Each Wednesday in What Memes Mean, Kirk Bozeman questions the significance, humor, and subtexts of viral videos, memes, and other Internet fads.
Jeff Bethke’s spoken word viral diatribe “Jesus > Religion” is a YouTube sensation, up to almost 14 million views as of today. In the past week, I have read a number of response articles, the one referenced here, one here, a decent one here, and my personal favorite by an Orthodox priest here.
All of these articles (and there are quite a few others out there as well based on a quick Google search) have the same general complaint against the main thrust of Bethke’s video: pitting “Jesus” vs. “religion” is an unfair dichotomy that stretches and re-defines language to an unhelpful extreme, simply for the sake of sentimentalism and cleverness, resulting in sketchy theology and potential confusion for those outside the church.
Quite frankly, I very much agree. (I will direct this article at Christians, because I feel the issue here is mainly internal.)
“An unfair dichotomoy that stretches and re-defines language to an unhelpful extreme”
There is a marked difference between modern Christianity’s common in-house definition and the dictionary’s definition of the word “religion.” When the common person asks me if I’m religious, all he means is, “Do you believe in God, have a high moral code, and attend church regularly?” He doesn’t at all mean, “Do you accept a system of works-righteousness that you believe you need to follow perfectly to put yourself in right standing with God?” This is what we mean. Bethke’s use of the term “religion” is according to this popular re-definition that evangelicals have invented in an attempt at making an evangelistic point about the uniqueness of the gospel message. Unfortunately, we perpetually forget that our definition of “religion” is not the actual, real definition of “religion.”
Evangelicals have a penchant for the dramatic and the sensational — we desperately love our truths to sound clever. But often the desire for “truth said cleverly” morphs into a belief that anything said cleverly must be true. It’s sort of a “Mark Twain syndrome” — Twain was a genius with words, but his aphorisms often fell short of actual tenable content. Unfortunately, his clever language frequently hides the banality of many of his ideas. At least, that’s my personal opinion of Mark Twain, and also my personal opinion of the language of the video: It sounds clever and powerful to say things like “Jesus came to abolish religion,” but such statements simply aren’t all that true.
“Resulting in sketchy theology and potential confusion for those outside the church”
Is Christianity not about religion but about Jesus? It depends on what you mean by “religion” and “Jesus.” If you are equating religion and Jesus to legalism and grace then sure, sounds fine. But the common man in popular discourse is not used to our in-house equations of these terms. Not because he’s stupid (i.e., don’t be condescending when you talk to him, that would be very “religious” of you). He is simply not privy to things in the way that you or I are. Pointing out the uniqueness of the gospel of grace in a way that makes sense is wonderful, doing it in a way that doesn’t make sense is not. (Further, the idea comes across as anti-ecclesial, potentially lending itself to the idea that church bodies are bad things and a hyper-personalized piety is better.)
In conclusion, I’ve found the backlash to Bethke’s video very, very refreshing. I’m downright impressed, actually: It means that evangelicals are thinking through this old rhetoric and find it lacking. Good for us, it’s been a long time coming.