Update (1/15/2012): Jeff Bethke, the man in the video, has put on his Twitter account that much of the critiques he has faced are spot on and warranted. He states that he will use better words and terminology in the future. May we respect, admire, and emulate his humility.
I love religion. Specifically, I love the Christian religion. One of the reasons I love this particular religion (over the many others readily available) is because it is objectively true and allows for authentic personal relationships. There has been a cultural and sociological movement away from the religious emphasis over the past few years. Most recently, a video gone viral on the internet (which can be seen at the bottom of this post) has spawned a renowned movement. The statements go, “I hate religion, but love Jesus” or “It’s not a religion, but a relationship.”
Unfortunately, this view is nonsensical, albeit well-intentioned.
I understand the sentiment. I have had horrid church experiences in the past, especially in my teen years. I am a pastor’s son. I’ve seen the dark and grim sides of the church and dealt with the long-term repercussions of bad church leadership. It would be very easy for me to say that I hate religion. But stating this would be stating that I hate something that is a core of who I am – a Christian. See, I identify with Christianity. I believe in the doctrine – the Trinity, the redemptive work of Christ, and the nature of evil in the world. Many people affirm these basic doctrinal truths, yet supposedly hate religion, something which Christianity fundamentally is.
The entire “I hate religion” movement is well-intentioned, but at its core is a contradiction. Only if one never attends church, never participates in the sacramental rituals (at the very basic, I am referring to the Eucharist and baptism), and does not affirm the basic doctrine can one say that they are not religious. Because inasmuch as Christianity is a relationship with Christ, it is also a religion. Religion is important for Christianity in ways that a simple relationship cannot achieve. Namely, the Christian religion and institution affirms and endorses doctrine, disembarks heresy and offers organized worship.
What is more concerning, however, is what happens when the “relationship” extreme is taken to its logical end. Christianity is a religion that has inherent objective value and truth. It is meant to be experienced in community, with others both inside and outside of the church. When the relationship view is taken to its logical consequence, the objectivity of Christianity becomes subjective. Each individual will have their own vantage of Christianity, but when coming together, there is cohesion and unison established in scripture and upheld by the institution. If Christianity is just a relationship between God and the individual, there is no place for confession, accountability and community – all things which mainstream evangelicalism promotes. Further, why listen to a pastor? Why attend church? If Christianity is merely relationship, these components become expendable. This view is called relativism and purports that each individual only has his or her own identifiable vision of God. This opens the door for heresy, false portraits of God and idolatry. For here, I have my Jesus and you have yours. Don’t tell me that my relationship with Jesus is wrong. It’s what I perceive, and it must be true.
And now to the video which was the catalyst for this post. It appears to be produced well and the style of narrative portrayed is appealing. Unfortunately, it lacks much substantial content. And worst of all, it promotes the false dichotomy between religion and relationship. I appreciate the heart behind the video, but this video sends a dangerous message for the reasons outlined above.
The video starts off with the provocative statement, “Jesus > Religion.” This is fundamentally flawed. The video states that Jesus came to abolish religion. This is found nowhere in scripture. Jesus himself was religious, an adherent of the Jewish religion. He had no problem with the religion, but problems with the legalism within the religion. This is a distinction that is almost always overlooked and is the root of the false dichotomy in question. Jesus surely revitalized religion – instantiating what has been a historical and universal movement with his proclamation to Peter. When the video claims that “religion is a man-made invention,” it simply forgets Jesus’ declaration to Peter. For Peter was the man chosen to be the rock on which Christ built the church. Christ started this organized religion, centered on relationships, and then had his people build and support the church via this method.
By perpetuating this dichotomy between religion and relationship, the idealists are purporting an internal war within Christianity. It is people v. the church. At best, it finds its source in resentment; at worst, hatred. The video claims that the religion started wars and ignores the outcasts. There is some historical validity here, but it engages in the logical fallacy of hasty generalization. Most wars are not sourced from religion, and by no means has religion completely overlooked the poor. While this may sometimes be the case, it is simply not universally true. Individuals start wars, evil starts wars; Religion is not by far the only culprit here.
The man in the video puts into public his private life – one of a churchgoer who struggles with lust and pornography – a habit which no one knew he had. He blames the Church for this. Why? How is this the Church’s fault? This is a personal issue; one that he himself admits he hid. How can he blame his own faults on something else when he keeps it private? It would be a different situation if the man in the video said he confessed this issue and sought help – a search that was not met. But this is not what is proclaimed. What is portrayed (which is likely unintentional), rather, is someone who is looking to cast blame of his failures on someone else.
This video is propaganda. It is theologically weak and appeals to those easily swayed by production. It has some valid points and they need to be noticed (i.e., more attention need be given to those who society deems as lowly). But it appeals to emotion, something which we all get caught up in. Yet, when examining the content, this video establishes a false dichotomy which cannot function either in theory or in practice. Choosing either religion or relationship purports an extremism that does not move forward the message of the gospel. Religion and relationship are not mutually exclusive components, but rather ought to work as a harmony. Personal relationships, both with God and with other people, are a vital and invaluable aspect of Christianity. Yet, it is the church, its doctrine, its liturgy and its mission that protect Christianity and promote unity. The church, at times, has failed in its history, but so have people.
The church is fragmented. I will not deny this. Sometimes denominational differences are based on minor issues; sometimes they are separated by large doctrinal disagreements. I affiliate with a particular denomination. It is not perfect, but due to contemplation and prayer, I have decided that it is theologically, practically and socially where I want to be. This does not mean that my Catholic friends, my Baptist friends or even the many in the non/inter-denomination churches are my enemy. It simply means that we come down differently in either approach or specific doctrine. Yet we all uphold the core of the gospel. We believe in Christ. May we fight for relationships while adhering to the fact that we are part of a religious affiliation. For if we are mere people gathering together with our own individual gods, what else are we besides people worshipping our own version of God in a similar manner.
I love religion. I love relationship. I love the harmony that exists between these two things. That’s why I am a Christian.