Saturday, January 14, 2012

Talking about Jesus and religion

If the internet is good at anything, it is great at creating furious tempests in short order than blow over just as fast. This has been on full display over the last few days thanks to a video posted by Jefferson Bethke, Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus

The video has, as of the time I watched it this afternoon, almost ten million views and over 100,000 likes and a similar number of comments. Oh yeah, it was uploaded on the 10th so by my calculations it is averaging a couple of million views a day. Behold the power of the internet!

The reaction it has received? Wow. Some people think this is the greatest thing spoken since Martin Luther said "Here I stand, I can do no other". On the other hand there are some who have reacted to this video as if it is the greatest threat to the church since...well since the last guy said something that questioned the church. It is the reaction to this video more than the content itself that I am really interested in because I think it exposes a couple of fascinating undercurrents.

A lot of the quibbling has to do with his use of the word "religion". That word pops up a few times in the Bible and it carries a lot of baggage. This is doubly true in our culture. Religion only has one context in our culture and it is the dominant religious expression of our cultural "Christianity". When you say "religion" in America it really only brings to mind one thing and we all know what it is. Trying to pull out our English translations and looking for the word "religion" really missed the point. I don't think that anyone can seriously look at a place like James 1:27: "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world" and suggest with a straight face that our cultural religion has that in mind.

Some of the anti-religion stuff is overblown. I get that. Being "non-religious" is a religion for some people. There are a lot of very religious people who make a big show of piously pointing out how non-religious they are, just as they are plenty of modest and simple Christians who are just as prideful about their plainness as a woman with a Prada bag is about her fashion sense. However I think this video really resonates with the huge number of people who love Christ but are sick to death of the empty ritualism and power struggles and political machinations and money grubbing that are hallmarks of much of the organized religious world of the institutionalized church.

What was even more interesting to me was the complete overreaction by so many Christians in the other direction, those who sense in any critique or suggestion of room for improvement in the church an attitude tantamount to heresy. The video and the response it generated led to comments in opposition from lots of quarters, often from the usual suspects. If I may be so bold, there is a sizable contingent in the church that sees any questioning of our religious traditions as a threat to their status, their power and their livelihood. Not everyone or even most of those who reacted negatively to this video fall into this category but that is certainly a factor. I asked the question last night: who benefits from perpetuating organized religion? It is not the widow or orphan that is often at best an afterthought in "the church". It is not the average Christian who spends a lifetime being semonized and never equipped for ministry, living trapped in spiritual infancy. Certainly it is not the average pastor who spends years saddled with debt from seminary getting a degree that has no correlation to qualifications for leadership and ministry and who labors under an unbelievable and unbearable burden until he burns out and quits. Organized religion is big business and business in America has been very, very good for a long time.

What has been encouraging is the way that Jefferson responded to the criticisms aimed his way, This is what he wrote on his Facebook page....
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.
I am glad to see that Jefferson Bethke recognized the controversy that ensued and made a humble statement to clarify. If only those who used this video as an opportunity to attack him and anyone else who questions the traditions of man that infect the church would exhibit the same sort of humility. I have to say that I don't know of many people who say "I love Jesus but hate the Church" unless you assume that all expressions of what we call "church" are created equal. In fact I would go so far as to say that many people, myself included, who call out the places where the institutional church has strayed from the Biblical pattern do so precisely because we love Jesus and we love His church. I love the church and it truly pains me to see it reduced to religion and so many Christians silenced and shackled while an overburdened few shoulder the entire work of ministry, a work that is so great it demands every Christian be involved rather than just a select professional few. It is not because we hate the Church or are anti-authority or want our own needs met. It is because we have searched the Scriptures and found a serious problem, one that goes back for centuries and that must be thrown down.

Let me say this carefully and clearly. Expressing concern about the tendency of organized religion to replace community within the Body of Christ, questioning traditions and rituals that men have used for centuries to control people,  suggesting that professionalization and subcontracting ministry, etc. is not bashing the Church. Not every tradition and institution that we attach the name "church" to is above reproach. Jesus Himself didn't ignore the emprty religious traditions and false piety of the religion of His day, even when that religious tradition of Judaism was God's chosen vessel to bring forth the Messiah.

So I appreciate the voice that Jefferson Bethke has given to so many people who know something is wrong but maybe can't put their finger on it or who have been cowed into silence by the religious leaders of our day. I pray most sincerely for God to raise up more men who will say the hard things and ask the tough question and for men who will humbly but unflinchingly stand up to those who would seek to shout or sneer them down. We need men like Luther and Felix Manz and Conrad Grebel who will stand for Scripture when the predominate religious culture of the day is more interested in maintaining power and propping up traditions. Turning to ritual and religion is natural for men, it takes a supernatural intervention for men to break free. The church is not about religion or ritual or power or prestige or politics or money. It is about a Person who has redeemed a people and made them His Bride. The sooner we get that truth front and center in our lives, the sooner we will see restoration take place.

1 comment:

Jeannette Altes said...

Thank you for this. Well said.