A video that was shared by a few of my Facebook friends has lingered in my mind since I watched it myself to sample what was so popular. Jefferson Bethke, only a few years younger than me (right around my brother’s age actually) speaks about how he holds Jesus in high regard, believes in his death as substitution for sin, but despises what he characterizes as religion in everyday Christian practice, but has also qualified in other contexts as false religion. This brings up a few issues, one of which is that sharp critique against the word and practice of religion. The phrase that “Christianity is a relationship, not a religion” while clever in use of alliteration (which I myself am quite fond of) is also mistaken even as it remains popular with newer generations growing up as young adults in this society that some might consider post-Christian, though what is meant by that is somewhat uncertain. Christianity is still fairly strong in its existence, even if some churches are losing members to much larger fellowships elsewhere. But the type of Christian religiosity has changed drastically. Many would say they are followers of Christ rather than adherents to the religion of Christianity for the same reason that many oppose various –isms that are self descriptive labels that have fragmented in the amount of meanings they have to each individual. I can respect that practice, since this sort of diffusion of labels and inconsistency on virtually any sort of agreed upon points in any system has made many people almost Pyrrhonist in their daily philosophy, if not in their more serious discussions, since they don’t feel there is any sense of security in institutions or communities. So what do they do? They reserve all judgment on matters of truth. But there is a problem I have as a student of religion with the claim from this clearly articulate youth that all religion should be regarded as the same, though he seems to have backslid on this slightly after the fact, but let’s take the video mostly at face value for the purpose of discussion. I may be secularist, but I cannot side entirely with those that want to eliminate religion, if only because the foundations of problems that are reflected in religious intolerance are deeper than simply believing in the supernatural. For someone to think Jesus hated religion or that you should hate religion and love Jesus, as the video itself paraphrases, is just as problematic as hatred of those beliefs and practices that are abused by the manipulative and take advantage of the hopeful, but in themselves could manifest in even secular contexts. Not to mention there’s the Christian context we can interpolate for considering what religion meant to the writers of the Bible, since it’s used intermittently, so clearly it wasn’t so important as it is today, but it wasn’t a taboo word. These two things in particular are my concern: modern Christianity’s development into a sort of “spiritual but not religious” category and whether Christianity was purely spiritual and not religious itself.
Jesus definitely opposed religious legalism, adherence to the letter, but not the spirit of the law, but he also preached religion, especially in terms of reconnection as opposed to bondage in the form of rote adherence which was the common antagonist in his parables and in real adversaries he went against in public. He was an observant Jew of his time as well. Regarding the political stuff brought up early in the video, there are probably just as many Democrats and Republicans that call themselves Christians and many vote Independent parties because they follow admonitions from the bible to vote godly people into office, which commonly suggests Ron Paul these days. One can critique hypocrisy in religion and politics and still adhere to a religion, since the word in any etymology doesn’t automatically mean multifarious intentions or the stuff Jesus criticized in the Pharisees. This is where church and state separation is very pertinent to consider. I also wonder if the critique is of all Christianity or just Protestantism as it became more prominent in terms of televangelism and fixation on the church as a business before its primary function of worship. If he’s critiquing Catholicism, it gets into another area, since Catholicism is a two pronged system, deriving authority from scripture and tradition both, not just scripture as is the case with Protestants. In any case, the problem he has is what he perceives as Christians today thinking that they have to be charitable and do all these things to qualify as Christians, but the basic notion is simply a change of your paradigm to recognize the centrality of Jesus as God and how that affects your life, if I understand it even somewhat correctly.
Much of the poem written by Jefferson Bethke is indicative of modern Christianity, trying to sever itself from the older formulations that have become very strict and rigid in their application of the Gospel. One manifestation of this sort of “neo-Christianity” is nondenominational churches, and another is creedless churches, like Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ, though these have existed in some form since the 19th century. It is not an entirely bad sentiment to want to affirm yourself as unique and not conform to a crowd that is both displeasing and dissonant with what you personally believe to be the core teachings of Christianity. But many Christians reflect that this idea of salvation preached about in the video, such as “Religion says do, Jesus says done,” misses the nuance of works proceeding from faith. Works themselves as religious practice, what’s called cult practice in academic studies (not to be confused with cult in the modern sense of a group with dangerous beliefs and practices of brainwashing), do not merit salvation, that much seems fairly clear in Christian teaching (from what I understand as a nonbeliever). But the works should not be rejected as something that is part of a Christian’s daily walk. They are said to result from your faith, not due to any expectation of reward because of the quantity or presence of those actions, but the quality that inspired them.
There are a number of uses of religion in the New Testament and at least 2 are especially relevant. The first talks about what ideal religion consists in, James 1:27; caring for orphans and widows as well as keeping oneself unstained by the world. Whatever the second part exactly means is up to some interpretation, such as being in the world, but not of it, or more strict monastic vows. The verse right before James 1:27, 1:26, speaks about something Bethke seemingly neglected in part. To paraphrase, if you consider yourself religious then mind your words or your religion is worthless. Technically, the youth in question doesn’t identify as religious, but the tone and content of his message is religious nonetheless and thus he renders his religion worthless by what I and others could conceivably interpret as superfluous polemic. If he focused his critique on Christianity itself as practiced in churches or such instead of the public behavior of a larger and more diverse group of Christians, there’d be more agreement by the educated who see the distinction between false and true religion that is enumerated implicitly or explicitly in the Bible, particularly in the New Testament’s various letters. In painting most modern forms of Christianity and its identity as a religion with such a broad brush and subsequently condemning them, he doesn’t leave much to praise except within his own generation, which is self serving and counterproductive in speaking to older audiences who no doubt share many of his sentiments, but nonetheless adhere to what he considers religion and not “spirituality”, which is even more vacuous a word than religion is these days.
The crux of this whole burst of popularity for this still growing area of Christianity is to think before you speak, and then think some more. To make rash judgments in terms of politics, doctrine or otherwise is to show your foolishness to everyone instead of admitting ignorance and seeking out an answer. If religion is man made, but Jesus was at least partly man, then you already contradict yourself in implying man made things are opposed by whatever you think is opposed to religion. Jesus and religion are only on opposite spectrums, as another part of the video goes, if you purposely structure it so that they are in no way related except by people that would disagree with you. That sort of contrarian behavior is not conducive to a discussion. If you said Jesus opposed false religion, you’d at least be clear, but you wouldn’t have nearly as good a rhythm. But you didn’t even try to make that distinction between that and true religion, which is referred to in the bible itself. Evidently, there wasn’t wholesale opposition to religion, though this isn’t to say it isn’t without some imperfections. But any system has that. Even Christianity has flaws and bad examples, but that’s why you should strive to make Christianity more in line with what it actually teaches. Of course, the specifics of that is something I don’t want to try to touch on for a while. Hypocrites exist everywhere, so don’t point them out while you yourself already have flaws. Jesus himself said this, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” You want to fix Christianity as a whole, fix your part of Christianity first. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.