Jesus Did Not Hate Religion, Nor Should We

religion:  1. The belief in a superhuman controlling power, especially in a personal God entitled to obedience and worship. 2. The expression of this in worship. 3. A particular system of faith and worship.

By now you have likely seen the video called “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus.” If not, you can watch it here. It would probably be helpful if you would take a look at it before you read the rest of what I have written below.

The video features a young man named Jefferson Bethke “performing,” in something of a rap or hip-hop style, the text of a poem he wrote to contrast true Christian faith with “false religion.” So far it has been viewed nearly 9 million times on youtube. 176,000 people “like” the video while 22,000 people “dislike” it. If I had to be placed in one of those two categories, it would be (and I say this with some sadness) the latter.

The video is very well done, clearly a professional production with high quality sound and impressive graphics. I have worked in broadcasting, and I commend the producers of this piece for their attention to detail and their commitment to excellence. In fact, I think its quality as a video production, as in the case of most pop and rock music videos, has greatly increased its popularity. The same content, simply read or recited, minus the slick production values, would not likely have gone viral to the degree this piece has. (And once again, Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that “the medium is the message” proves uncannily and disturbingly accurate.)

Jefferson Bethke is, I believe, 21 years old. From all I can tell, he is a thoughtful young man and a committed Christian. I have read some of what he has written on Facebook and Twitter, and he seems remarkably grounded in his faith and admirably humble in response to his critics. He is also, in large part, wrong when he juxtaposes Jesus and religion.

Contrary to what Jefferson Bethke says, Jesus did not hate religion. Nor should we.

Jesus was a devout Jew. He observed Jewish holy days (such as Passover) and attended synagogue services. (One of His most important sermons was delivered in the synagogue in His hometown of Nazareth.) He was addressed as “rabbi” by people who probably had never seen Him before, leading many (including me) to assume that he wore some kind of distinctive attire, the first-century Jewish equivalent of a clerical collar. (Which, by the way, is precisely why I wear one.)

To assert, as Bethke does, that religion causes wars is tantamount to blaming the divorce rate on marriage or suggesting that politics is responsible for corruption among elected officials. In each of these cases, it is a distortion of the institution that has produced the undesirable effect. It is, in fact, the human practitioners and participants who have done such damage to marriage, politics, and yes, religion.

I agree with Jefferson Bethke’s basic premise. Jesus Christ died on the cross in order to make possible the restoration of relationship between a holy God and sinful humans. As a result of Jesus’ death and resurrection, God extends to wretched humanity an offer of mercy, grace, love, and forgiveness. And we are  required to do nothing but believe and accept in order to receive all that He offers.

I disagree, however, with his blanket condemnation of religion. In lumping into the generic category of religion every distasteful, even repugnant, characteristic of people who claim to be religious but show little evidence of an encounter with God, Bethke has thrown the baby out with the bath water. In fact, that is what I find so objectionable about this video.

Jefferson Bethke is apparently a devoted Christian with a discerning mind and a sensitive spirit. Unfortunately, many who watch this video will not exhibit those qualities. To the degree that this video makes people aware of the grace and forgiveness which Jesus offers, I applaud the effort. I fear, however, that it may exacerbate an unsettling trend in contemporary Christianity. That is, it may encourage people, young people especially, to abandon the institutional church altogether. It could increase the perception that true Christian faith is an individualized experience, a “Jesus and me” proposition that requires no involvement with or participation in an organized faith community of any sort. That would be an unfortunate consequence of a well-meaning and rightly-motivated endeavor.

Jesus did not hate religion. He condemned self-righteousness, hypocrisy, greed, pride, injustice, and oppression. So should we. Jesus criticized those who misused their religious authority and distorted the tenets of their faith in order to advance their own interests and increase their power. So should we. Jesus longed for His people, the Jews, to recognize in Him the fulfillment to which their religion pointed. But He never meant to encourage the abandonment of all structure and organization, which human social interaction requires in order to provide meaningful relationships and appropriate accountability.

Insofar as the church and organized religion have lost sight of the true purpose which they are to serve in God’s economy, they need to be renewed and reformed. Let’s pray for revival of true religion, but let’s not abandon the idea nor forsake the institution. Jesus didn’t.