[Note: I went back and edited this post after further reflection and conversation, including with the artist, Jefferson Bethke, via Twitter. What I’m retracting is
crossed out. What I’m adding is green. ]
By now you may have seen the video of the spoken word artist talking about why he hates religion but loves Jesus. It went viral among a certain subset of young Christians, in particular, up to 6 million views in a few days, last I checked.
I am not among the
fawning masses clicking “Like.” I was pretty disgusted with it. agreed with 80% of it, but thought it had some problematic phrases.
I’ll note that
this guy Jefferson is probably thinks he’s articulating something positive. But unfortunately, he undercuts this he fails utterly, due to extensive logical fallacies, theological inaccuracies, and historical amnesia. Instead, he passes off shallow pabulum to the Christian hipster-zeitgeist crowd, who lap it up because of snazzy editing, and, you know, it like rhymes and stuff.
The core problem I find in this video is
this guy’s complete inability or unwillingness the failure to differentiate between hypocritical, legalistic, self-righteous false “religion,” and true religion, which is after all biblical, last I checked (James 1:26-27). [Several commenters have since noted that the description on YouTube says it’s about “false religion,” but it would have been better to describe it that way in the video]. This un-nuanced antipathy towards “Religion,” across the board, is a tired meme that I wish would go away. In the hands of undiscerning people, It’s a cynical deconstruction of the Christian faith, executed by the jaded churched kids set, but it offers very little that is positive, fresh, or constructive. And no, putting everything under the category of “Relationship” doesn’t help us. I would like to see how the “Just Jesus Not Religion” crowd expect to express their faith without doing anything “religious.”
The spoken-word artist’s “hatred” of religion ironically smacks of the proud, self-righteous, legalistic Pharisaism that he professes to disdain. But so do some of the responses to Bethke. Including aspects of this one. Since then, Bethke has been incredibly humble and gracious in dealing with his critics. Still, this attempt to rebrand Christianity isn’t new, isn’t accurate, and it isn’t working. It’s been coming up in conversations I’ve had with people for years. Here’s what I said in my book about Religion, Relationship, and what we really need: Gospel.
One place we need to shift is in how we define and explain what Christianity is about. It’s become common for well-meaning Christians to say, “Being a Christian is not about religion. It’s about a relationship.” But in our post-Christendom era, this line is both tired and discounted by the unchurched and dechurched. Secularists rightfully point out much that is still “religious” about the Christian faith. (If they’re really savvy, they’ll reference verses like 1 Timothy 5:4 and James 1:26-27.) Neither do they find talk of relationship very persuasive, especially because non-Christian “spiritual” people already have a crowded buffet of spiritual relationships from which to choose. Both “religion” and “relationship” capture helpful aspects of what Christianity is, but neither word is strong enough to fully encapsulate what Christianity is about. Only “gospel” can do that.
When the New Testament authors (especially Jesus) want to sum up what they’re about, they invariably come back to euangelion, which is Greek for “gospel” or “good news.” The gospel is the first thing out of Jesus’ mouth as he begins his ministry (Mark 1:15). He equates the gospel with himself in Mark 8:35 and 10:29. The gospel alone is the power of salvation for all who believe (Romans 1:16). The gospel is about God’s free gift of grace. The gospel alone is what saves; no amount of our religious observance or relational feeling has the power to save.
Many of us are aware of how religion easily becomes a work, through legalistic observance of rules and rituals, but sometimes we forget that relationship can fall into the same traps. While the legalist chases adherence to the rules, the relationist chases the next feel-good moment. In this sense, relationship can become just another type of salvation by works among pietistic people who go from one passionate mountaintop experience to another, only to sour on God when he doesn’t deliver according to the bargain they had struck.
To put it another way, the problem with mere religion (religion as external duty) is that you end up with all structure, all bones, but no moving flesh, no flowing blood. It has the appearance of godliness, but there’s no life there. But the problem with “mere re- lationship” spirituality is that it tries to find life in a shapeless, mushy form. Left to itself, flesh doesn’t give life any more than dry bones do! While the bones don’t give life, they provide the necessary structure for life to thrive. Without it, you end up with vapid, shallow, short-lived emotionalism.
Christianity is a religion. To say otherwise ignores Scripture and breaks congruity with billions of Christians from around the world and through 2,000 years of history. Christianity is a relationship. Many relational words are used to describe God and his people. He is our Father, and we are his children. We know him. He speaks, and we listen. We are meant to constantly relate to our personal God. Christianity is expressed and experienced in both religion and relationship. But it’s not about either.
Whether it be religion, relationship, or some other expression of our faith, faithful ministry doesn’t let anything threaten the central place of the gospel. We are meant to be grounded in the life-giving roots of the gospel, which is not merely an initiation for new converts, but the foundation for everyone. The gospel—in all its depth, riches, and fullness—must be repeatedly proclaimed to believer and unbeliever, churched and unchurched alike.