There’s been a lot of discussion lately around a video by evangelist Jefferson Bethke that has gone viral called “Why I Hate Religion But Love Jesus”. You can see the video and read an excellent critique of it by an Eastern Orthodox priest here. There is not much left to be said on the topic, but of course, I must have my two cents’ worth!
As is the case with so many debates, problems arise because the words are not defined clearly. What does ‘religion‘ actually mean? What is it that this bloke hates, exactly? Anyone who loves Jesus is bound to also love ‘true religion’, a phrase used by St James in his epistle (1:26,27). He points out the difference between religion properly practiced and religion abused. I think what the bloke in the video is rebelling against is religion abused, but he just calls it ‘religion’, hence the controversy, since people think he is using ‘religion’ in the more general sense of the word, thus hating both true and abused religion together. Of course, that controversy is probably exactly what he was aiming at. What better way for an evangelist to get his message heard by millions?
The abuse of religiion is nothing new. It happened in the Jewish faith at the time of Christ, it happened in the early Christian Church in the time of the Apostles, and, surprise, surprise, it happens today. I fully join with Bethke in rejecting the abuse of religion.
But that doesn’t mean we should toss out religion altogether. As St James points out, there is a pure and true practice of religion that is acceptable before God and which enlightens, ennobles and elevates the believer. Our task as Christians is to constantly self-review, both on a personal and individual level as well as on the community level, and ask ourselves daily whether we are following that path. If we stray, repentance and return is called for.
Religion has acquired a bad name nowadays. I can see why this video has struck such a cord with so many people. In these days of universal education where children are taught to think for themselves from a young age the old ways of “just believe what you are told” no longer work, whether in religion, or politics, or in any sphere of life. Add to that the abuses by church leaders that the media loves to sensationalise, and the general move towards flexibility rather than rigidity in our daily lives, and it’s easy to see why ‘religion’, in the sense our grandparents thought of it, has fallen well out of favour.
Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. After all, Christ never came to build an institution, and He never asked people to believe in Him just out of fear of or respect for authority. He wanted people to know Him as a person, and to love Him as such. Perhaps we are finally beginning to shed a constrictive skin of institutionalism that has tended to starch and stifle our true encounter with God? Imagine a day when videos like Bethke’s don’t even raise an eyebrow, because nobody practices their religion in that way, the abusive way. Personally, I don’t like to speak of Christianity as a religion, except in a technical context. Christianity is not just an institution, or a book, or a set of ideas and rules. It is a relationship with one’s Creator and one’s fellow creations. It is a way of life. It is a state of being. It is who you are, deep down inside. All the outer stuff follows naturally from the inner stuff, and without the inner stuff, the outer stuff is worthless.
I too hate the abuse of religion. But I think I’d be lost without true religion.
SUPPLEMENTARY (23rd January 2012)
A younger person’s take on the subject: Glory and Rubbish