It’s so easy to disseminate any information you want these days. I mean, hey, look at me. Some dude on the other side of the world could be reading this. Every once in a while something goes “viral”. Something can be funny, disgusting, moving, or just plain stupid. Who knows why people latch on to what they latch on to. I bring this up because I’ve seen this video by a young man named Jeff Bethke pop up so many times now over the past couple of weeks. I think Bethke has some very good things to say. However, at the same time, after a great discussion on Facebook, I’ve come to the conclusion that, once again, I’m faced with a serious lack of definition (ala Tolerance I, II, III). After thinking about this a bit, I guess I just want a place to put it down for myself. In this case, we’re talking about “religion” (sticking to Christianity specifically in this case).
First, while I mostly just want to get to the bottom of what we mean when we say “religion”, there are a couple of things that absolutely make me cringe in this video. First, please don’t ever say, “I’m not judging,” while dishing out your judgement. It doesn’t make any sense and people do it all the time. I’m not even saying don’t judge. Certainly don’t judge from a position of hypocrisy, but everybody makes judgements. If we didn’t there would be no justice system. The Bible doesn’t say don’t judge. It just says be careful how you do it because you’ll be judged the same way (Matt 7:2).
Second, the first thing out of Bethke’s mouth is politics. Don’t bring politics into religion. A religious worldview will inform our voting habits no doubt, so sometimes religion will creep into politics. All worldviews inform the owner’s political views though. There’s nothing special about that. Unless your politics are your religion, it’s just not necessary to bring politics back the other way though, unless your real intention is to talk about politics, not religion.
Okay, so what is Bethke trying to say? Did Jesus really hate religion and come to abolish it? Should I hate religion? That depends on what you mean. I’ve always kind of thought religion should be despised, but recently I’ve been trying to be more thoughtful and trying to really understand what people mean when they say certain things. We seem to be allowing culture to redefine terms on us, and then what they say may not be what I understand something to be, which leads to confusion. Bethke seems to think I can do away with what he is calling “religion”, but he never clarifies what that means. For that, let’s go to the number one definition on dictionary.com…
Religion: A set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
I think I’ve always had an aversion to religion too, until I thought about it further. I’m actually pretty religious by definition. I have a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe that revolve around a supernatural being and an ancient text. This often manifests itself with devotional and ritual (we’ll come back to that word) observances like reading the text, praying, and attending regular lectures on biblical topics. This religion definitely informs my moral code and how I operate, and how I think humanity ought to operate for best results.
It’s not just me either. Jesus was Jewish. He was born into Judaism, and as such, he followed Jewish customs, frequented synagogues, prayed, and celebrated Jewish festivals. Those seem like pretty religious things to me. While he hated the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, I don’t recall him exhorting them to ignore the Jewish law althogether. Even after Jesus’ death we find the apostles practicing Jewish customs in places like Acts 18:18 where Paul has shaved his head because of a vow he’s taken. If Jesus hated religion and wanted it abolished, he must really have miscommunicated it even to those with whom he communicated directly.
Jesus came to fulfill the law, not to abolish it (Matt 5:17-20). In other words, he came not to abolish religion, but to change it. Old Testament law was meant to draw people closer to God. When Jesus fulfilled the law on the cross, he became the better mechanism for that. However, we’re still obligated to take what he taught to heart. Simply believing in Jesus accomplishes nothing. Satan himself believes in Jesus. You must follow Jesus, which means sincerely putting your religious beliefs into practice in a meaningful way.
I think (hope) what Bethke is talking about in this video, is specifically the sterile practice of the “ritual observances” we see in the definition above. It isn’t all religion that ought to be discarded, but all empty religion. All the ritual with none of the heart. Some people love to tell other people how they ought to live, without doing so themselves. They want to put on the striped shirt and be God’s referee, but never step into the game themselves. This is the sort of legalistic hypocrisy Jesus hated. You can’t fool God by acting one way on Sunday, but then neglect to be the same person the other 6 days of the week. This is what some people call “religion”, but I think that is a misuse of the term.
There seems to be a post-modern movement afoot to sanitize biblical teaching to make it more palatable in the name of not being “religious”, but I think it goes too far. If I’m not careful, I’m convinced to give up my “religion” and allow myself to be molded in the world’s image, rather than God’s. We’re gradually allowing our personality and politics to inform our religion, rather than vice versa. It is dangerous to give up the framework of historical Christianity that keeps me on track. To be certain, there is no religious rituals or words that will, in and of themselves, get us any closer to God. However, Jesus gives many very clear instructions for living that are intended to be for my own happiness, so I won’t avoid them! If I believe he was who he said he was, I’ll believe he spoke the truth and take it to heart. My religion (see definition above) will be informed by his teaching. Among many other things, I will (try to) do things like love my enemy (Matt 5:43-48), pray continually (1 Thess 5:16-18), avoid being a hypocrite (Matt 5:7), avoid false teaching (Rom 16:17), be patient (1 Thess 5:14), not worry (Matt 6:34), avoid things like sexual immorality, jealousy, hatred, and drunkenness (Gal 5:19-21), and love my wife (Eph 5:25). This is a set of beliefs that informs my worldview and helps keep me on course. Sure I fail miserably sometimes, but that ought not stop me from trying. This is my religion, and I won’t be bullied out of it any more than I will try to bully people into it.
Hopefully you see my confusion. I’ve often heard it said that Christianity is supposed to be a relationship, not a religion. I think though, that we’ve allowed the word “religion” to be hijacked so that it is only allowed to be used in a derogatory fashion which can be misleading. I would say that the key is to make the religion (the beliefs and actions) properly express the relationship. I ought to practice what Jesus preached everywhere I go! Moreover, my religion/relationship may not look exactly like somebody else’s even while being based on the same beliefs and moral codes. We all have our own personalities and gifts that we bring to our religion.
It is 100% true that my religious beliefs or practices cannot save me, nor do they elevate me above anybody else (Eph 2:8-9, Rom 3:22). However, if somebody accuses me of being “religious”, I think the next words I say to them ought to be, “what do you mean by that?” Only then can I agree or disagree with their assessment of me. I may not like the label, but it may be a correct assessment depending on their intended meaning!