An Apology to Jefferson Bethke

Ya know, sometimes, I can be a real ass snob cotton-headed-ninny-muggins when it comes to my theology.

At some point, between being accused of “lacking passion”, or being “un-Biblical”, or even worse, “un-Christian”, I began defending my theology by attacking the theology of others.

And in many instances I tend to become as “holier-than-thou” as I accuse others of acting.

So a few weeks ago, when I saw Jefferson Bethke’s Video “Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus”, I took the chance to have the fight I’ve been waiting for.

Maybe it was because he used the word “hate.”

Maybe it was because I found out he went to a conservative mega-church with a controversial pastor.

Maybe it was because I found him to be biblically/historically inaccurate.

Maybe it’s because his anger against the church reminded me of my own struggle with the church over the last several years.

Maybe it was because I was jealous of his rapping skills.

But I was looking for a fight – and the more I read about Jeff Bethke, the more I’m convinced, he was not.

I wish I would’ve appreciated Jeff’s gift to poetically raise issues in a way that could’ve gotten my own students talking about the benefits and challenges of religion like Brian Kirk did.

And I definitely wish I would’ve chosen to engage Jeff in conversation like Kevin DeYoung did.

In an Email exchange between him and DeYoung, Bethke wrote:

I just wanted to say I really appreciate your article man. It hit me hard. I’ll even be honest and say I agree 100%. God has been working with me in the last 6 months on loving Jesus AND loving his church. For the first few years of walking with Jesus (started in ’08) I had a warped/poor paradigm of the church and it didn’t build up, unify, or glorify His wife (the Bride). If I can be brutally honest I didn’t think this video would get much over a couple thousand views maybe, and because of that, my points/theology wasn’t as air-tight as I would’ve liked. If I redid the video tomorrow, I’d keep the overall message, but would articulate, elaborate, and expand on the parts where my words and delivery were chosen poorly… My prayer is my generation would represent Christ faithfully and not swing to the other spectrum….thankful for your words and more importantly thankful for your tone and fatherly like grace on me as my elder. Humbled. Blessed. Thankful for painful growth. Blessings.

Grace and Peace,

Jeff

I’m not saying I was wrong in what I said, but I sure was wrong (and obnoxious) in how I said it.

I think DeYoung says it best:

A friend wrote to me yesterday and said, “This is a good test for both Jefferson and for yourself. Is he the kind of guy who would be willing to write a critic with humility? And did you write the piece in such a way that the one being criticized would feel comfortable chatting with you?” I hope we are passing that test. Through the years I haven’t always aced this kind of exam.

I sharpened my teeth alongside people who were willing to listen to and empowered my passionate words but also loved me enough to challenge me to dig deep for truth and clarity.

Shame on me for not taking the opportunity to share that love and challenge with somebody who is clearly both passionate and talented.

I’m not agreeing with everything that Jeff said in his video, and had I given him a chance to dialogue, I would’ve learned that he probably doesn’t either.

Oh if I had a dollar for every time I spoke in ways that misrepresented how I really felt… I wouldn’t need to blog anymore, that’s for sure.

For what it’s worth, Jeff, thank you for using your gifts to raise a conversation about the church in a way that gets my students both talking and listening. I believe that you have talents, gifts, and a passion that all seem to be ferociously ignited by the grace of Christ.

I’m sorry that I did not extend you that grace.

I am reminded that what makes you and I, and anybody else different can either divide us or bring us closer together. Our different views can either tear us away or bring us closer to a clearer understanding of our God.

That’s what makes religion dangerous.

And that’s what makes religion beautiful.

A Response to “Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus”

I’ve come across this video several times this weekend, and with almost 10 million views in not even four days, I think it’s fair to say that it has gone viral:

Taking the Path Most Traveled

I appreciate those of you who have shared this with me. It’s a great conversation starter.

I have a couple of concerns though.

First of all, at points Jefferson Bathke (the poet in question) is not correct.

I contend (quite strongly) that

  • Jesus did not come to abolish religion. It’s not possible to separate “religion” from “way of life” 2,000 years ago. Religion apart from our everyday life is something that we’ve perfected, but was not the case back then. I believe Jesus came to lead us in the way we live our lives. Change it? Sure. Abolish it? That’s a stretch lie.
  • God did not call people whores. Not even “religious people.”
  • In the first two points, Mr. Bethke might be referring to those who worshipped false idols. Now if he wants to accuse many religions of worshipping false idols, now, he has my attention. But I never heard him get that far.

It’s not that I don’t think our poet raised a few good points.

I think these points are acknowledged very articulately by Nadia Bolz Weber, an ELCA pastor in Denver Colorado:

“I totally get it. I hate the way in which the church is more of a behavior modification program and a purity system than a place where we hear the truth of who God is and the truth of who we are because of who God is.

I also resent the way in which the term “Christian” has become synonomous with a conservative social agenda and exclusion of the weak the poor and the outcast (namely the people Jesus chose to hang out with)

I too reject religion that does little more than prop up an identity of sanctification and righteousness based in the successful adoption a particular affect, style, personality and way of speaking.

I too think that Jesus is about grace and being with those on the margins and the unbounded way in which God is always coming TO us.”

But…

Concern Number Two

It sure does seem to be taking the easy way out.

Believe me, nobody has tried to do the God thing while sneaking in/out the backdoor of religion more than me. I used to introduce occupation as a “Youth Programming Consultant with Religious Undertones.” There are plenty of reasons to not be proud of the way religion (so-called religious people, so-called religious leaders) are acting/talking living.

But it’s impossible to change the system from the outside. Literally.

Do you know what we would call a group of people who agreed that religions were evil and that the only true way to live was to follow Jesus?

A religion.

I like Tony Jones’ response and I especially appreciate his definition of religion: “Religion is simply the social and psychological framework by which human beings organize their experience of the Divine.”

It just drives me nuts when someone asserts the problems of humanity as being a problem of religion.

Duh!

It’s the Transitive Property all over again.

People, People, People

People start wars. People can be hypocritical. People can spend their (our) lives doing anything to avoid the real issues in life. People can be dishonest with others and with themselves. And religions are made of people.

But people can be generous. People can be loving. People can rebuild houses and feed the poor. People can advocate for those less fortunate. People can model peace. People can provide great windows into the experiencing and understanding of God. And religion can too.

Let’s talk about changing, adapting, cleansing, enhancing, healing, and empowering our religion to be more inline with what we think our Christian call is supposed to be.

And let’s encourage other leaders of other faith communities to challenge the way their religions have manifested further and further apart from the God of peace – something that we really should be able to agree upon.

But getting rid of religion? Well, aside from being grammatically and mathematically impossible… it’s just throwing the baby Jesus out with the 2,000 year-old bath water.

A closing from the much less defensive and much more articulate than me, Nadia Bolz Weber:

“I believe in Religion AND Jesus. I believe in the Gospel. I believe in the transformative, knock you on your (butt) truth of what God has done in Christ. I believe that I can only know what this following Jesus thing is about when I learn it from people I would never choose out of a catalog when we all gather together as the broken and blessed Body of Christ around the Eucharistic meal. I believe that I am the problem at least as often as I am the solution. I believe in participating in sacred traditions that have a whole lot more integrity than anything I could come up with myself. I believe I need someone else to proclaim the forgiveness of sins to me because I cannot create that for myself. I believe that Jesus is truly present in the breaking of the bread and that where 2 or more are gathered he is there. That’s religion AND Jesus. May God make us worthy of it all.”