What a Trendy Video Says (and Doesn’t Say) About Religion

As of 5 p.m. this afternoon, 22 of my Facebook friends had shared this video on their walls–or, I’m pretty sure it’s timelines now, but whatever. It was uploaded to YouTube two days ago and already has almost 2.5 million views. This is unfortunate, because it demonstrates the degree to which the word “religion” has become a pejorative and used to describe what could be most accurately billed as “legalism.” Furthermore, it highlights the ambiguity associated with “religion” when that word is tossed around by Christians (usually non-denominationals) who claim to be up on Jesus but low on “religion.” As the British would say, that’s bollocks, and I’m about to tell you why.

Jefferson Bethke. (Photo: Twitter profile photo)

So, first let’s talk a little about the word itself. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the origin of the word “religion” as Anglo-Norman from around the 12th Century. It means a “system of beliefs and practices based on belief in, or acknowledgement of, some superhuman power or powers, also any particular such system.” That’s all the word means. Contrary to what may or may not be popular belief, there are no built-in negative connotations.

Now, I’m no expert on modern usage, but when “religion” is used as a pejorative, it seems to describe what the user believes is empty ritual, unnecessary tradition and an excessive focus on rules and regulations. Most often, these are directed toward traditional churches which may or may not follow a particular rite. This, I’m sad to say, demonstrates nothing but ignorance. This is “legalism,” not “religion,” and hopefully readers will be able to understand why the distinction is important.

So, with these things in mind, let’s take a look at a few of the more notable lines from this poem.

“What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion?”

To answer this rhetorical question, I’d say, “You’d be mistaken.” This is what’s called an equivocation of terms: he’s using the word “religion” to describe something that isn’t religion in order to reinforce his assertion that religion is bad. It’s a bit like saying nuclear power is bad because it destroys cities when, in fact, only certain applications of nuclear power destroy cities (i.e., nuclear ICBMs and similar weapons); other applications of nuclear power light cities, propel ships, and fight cancer.

And, just for the record, Jesus did no such thing. He came to establish a new Covenant based on grace to replace the old one based on works. Religion is a human construct meant to facilitate connection between humans and the divine. It is, in and of itself, neither good nor bad; rather, it carries the potential to be either based on how it’s practiced.

What if I told you getting you to vote republican, really wasn’t his mission?
Because republican doesn’t automatically mean Christian,
And just because you call some people blind, doesn’t automatically give you vision.

Music to my ears. If only the whole thing were more like this.

“If religion is so great, why has it started so many wars?
Why does it build huge churches, but fails to feed the poor?
Tells single moms God doesn’t love them if they’ve ever been divorced
Yet God in the Old Testament actually calls the religious people whores
Religion preaches grace, but another thing they practice,
Tend to ridicule Gods people, they did it to John the Baptist,
Cant fix their problems, so they try to mask it,
Not realizing that’s just like sprayin perfume on a casket
Because the problem with religion is that it never gets to the core,
It’s just behavior modification, like a long list of chores.”

Since he doesn’t state specifically what he’s talking about here, I have to assume he’s referring to the Crusades. Religion didn’t start the Crusades of the Middle Ages; greedy kings and corrupt popes did. While they might have used religion to evil ends, their actions don’t invalidate religion. The rest of this is actually a fairly good description of legalism but makes no distinction between that and religion. You know, the religion James was talking about? Maybe we’ve forgotten that verse. In fact, if you could replace every mention of “religion” with “legalism,” there’d be no problem at all.

“This is what makes religion and Jesus two different clans,
Religion is man searching for God, but Christianity is God searching for man.
Which is why salvation is freely mine, forgiveness is my own,
Not based on my efforts, but Christ’s obedience alone.”

This is interesting. Now, for the first time, he’s drawing a distinction between religion and Christianity. Simply put, that’s impossible. Neither Christ nor God established Christianity; Christianity is a set of beliefs and practices  developed by Men centered around the life and teachings of Jesus. Sounds eerily similar to a religion, no?

In short, Jefferson does an excellent job of denouncing legalism, but any value that might have come from that has been lost because he’s attacked something else that needn’t be attacked. What the video does is create a false dichotomy between “Jesus” and “religion,” as if the two were antithetical. They aren’t.

Now, why have I devoted such a lengthy post to talking about this video? Because though Jefferson undoubtedly meant well, the end result is something that only casts further confusion on what exactly “religion” is. It does nothing more than pander to long-refuted stereotypes and contributes nothing constructive to the increasingly important task of bringing unity and healing to the entire body of Christ. That includes Copts, Catholics, Orthodox, Baptists, Methodists, Charismatics, and any other church that preaches Christ and him crucified. Legalism should be opposed, definitely, but before we dive off into denunciations, let’s agree about what we’re discussing and make sure our terms are clearly defined. Whether you believe it or not, the distinction is vital.

Continually getting hung up on vestments, chants, hymns, and recitations is, indeed, its own form of legalism and the sooner we can leave it behind the better. Furthermore, the sooner we can all learn to be critical thinkers, the sooner we can avoid being sucked in by shoddily constructed logic like what is displayed in this video and be able to respond by saying, “I know what you’re trying to say, but here’s how you can say it in a way that’s understanding of the diversity present in the Church.”

4 thoughts on “What a Trendy Video Says (and Doesn’t Say) About Religion

  1. Best blog post yet. You really eliand it! Because in the end, the good news is not about what brand or version of Christianity is most liturgically pure or theologically correct. The good news has nothing to do with methodologies or technologies of our evangelism or worship or anything else. The world remains simply hungry for Jesus and it is the church, you and I, who are called to make the introduction and let the world see the Lord in us. That’s what loving Jesus is. And that is what being the church is. Amen and amen.Keep up the awesome blog posts I am really enjoying them and being challenged by them.I think it was Tony Campolo who coined the phrase if you ever find a perfect church, don’t join it because you’ll just ruin it.

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  3. Perhaps it makes a point that “religion” as practiced today is legalism based on man-made concepts of hate. Many religions encourage their followers to self-hate and to loathe others.

    • Religion today can be “legalism based on man-made concepts of hate” but that isn’t universally true of all religion. Bethke uses the word “religion” interchangeably in a way that fuses the meanings of false religion and legalism with the meaning of true religion, which is incorrect and counterproductive.

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