over the last couple weeks, as jeff bethke’s video (above), ‘why i hate religion, but love jesus’, was hitting critical mass on the web, i began writing a post about it. that post quickly made its way to my ‘drafts’ folder (which only has 5 posts all-time). it wasn’t that it was particularly controversial or incomplete, it was just that i felt like the support & the criticism across the internet was overstated and largely unhelpful. the web really didn’t need one more blog post.
this thing has kept going. and going. and going. just yesterday morning, bethke was a guest on cbs’s this morning, paired with a catholic priest who offered a (kind) critique. bethke did surprisingly well in articulating his viewpoint (and reasons for creating the poem/video) in a humble and gracious way. i was impressed.
the priest, much like most of the criticism i’ve read, comes from someone who is invested in the system. someone who has a stake in the institution. simply put, this video has resonated in a remarkable way from those outside (or, at least, on the fringes) of the system and has been (by and large) denounced by those with a stake in that world (pastors, priests, insitutional leaders, etc).
well, it just so happens that i’ve spent the last 31 years of my life (and the last 10 years vocationally) as a part of the “system”. i pastor a church. i went to seminary. i have served on boards. i have perpetuated some systems that haven’t looked very much like jesus. so, i understand some of the criticism. here’s some areas worth a critique:
- there are plenty of clichés that are, to say the least, eyeroll-inducing. ironically, he borrows some of the clichés that, yes, the institution of christianity has created.
- speaking of clichés, the end becomes a poetic altar call of sorts. much like many church services that squeeze in a somewhat disjointed and forced evangelistic altar call, bethke just can’t help himself with a simplistic description of jesus’ death on the cross and our opportunity to respond.
- and yes, the dichotomy between religion and jesus borders on a being far too simplistic and reductionistic.
but, i think the piling on represents some of the disconnect between those who lead the institutional church (folks like myself) and those who are looking to explore what it means to follow in the way of jesus.
here’s where i push back on the critiques:
- i think there’s been a defensive posture that has led to interpreting bethke’s message through a much different lens than intended. based on my own impressions and bethke’s comments on cbs’s this morning, there seems to be a semantic divide. he’s talking primarily about displays of self-righteousness and judgment and legalism and hypocrisy and pharisee-like behavior—the exact things that jesus stood in clear and stark opposition to. much of the criticism has railed against the word religion defined as “the Church” (big ‘C’). not only does bethke state that he loves the church, but i think he’s relatively clear in distinguishing behaviors of the church and the church itself.
- while, as i’ve stated above, bethke’s diatribe becomes a bit too reductionistic, i certainly do believe that he’s getting at the heart of jesus’ message. walter brueggemann has written/talked about prophetic messengers being inherently critics. now, don’t get me wrong, i’m not saying jeff bethke is the next great prophet. 🙂 (he’s probably far, far from it…) but what i am saying is that these types of messages are never received kindly. criticism of the things we’ve worked (long and hard) to foster and create don’t go over too well, to say the very least. so while bethke’s message might not be perfect, let’s take a few moments to honestly evaluate where he might offer something helpful to our church or ministry context or even our own personal life.
- trust me, there’s a very long list of examples of pastors/churches/etc attempting to create something culturally relevant at the expense of good theology. so when i say that bethke’s video is particularly relevant right now, i don’t mean it in a compromising way. dan kimball wrote a great book a few years ago called they like jesus, but not the church that basically laid out the idea that we’re in a unique time in which people (particularly younger generations) are particularly interested in jesus…but not so much the institution of the church (though big ‘C’ Church isn’t the enemy either). i think bethke’s video contributes to this conversation in a (mostly) helpful way. his dichotomy offers an invitation from those who are open to engaging a conversation about the way of jesus, but have been turned off by the system and the institution.
i think bethke has created a unique and engaging tool that has, if nothing else, created a cultural stir and subsequent conversation. when people talk more about jesus (particularly in the national media) it’s a good thing. and when people bring to attention some of the deficiencies we church leaders often perpetuate, it’s also a good thing.
church leaders (like myself) can either continue to dismiss this as an enemy to what we’re doing or we can recognize that the 16 million people who have viewed this on youtube are interested in discovering more about the way of jesus. and that is certainly a dichotomy worth considering.