What Memes Mean: An In-House Perspective of 'Jesus > Religion'

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.”

“Simply for the sake of sentimentalism and cleverness”
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.

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  • http://daveden.wordpress.com David Kennedy

    I’m a big fan of separating Christianity from religion as a whole, especially when you consider what the dictionary says religion is:

    often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs… a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects: the Christian religion; the Buddhist religion.

    If the dictionary simply stated that religion was a specific fundamental set of beliefs and stopped there, then it would be mostly true. Furthermore, consider what the dictionary says a religious person is:

    pious; devout; godly: a religious man… scrupulously faithful; conscientious… appropriate to religion or to sacred rites or observances

    This definition just screams “WORKS WORKS WORKS.”

    Also, I don’t want Christianity to be lumped together with Buddhism, which it generally is whenever someone outside the church refers to religion. A little confusion in regards to this matter is not a bad thing if it causes people in this camp to reconsider what Christianity is actually about – it is not just another religion.

  • Stevensukkau

    “sacred rites or observances”
    Like baptism, communion, praying and fasting? These are “works” yes, but I think what the guy in the video is really against is “legalism” and there is a huge difference between that and religion.
    And if Christianity isn’t a religion, then what would you call it? What’s the alternative? To call it a cult?

  • http://www.alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams

    I finally listened to the meme today. What shocked me most was the fact that it had garnered 15 million hits. I didn’t hear anything that different than has already been said many times before. It is peculiar to me what things get popular and what things don’t.

    My assessment of the actual content was that it was a bit naive about the nature of Christianity and the role of the church. The rest was pretty positive.

  • http://stormman.blogspot.com Ethan

    Your assessment of Twain is lacking, but otherwise this is an excellent post.

  • Adam E

    There’s a post on this at The Resurgence

    I think this is partially a semantics issue…

    Jesus came into a culture that was religious. Society was centred around the synagogues and temple. Through this, the emphasis on obedience to the Judaism’s moral codes and laws occurred.

    To THAT society, Jesus preached against religion and against sin. This is most evident in the parable of the prodigal son, where Jesus contrasts the two sons – one rebellious, one religiously devout – to bring us to the conclusion that both sons were using the father to get what they wanted. Therefore neither following religious principles or rebelling against them is the solution…

    Our society is not so religious, and so the message must be adapted accordingly. If you ask me, the message of “devout adherance to religious practices does not save” is what we need to keep preaching to ourselves and the church as a whole. I think that this is what the video was aiming for…

  • Fr Nathan Thompson

    pious; devout; godly: a religious man… scrupulously faithful; conscientious… appropriate to religion or to sacred rites or observances

    That actually is a pretty good description… of Christ Himself. He was faithful in His religious observance- going to the synagogue, going to the temple for feasts, praying, fasting, caring for the poor, sick and hungry.

    The other false dichotomy here is faith vs works. Someone once asked a colleague of mine how he reconciled faith and works. He replied that he saw no reason to reconcile friends.

    “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?” James 2:14

    We know that we are saved by grace through faith, and not by our works, as Paul tells us, but he then goes on to tell us that we are saved for good works in Christ. The whole 2nd chapter of James, the parable of the sheep and the goats, there are many examples of how faith and works are part of an integral whole in “work(ing) out your salvation with fear and trembling.” (Phil 2:12)

    The works based salvation is a straw man argument. Anyone who actually has studied Eastern Orthodox or Catholic theology knows that we are not saved by our works, but by the salvific work of Christ. This is not to say that there are those who mistakenly hold to the idea that salvation is works based, there are. Pray for them, because that is a horrible way to live, constantly seeking to earn their salvation by going through the motions, not knowing the joy of their salvation.
    The flip side is what Dietrich Bonhoffer referred to as “cheap grace.” Which is when one does not respond to the grace given by following Christ’s commandments. (John 15:10) Both extremes are dangerous. God bless you.

  • http://daveden.wordpress.com David Kennedy

    My pastor pointed me to this article on The Gospel Coalition. Tchividjian says:

    … let’s not forget as missionaries that if the gospel is ever going to reach people in our day it’s going to have to be distinguished from religion (as described above) because “religion” is what most people outside the church think Christianity is all about…


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