love Jesus”, I want to say “which religion?” and “which Jesus?” I think the bigger problem is that we have gotten Jesus wrong. We have a Jesus we have made in our own image, a Jesus we can “use”. Douthat points back to Albert Schweitzer, who said people’s description sounds more like an autobiography than the Jesus declared by the witnesses of the New Testament. This is the thrust of Jefferson’s resentment toward religion. He is attacking what he says is false religion. He would agree that it is bad religion that has weakened the church.
Here is a big sting to us evangelicals. Douthat claims our efforts to evangelize have backfired. Our attempt to engage in politics and empire building has not changed the culture, instead people are moving away from institutional faith. The language of outrage and resentment has repelled those we wish to include. (p.141) Faith has become privatized and anti-organized religion. Christians too have become reactionary and create institutions that are anti-institutional. Douthat states that anti- institutionalism pushed too far, it “strengthening Evangelical faith in the short term but weakening its churches in the longer run.” (p.139)
Although I resonate with the critique of “Hate religion, but love Jesus”, I wonder if we are shooting ourselves in the foot for the next generation. We need edgy voices that confront our cultural sins, but we also need institutions that embody the message of Jesus. Even Jefferson Bethke speaks in churches. With them his message would soon be lost. What we need are institutions that exemplify the compassion of Jesus and his judgments against cultural sin. We need places where the life of Jesus is formed in people, not places where the cultural way of life we live is merely affirmed. Without the edginess of Jesus words that confront our tendency to hypocrisy, without his refusal to fit into our neat religious categories, we will perpetuate the very things we resent in our culture. By we need places to let that happen. Young people need more that a critique; they need relationships to hold them, courageous beliefs to move them and a place that will make this possible. They need the church.
The reactionary resentment will not help long term unless we move past the cynicism. The church of Jesus is not going away. Instead of bemoaning the evils of our culture on the one hand or resenting organized religion on the other hand, I think that we have an opportunity to renew our Christian faith. Ross Douthat calls it a “postmodern opportunity: the possibility that the very trends that have seemingly undone institutional Christianity could ultimately renew it.” (p. 278) What Jesus may be doing is forcing us to discard our cultural Jesus for a faith that is tough, resilient and in line with Jesus call to follow him. The way of the cross cuts to the core. Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24). I think Douthat and Bethke would agree. Douthat’s warning is that we still need organized religion to keep that message alive.
“Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1IAhDGYlpqY
My Heart Behind “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dN1iyJQGrcU
Russ Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, New York: Free Press, 2012.