This article was published in the St.Catharines Standard.
Chances are you’ve already heard about the four minute video “Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus”, produced by 22 year old Jefferson Bethke from Tacoma, Washington. It has gone viral, approaching 18 million views on Youtube in just over three weeks. Last month I wrote about Justin Bieber’s tattoo depicting Jesus, Tim Tebow’s prayers on the football field, and Hollywood actor Gary Busey beating an Indian drum, invoking the name of Jesus during a guest appearance on ‘Celebrity Wife Swap’. My point was that Jesus keeps showing up in unlikely places, and now here we go again.
Of course, the ‘know-it-all’ religious experts are up in arms. Aren’t they always? Christian magazines and internet bloggers are issuing words of caution. Some find Bethke’s theology insulting, because of its’ simplicity, while others think they have found something contradictory in his presentation. How much systematic theology can be crammed into a 4 minute video in the first place? Give the young man a break, some pastors can barely get through their opening joke in four minutes on Sunday morning, never mind addressing any real issues. Here are a couple of Bethke’s lines:
“Religion puts you in bondage, while Jesus sets you free / Religion makes you blind, while Jesus makes you see.” And how about this, “Why does it build huge churches, but fails to feed the poor? / Tells single moms God doesn’t love them, if they’ve ever had a divorce?”
The message is clear, “Because He took the crown of thorns, and the blood dripped down His face / He took what we all deserved; I guess that’s why you call it grace.”
Since so many pastors criticize Bethke, let me reiterate some of the reasons why I believe he is right on and why 18 million have tuned in.
First, the ‘million dollar’ question: What is religion? Simply put, it is any system of belief, ceremony or ritual that claims to bring a person to God, in contrast to Jesus, who is God from God come to show us who God really is. Jesus didn’t come to give the world an institutionalized religious system, but to give hope to all. This is not an argument against “organized religion”. Whether religious rituals are found in historical church liturgies or a modern day charismatic church where people have their arms raised in prayer, one tradition is not better or worse than the other. Either one can be a forum for life-less repetitions, or a place where people encounter the reality of Jesus.
Frankly, Jesus works in organized or disorganized settings; He gives grace wherever the humble is found, inside or outside religion. Of course we can have relationship with God outside of organized religion. How else would a believer under solitary confinement in a North Korean prison be able to worship God?
Some suggest that to separate Jesus from religion is symptomatic of our narcissistic, egocentric culture, where worship has turned into a self-centered quest, “God I want You, I love You, I’m desperate for You, I need You”, or, “Save me, love me, let me touch You”. In fact loving Jesus is the anti-dote to this pretense that God has withdrawn into an ivory tower and has to be pleaded with to get involved in the human scenario. To focus on Jesus is the opposite of narcissism; in Jesus, we truly see God’s love and majesty.
A cursory reading of the Gospels tells us that Jesus did come to demolish religious systems that exclude people. His message was for all. Bottom line, Jesus attracted the kind of people religion find repulsive, while he repulsed those who religion found attractive. It is about time we’d figure that out.