This is a video that’s been made viral over the past week or so. According to YouTube, it has well over 2 million hits now. Jefferson Bethke does a wonderfully creative job of articulating the differences between Jesus and following a religion. And I admit that the first time I watched this, I was inspired and wanted to respond with a resounding, “Amen!” But it was on a second look of the video, guided also by an early critique I found, that I realized just how much might be wrong with this.
A Good Conversation Piece–Not a Piece of Theology
Also, my second glance at this leads me to want to dissect it theologically and outline all of the “bad theology” used here. It’s important to remember that this is a poem and not a scholarly work of theology published and peer-reviewed. Is there bad theology present in this? Yes, lots. But it’s a poem so we have to be aware of the type of work we’re dealing with here before we criticize it. You could argue that what he calls, “religion,” could easily mean, “Sunday Christian,” or “Christian hypocrisy.” It’s because of this that I think this can serve as a good starting place for conversations on what it means to be a Christian.
We have to be careful how much of this we regard as a theological statement and how much we use to begin an all-important conversation on what it means to be a Christians. Listen closely and you’ll hear Bethke say he “believes in the church.” So before we hear all of this and assume we should be inspired to simply throw out religion in favor of an individualized approach to following Jesus, just be clear that Bethke seems to be promoting a protest of bad religion–not all religion–whether he even wants to admit it or not.
Was Jesus Really Against Religion?
The simple answer to this is, no. Jesus was a good Jew raised by good Jews. Go back through the gospel accounts and you’ll find Jesus at the Temple, sometime blasting religious leaders, but always at specific times. Luke 2:39-52 tells the story of Jesus at the Temple at the age of 12. Note that it begins by saying that Mary and Joseph had followed the law following the birth of Jesus. It immediately shifts into a mention that it was their custom to go to the Temple of the Passover festival. Later passages locate some of Jesus’ best encounters at the Temple during specific festival times. Why is this important? Jesus was raised a good Jew whose parents followed religious law and observed religious rituals. No matter how much he blasted religious leaders, he did so out of devotion to the law and observances. Nowhere in the gospels does it say that Jesus wanted to end religion altogether–no matter how compelling Bethke’s poetic turn of the phrase, “It is finished,” might be. Jesus did not come to abolish the law or religion, he came to fulfill and fully embody it (Matthew 5:17). It may be cool to say that Jesus was anti-religion and anti-institution but we have to remember a couple of points about the biblical text (the only insight we have into who Jesus was): 1) Jesus came against the Pharisees often. Not because they were the symbol of religion, but because they were the symbol of bad religion–a religion consumed with works and self-righteousness and not grace, love and humility; and 2) The gospel accounts were written for religious, Christian communities who wrestled with this idea of what it meant to be a Christian and a follower of Jesus.
More About Being an American Christian than a Follower of Jesus
In the end I think this is an artistic portrayal of the tensions we face as American Christians. The culture as a whole has lost trust in institutions. No one trusts Congress, the government as a whole or the Church. I’d waste a ton of space going into the many good reasons for this mistrust so let’s just agree there are plenty of reasons. And yet somehow we have to reconcile the fact that we want to be Christian and not a part of the negative side of institutionalized religion. So we just resonate with the individualized approach to faith that says “I can be a follower of Jesus and I don’t need the Church to do that.” Sadly that’s more expressive of an American sense of vague spirituality than it is of Christianity.
This push for “following Jesus but not the church” wants to shake the shackles of religion in order to “truly follow Jesus.” But truly following Jesus requires we live a certain way and be held accountable to that. Has the church gotten this standard right over these past 2000 years–largely yes and largely no. It’s always a mixed bag of good when you look at it from that angle. But the spirit of this Americanized spiritual view of Jesus seems to desire more “freedom” and fewer “restrictions.” We just need to own the fact that this so-called “freedom without rules” is not Christian at all–it’s American.
I’m not entirely opposed to this wonderful work with words. Bethke turns some amazing phrases about church being an “ocean of grace.” I love his descriptions of an inclusive church. I just hope those who watch this video will see that the only way this is possible is for good people who see that grace as integral to their faith not to leave the Church in search of something they’ll never find. We need those people to live in, engage, and renew the Church as we know it.