As I write this, the viral youtube video by Jefferson Bethke, “Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus,” also titled as “Jesus > Religion,” has garnered over 12 million views since it was uploaded six days ago. It has set the internet world buzzing with many disagreeing with Bethke and many others defending him. I was alerted to this video by one of my student leaders who posted it on my York student club’s facebook group. We discussed this video in my weekly Theology over Pizza gathering and my students’ main reaction can be summarized as, “We like the video but hate its false dichotomies.” My students can see the validity of many of Bethke’s critiques of religion and religiosity. But they also noticed that Bethke painted religion with a very broad brush, creating a false either-or between Jesus and Religion. Many other bloggers have pointed out the video’s false dichotomy (see, for example, this one, or this one, or the interesting conversation here).
Atheists are naturally confused by Bethke’s sloppy categorizations as seen in the above parody photo that paraphrases his argument as, “Hates Fruits but Love Apples.” For many, Jesus cannot be divorced from the Christian religion. Yet, many Evangelicals have made this distinction between the gospel as a personal relationship with Jesus and not as a religion. And this gets to the heart of the issue at stake in the video – Evangelical Christianity’s popular distinction between religion and relationship. Is this distinction true? Does it make sense? Is true Christianity really only a personal relationship with Jesus and not a religion?
In this blog post, I want explore this crucial distinction, a distinction that I myself, influenced by Evangelicalism, used to spout. But first, here’s the video featuring Bethke’s poem.
I believe this video’s popularity is not due to anything new being said, but in its aesthetically pleasing spoken word poem form. It’s slick, well produced, and just under 4 minutes, which is perfect for our short attention span culture. Bethke, and his like, definitely touched a chord among many of the younger generation, especially younger generation Christians, I suspect, who are disillusioned with the institutional church establishment. To me, its popularity speaks more towards the younger generation’s dissatisfaction with what most Christian churches are currently offering as Christianity. Bethke and his generation are seeing through hypocrisy in the church and want a change. And their direction, which is a good one, is to go back to Jesus.
This is not anything new. This sentiment of let’s get back to basics because things are now rotten is as old as the Protestant Reformation. Although Martin Luther never pitted Jesus against Religion, but that individualist and revivalist mentality is part of Evangelicalism’s DNA. Unfortunately, so is the anti-Catholic sentiment.
Let’s not kid ourselves. The historical roots of this anti-religion rhetoric can be traced to anti-Catholicism within Evangelicalism. All the negative labels attached to religion in Bethke’s video are the kind of labels many Evangelicals in the past (and still in the present) have tagged onto the Catholic Church. Evangelicalism’s anti-institutional and anti-tradition ethos is very much shaped by anti-Catholic institution and anti-Catholic tradition. Look at this blog post for an example of how a Catholic gets ‘by-religion-I-mean-Catholicism’ vibes from the video.
As a young Christian, I grew up with this relationship versus religion rhetoric and, very often, this rhetoric is not aimed at other religions but squarely targeting other Christian traditions, like the mainline churches and especially the Catholic Church, with its rituals, hierarchies, traditions, rules, etc. Catholics, supposedly, embodied the yeast of the Pharisees, legalism, institutionalism and rigidity. In short, Catholicism is Religion but Evangelicalism – true Christianity, true religion – is a personal intimate relationship with Jesus.
Religion in the Guise of Relationship
I used to buy into this. Not anymore. I have come to see that many Catholics are sincere, devoted believers and just as many Evangelicals are phony fakes. Furthermore, when we scratch below the surface, this is nothing more than a rhetorical ploy. Evangelicalism offers up just as much religion as Catholicism but disguising it as relationship. As Larry Osborne observed:
“Just look at our models of spiritual formation. Almost all our books, seminars, workshops, and programs are heavily weighted toward religious practice and self-discipline. They show us how to do religion in hopes that it will produce relationship.” (A Contrarian’s Guide to Knowing God: Spirituality for the Rest of Us, Multnomah Books 2007, p. 27)
Although Osborne still falls into the religion/relationship dichotomy, he is at least consistent in pointing out that genuine relationships do not have a one-size-fits-all approach that so much of Evangelicalism pushes to its adherents – do devotions this often and in this manner, read your Bible and pray everyday, never miss a worship service, evangelize others, tithe your money, etc. (See my related post on this.) Evangelicals can talk about relationship all they want, but they practice religion as much as the groups they criticize. They just don’t recognize it as such.
Furthermore, Pastor and author John Suk has also called into question the biblical foundation of this “personal relationship” metaphor. See his essay here. Not that it doesn’t exist in the Bible – for me, there are plenty of relational metaphors, not least of Christ and his Bride and God and his Children, in the Bible that describes our piety to God – but that Evangelicalism’s “personal relationship” framework is a distortion of these biblical metaphors and in reality is shaped more by secular therapeutic ideals and only sprinkled with biblical metaphors to make it sound like the real thing.
This false dichotomy of religion versus relationship is really a rhetorical rally call to revival and to authentic religion, as opposed to hypocritical, going-through-the-motions religion. Hence, “Jesus” in Bethke’s video, is really a shorthand for true Christianity and true Religion, just as “Religion” becomes shorthand for bad religion. This video then, really only makes sense for, and I suspect targeted at, Christians who understand the lingo.
Good intentions aside, this sort of rhetoric is too simplistic to be helpful. Defining religion as a system of man-made dos and don’ts is a polemical definition, not a descriptive definition. It is defining something in such a negative way that it only serves your agenda of attack. It’s like Karl Marx’s famous definition of religion as the opiate of the masses. Your definition is not attempting to fairly describe but merely caricature and attack. Not a very loving approach.
A more descriptive way of defining religion is as “a particular system of beliefs, practices, and (for want of a better term) passions – what is sometimes referred to as ‘affections’.” (John G. Stackhouse, Jr, Humble Apologetics: Defending the Faith Today, Oxford UP 2002, p. 99) In this way, Christianity is also a religion and Jesus, far from abolishing religion, came to establish one. Jesus taught beliefs that his disciples need to adhere to (e.g. that he is the Son of God). Jesus also established practices that his followers are to keep (e.g. the Lord’s Supper – do this in remembrance of me). And, finally, he very much encouraged certain passions or affections among his disciples (e.g. love your neighbour, love God, love one another). (For an interesting and more theological discussion on defining religion, see this post.)
Time to Drop It
I think it’s time for Evangelicals to drop this religion/relationship dichotomy. It’s not only false, but I believe, in the long run, damaging to their own cause. As an evangelism tool to non-Christians, it may be fruitful in the past when speaking to mainly people with Christian backgrounds, but lately, it is causing more confusion than anything else. I have had a number of discussions in the past with students from China, for instance, who were totally befuddled by this relationship-and-not-religion lingo they were hearing from Evangelicals. For some of them, it was enough to turn them off Christianity. They were looking for a religion and if Christianity is not a religion, then why should they bother?
Furthermore, it is always an implicit attack on the other non-Christian religions. And in this climate of the New Atheists, it is essentially an argument that runs like this:
- Yes, the New Atheists are right – religion sucks.
- But, thankfully, Christianity (read Evangelicalism) is not a religion but a relationship.
- Relationship is good. Therefore, Christianity (read Evangelicalism) is good.
- So, New Atheists are only partly right – religion sucks, except Christianity because Christianity (i.e. Evangelicalism) is not a religion but a relationship.
- Therefore, leave all religions but join Christianity (i.e. Evangelicalism)!
So, this relationship versus religion argument essentially sides with the New Atheists in attacking other religions but attempting to immune ourselves from such attacks! Is it just me, or does anybody else find this problematic, or even, reprehensible? We are essentially throwing our religious allies under the bus and asserting that “we are not with them”! And premise #2 above can be easily shown to be false. And hence, there goes your argument.
A Better Way
Let me suggest a better way. Instead of pitting Relationship with Jesus against Religion, why not be more accurate and pit Relational Religion against Religious Moralism? How about Authentic Religion versus Hypocritical Religion? How about Living Tradition against Fossilized Tradition? There are so many other more accurate, productive and less polarizing, ways of rallying Christians to the core of their faith than simplistic false dichotomies.
It’s time to regain the Bible’s own definition of true religion: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27 TNIV) Of course, a personal relationship with God is important – the greatest commandment to love God implies an authentic relationship. But I would replace the adjective “personal” with “authentic”. The word “personal” implies too much of individualism these days. I have also suggested in the past that we have a total relationship with Jesus to show the kind of holistic, three-dimensional spirituality (religion) that we are to have.
Jeff Bethke, I applaud you for your good intentions, and maybe this is your way of trying to give the Church a wake-up call. But I hope you learn from this and that your next video will be a better one.