Friday, January 13, 2012

Why Bethke Gets it Wrong


If you know any Christians, or are one yourself, you may have seen Jefferson Bethke's 4-minute poem titled "Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus".  It's become quite popular in just a few days. Bethke is sincere, passionate, and mostly off-track.  


The bulk of his message is that old standby "It's not about religion, it's about a relationship", which has been around at least since I  came back to the Lord in 1987. It was refreshing and eye-opening at the time, but here we are a quarter-century later, and it's still being said as if it were a brand new concept.And that would be fine if it were in line with Scripture, but in fact, it's in opposition to what God's word says.

I have searched the Bible to see where it says anything negative about Religion, and it isn't in there. It's fairly easy to find a passage where the writer denounces those following a false religion, or not following their religion well. But the concept of Religion itself being evil is not found in Scripture.
 
In fact, the Bible gives us a definition of "religion.". The Bible is not a dictionary, but there are a few words which are defined for us as if it were a dictionary. For example, "Faith" is defined in Hebrews 11:1. It says "faith is the assurance of things hoped for and conviction of things not seen." Very straightforward definition.

Likewise, James 1:27 tells us that religion is defined is helping those in need:
"Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world."
There are lots of ways to unpack the meaning of that verse, of course. Many would say that to visit orphans and widows can be expanded to helping anyone who's in need. The meaning we are given is deeper than what it seems to mean at surface level. But regardless of what all it means, it is indisputable that religion is defined positively in James' statement. 


I mention this because throughout the clip, Bethke mentions Religion, and why he despises it.

Rather than deliver a blanket dismissal of the video, I'm going to back up my position in a much more fair way: by going through the clip thought-by-thought:

0:26 He says that voting Republican is not to be equated with following Jesus. I agree wholeheartedly. It goes downhill from here, but it is a nice start. 

0:38 He accuses Religion of starting wars. It's true that there have been some conflicts which had Religion as a root cause, but the most significant wars in the last century have been fought for completely different reasons. "Religion starts wars" is a strawman. 

0:40 He says Religion builds large churches but doesn't feed the poor. This is a lie, pure and simple. I am not familiar with the outreach efforts of every single church in the US, but it's much more safe to say that most churches do, in fact, help the poor.

0:45 Now he says that Religion tells single moms that have been divorced that God doesn't love them. Really? I've been a Christian a long time, and have never heard someone do that. It's likely that some person, somewhere, purporting to represent Jesus, has done so. But the fact that it's mentioned here carries an implication that it's a common occurrence. I seriously doubt it. If Bethke thought it to be extremely rare to tell divorced single moms that God doesn't love them, then he wouldn't bother mentioning it.

1:05-1:15 Says that Religion is superficial. Again, not what James 1:27 says.


Let's take a timeout
I should stop and mention that many of the things he says about Religion are perfect descriptions of Legalism. If he just would have said "Legalism" in every place where he said Religion, there'd be no problem.

At this point, "I think we're letting ourselves get hung up on semantics" if about to come out of your mouth. As if word choice isn't important. If Bethke is a poet, he needs to learn that carefully chosen words are a poet's best tools.  It is no small thing to choose the wrong word and focus on it for the entirety of your piece. I am reminded of the Saturday Night Live skit where Gilda Radner's character named Emily Litella heard that advocacy groups wanted to put a stop to "violins on television" and gave a long speech about why we need more violins on television. When someone corrected her and said that people were actually against "violence on television", she put on an embarrassed smile and said "Oh. Never Mind."   Similar sketches had her railing against "protecting endangered feces" and "making Puerto Rico a steak."   Bethke seems to be following in Litella's footsteps.


Ok, back to the clip.

1:35 "Acting like a church kid while addicted to pornography"  That's not religion. That's hypocrisy. Someone please buy this guy a dictionary.

2:19 "just following some rules". He takes the idea that rule-following will not get us into heaven (very true), to the illogical extreme. One man's "rules" is another man's "holiness".  And God has a lot to say about our needs to follow "rules" once we have attained that initial salvation.

2:25 "If Jesus visited your church, would you let Him in?"   In a clip full of senseless statements, this one reigns above them all. I'm quite sure my church would let Him in. We have never turned anyone away, to my knowledge. I'm going to go out on a limb and say most churches in the US can say the same.

2:51 "Religion says DO". So he pulls out the cliche about works. We all know that salvation is not from our works. Nobody argues that. But Scripure is very clear that works are important after you become a believer. In fact, the sentence right after we read that our salvation is not from works (Ephesians 2:8), we read that we were made by Him, for works (Ephesians 2:10).

I'm saddened this young man is so sincere, yet lets his passion has led him into perpetuating untruths about the bible, churches, and pure, undefiled religion. Even more sad, he's not alone.

8 comments:

Jeremy Jarvis said...

This is very well written and I think you make a lot of great points James. Words are very important and we can just strew them together to make whatever point we want if the Bible describes them differently entirely. Appreciate this piece my friend.

PCanales said...

I can see where you have some valid points. However, he is directing his poem to the very people who do not want to be a part of the church because they see these as problem areas. We have to remember that society sees the church through an altered lense of their own experiences. People who DO NOT have a relationship with Christ, have a bitter taste about christianity because of whatever reason the "church" has done them wrong. We are the church. We as humans have gone wrong.

I personally can relate to the part where he talks about young moms. I was a young mom. I got pregnant when I was 17. I felt condemned. I was shocked to find myself more worried about what my christian peers or church members had to say about my situation than the forgiveness God had already given me. Thats what keep girls, who have already failed, away. Bethke is telling them different.

Reguarding the part where he talks about the church not feeding the poor. This is actually a belief that unbelievers have. They see pastors of mega churches on tv every sunday with top dollar designer clothes, private jets and other unnecessary items. Society sees one or two and assume its the church as a whole. Remember, they dont see it as individual churches... they see us as a whole. People have a genuine passion for helping the poor, even non christians. Im sure we could all look at our selves and see some things we could give up to see the needs of others.

Again, as we listen, we need to see it through the lense of the lost, the broken, the offended, the hurt, and the spiritually dry. All the things the world sees as "religious" are the things that keep them away. ANYTHING controversial is a battle between christians and non christians, unfortunately thats the way the world sees it.

My pastor recently gave this as a valid example of how we catagorize ourselves:

If someone asks me if im christian, ill ask them what they think a christian is. If they say, "someone who reads their bible and desires to live their life for the Glory of God and lays down their life to see people come to Love God with every fiber in their being"... i will say, "yes, im a christian."

If someone asks if i am a christian, ill as them what they think a christian is. If they say, "someone who lives a double life with God on Sundays but back to reality on Monday. Someone who sees the needs of their own before others. Someone who is prideful and arrogant at the cost of Jesus' name." Then i will, in fact, say "no, i am not a christian"

I do not want to be what "the world" sees as christianity but rather who God has annointed me to be.

PCanales said...

I can see where you have some valid points. However, he is directing his poem to the very people who do not want to be a part of the church because they see these as problem areas. We have to remember that society sees the church through an altered lense of their own experiences. People who DO NOT have a relationship with Christ, have a bitter taste about christianity because of whatever reason the "church" has done them wrong. We are the church. We as humans have gone wrong.

I personally can relate to the part where he talks about young moms. I was a young mom. I got pregnant when I was 17. I felt condemned. I was shocked to find myself more worried about what my christian peers or church members had to say about my situation than the forgiveness God had already given me. Thats what keep girls, who have already failed, away. Bethke is telling them different.

Reguarding the part where he talks about the church not feeding the poor. This is actually a belief that unbelievers have. They see pastors of mega churches on tv every sunday with top dollar designer clothes, private jets and other unnecessary items. Society sees one or two and assume its the church as a whole. Remember, they dont see it as individual churches... they see us as a whole. People have a genuine passion for helping the poor, even non christians. Im sure we could all look at our selves and see some things we could give up to see the needs of others.

Again, as we listen, we need to see it through the lense of the lost, the broken, the offended, the hurt, and the spiritually dry. All the things the world sees as "religious" are the things that keep them away. ANYTHING controversial is a battle between christians and non christians, unfortunately thats the way the world sees it.

My pastor recently gave this as a valid example of how we catagorize ourselves:

If someone asks me if im christian, ill ask them what they think a christian is. If they say, "someone who reads their bible and desires to live their life for the Glory of God and lays down their life to see people come to Love God with every fiber in their being"... i will say, "yes, im a christian."

If someone asks if i am a christian, ill as them what they think a christian is. If they say, "someone who lives a double life with God on Sundays but back to reality on Monday. Someone who sees the needs of their own before others. Someone who is prideful and arrogant at the cost of Jesus' name." Then i will, in fact, say "no, i am not a christian"

I do not want to be what "the world" sees as christianity but rather who God has annointed me to be.

faithyeni said...

I'd rather be living wrong than dead right. Bethke is attempting to convey the degradation in Christianity today.
His description of the video: "A poem I wrote to highlight the difference between Jesus and false religion. In the scriptures Jesus received the most opposition from the most religious people of his day. At it's core Jesus' gospel and the good news of the Cross is in pure opposition to self-righteousness/self-justification. Religion is man centered, Jesus is God-centered. This poem highlights my journey to discover this truth. Religion either ends in pride or despair. Pride because you make a list and can do it and act better than everyone, or despair because you can't do your own list of rules and feel "not good enough" for God. With Jesus though you have humble confident joy because He represents you, you don't represent yourself and His sacrifice is perfect putting us in perfect standing with God!"
Matthew 23 - Jesus rebuking the religionists
Read:
I do my best to practice a living Religion(Person/Jesus/Spirit in our spirit) not a dead religion(teachings/doctrines/law/legalism).

Rich said...

James, thank you for taking the time to make this measured response. I find it interesting that quite a few people are either caught up in the passion of the message or build their understanding on what they see as the intent. It's not religious or nit-picking to want the right words like legalism rather than mis-using the word religion (even though it has been mis-used for centuries). Eugene Peterson talks about "retiring words to the shelf" if they have been mis-used. It may be time for that.

Living The Adventure said...

James, Thanks for putting so much thought and work into writing this blog. I am not a fan of things that become main stream and everyone post it on facebook but take little time to look into it themselves to see what its really talking about.

As Christians we just want something that makes us feel good, but we don't want to take a stance on truth.

kim said...

Your critique is very interesting, but the place I think you might be missing the point is where you say "We all know salvation is not from our works. Nobody is arguing that." Actually, most of the people I know believe that they have to be good to go to heaven. I have had several conversations recently with coworkers about works vs. faith - one sparked by this video! And after several watchings, reading the lyrics and reading Jefferson Bethke's explanation, I don't believe he was writing to the Christians, or about the Church. He was writing about the religion of works toward salvation. Much good can come from this. I am truly stymied at why a portion of the Christian community has chosen to come against it.

James said...

Kim, thanks for coming by and the comment.
I have heard several people say that this clip is directed not toward Christians, but unbelievers. If that is the case, then why does he ask, at the 2:25 mark, "If Jesus came to your church, would you let Him in?"

It's statements like this which indicate to me that he's speaking to Christians.