Hating Religion, Loving Jesus: A Well-Meaning False Dichotomy

This week has seen a new viral sensation take over our computer screens. A spoken word artist who goes by the name Bball1989 released a video on Youtube that has, in less than a week, received more than six million hits called “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus.” So regardless of what any of us personally thinks about what he’s saying, it’s incumbent on us to listen up.

For starters, there’s some really good stuff in his message. He deconstructs the idea that those within the church have it all together, or that one should already understand what it is they believe before crossing the threshold. On the contrary, he rightly asserts that the church should be more like a “hospital for brokenness.”

He also drives a necessary wedge between faith and politics, critiquing the tendency of the evangelical right to claim that the words “Christian” and “Republican” are synonymous. Though this is more prevalent that it is for liberal Christians, I’d argue it’s worth noting that fundamentalism, whatever its stripe, is damaging and has no place drawing partisan lines around faith.

This is a young man who has obviously worked through a lot of tough times to get to where he is. He admits to struggling in the past with sex addiction, and decries the church’s tendency to gloss over such problems, not dealing with the core issues that can tear a life or family apart. But he is where he starts to make some problematic points. And there are several.

Yes, some churches do avoid talking about sex all together, or if they do, they take the Ed Young approach, telling married folks to have sex more and everything will be fine. As for the rest of you, well, pray for celibacy I guess.

He also claims that Jesus hated the church, and actually came to destroy religion, once and for all. I can certainly see where he would draw such conclusions, especially when Jesus quotes prophecies about the destruction of central Jewish temples, but I think he’s over-generalizing here. Though much of Jesus’ ministry was out in the streets and in homes, he hardly avoided the church. When there, he was prone to stirring things up, no doubt, but he was considered – and even called – a rabbi by many of his followers.

The video’s message also points out some necessary problems within organized religion, but as in other cases, he paints with a dangerously broad brush. Yes, some churches are doing more harm than good. Yes, some parts of religion are more about propping up doctrine or sustaining an institution than they are about living out the gospel in the world. But there also are millions of Christians who identify with one faith community or another (or even more than one) who are striving breathlessly to help invoke the kind of world Jesus claimed was possible.

To offer such plenary indictments is to become – to paraphrase Paul – the very thing that he claims to hate.

I could go on in this regard, picking the poem apart, but you get the idea. This is a voice of post-evangelicalism, longing for a foothold with his faith beyond the trappings of a religious system that clearly he feels added to the problem rather than guiding him to liberation. I totally get that. Millions of us have been there.

But some of us choose to keep working from within the system to try and make it more like what we believe it can and should be. Yes, I resonate with the anti-institutional sentiment, as do millions of my peers. Few of us feel we owe the institutions much of anything. But in them some of us do still see some potential for them to be repurposed, reoriented so that they may once again serve the people, rather than the other way around.

It’s well and good that he’s making claims from the outside, but when he says he’s not here to judge, that’s simply disingenuous. Also, he begins to hedge even these bold claims by saying he still loves the Church, while hating religion. There are even other videos online of him “preaching” in church. So if we’re going to cast stones, let’s decide which side of the wall we’re aiming for.

But all of this doesn’t get at the heart of my biggest issue with his spoken word piece. What bothers me the most is that, despite stretching out toward a post-religious understanding of Christ, he then falls right back into the same old lexicon of substitutionary atonement language. You know the drill: Jesus died for your sins, the blood flowed down, he absorbed your transgressions, and so on.

So my questions is this: though he seems to be bent on tearing at the fabric of at least the evangelical Christian church, if not organized religion as a whole, why does his central message sound pretty much like every evangelical altar call I’ve ever heard?

And believe me, I’ve heard a lot of them.

Props to the guy for examining his faith, and for not taking the Church’s word for how to be of what to think. But if we’re going to ascribe to Buenaventura Durruti’s claim that the only kind of church that illuminates is a burning one, let’s not shove all the old dogma in our jackets for safe keeping as we rush out the back door.

About Christian Piatt

Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Christian for a good review! I resonated a lot with the speaker at the beginning of the video, then as it went on there was several points (including Sub Atone, that you mentioned) that I was not so in tune with. I would say that for the most part, this movie resonates with young evangelicals who are hoping on the “religion is dead” train that evangelicalism took from Bonhoeffer, as well as the fact that a growing number of young evangelicals are not hopping on the GOP band wagon anymore. However, the way this argument (Jesus hates religion) is often protrayed sometimes strikes me as anti-catholic and anti-semantic. It seems that when evangelicals tell me “Jesus hates religion” it seems to be an unconscious “Jesus hates the Jewish and Catholic faiths because they are “all about man getting to God instead of God getting to man”, and sets the stage for the same old exclusivist, “God hates your religion but not mine” argument, just denying now that your religion is, in fact, a religion.

  • Fred

    I never had an intention to watch the video because the title itself is divisive! Many of my friends have viewed it and shared it, but I still have decided not to. I’m glad I read this and will share this instead! 

    • Anonymous

      Hi Fred,
       Thank You for making clear the standard modern approach  to knowledge! With just a little substitution language Your statement perfectly describes Biblical literacy today…
       ”I never had an intention to “read” the “Bible” because the title itself is
      divisive! Many of my friends have “read” it and shared it, but I still
      have decided not to. I’m glad I read this and will share this instead!”
       Sadly this is the general trend for knowledge in all fields today.
       

  • Brittney

    Very interesting comments. I enjoyed his piece myself. I’m by no means a Biblical scholar, and I don’t know some of the references you use in your critique, but I think the “I” in his title is important. It isn’t called “Why you should hate religion”…it’s called “Why I hate religion, but love Jesus”. I think what he is criticizing is the assumed formality and doggedness of formal religion. I think you can love the church and hate religion. I love the Church…I don’t care for religion. “Religion” has been the basis for a lot of negativity that is supposedly “in the name of God” when it is really in the name of religion. I think there is a vast difference between religion and Christ-following. I think you made some excellent points, and I think some of the issues can be chalked up to his age, but the reason this was shared (and I was an early sharer) was that it resonated with so many. There were a few comments he made that made me go hmmmmm, but that’s the case for most anything. By putting this out there, this kid (Jefferson Bethke) opened himself up for criticism; however I think it’s important to focus on the fact that this is a poem written by a kid who wants to share the gospel…I don’t know how we can be too critical of that.

    @17cb9cc1affa3d11050523a84f47366f:disqus : It might be in your best interest to watch the video in addition to posting a criticism of it on Facebook. At least you will be prepared to interact with people who comment. Just MHO.

  • http://www.michaelhalcomb.blogspot.com Michael_Halcomb

    Good post!  Here’s my spoken word video response, which I posted yesterday: 
    A Video Response to “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus”: http://ping.fm/h2CY9

    • Christian Piatt

      thanks man. i’ll check it out

  • Peter

    Jesus didn’t atone for our sins? What will?

    • Christian Piatt

      Grace is unconditional or it’s not grace. God’s grace preceded and superseded Jesus’ death, in my opinion, as evidenced by the forgiveness of sin by Jesus himself while alive.

      • Peter

        What did it cost God to extend that grace to us?

        • Christian Piatt

          This is of course a lengthy discourse, but I do have a piece here on my blog called “Did Jesus Really Die for Our sins?” that helps articulate my beliefs. Also, read Walter Wink’s “Jesus and Nonviolence” and “The Powers That Be”

          • Peter

            Christian,

            Thanks for your quick replies.

            Why do you think Jesus said “this is my blood poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins for many?” If shedding his blood was not instrumental in reconciling us to God, what did it do, if anything?  

      • Peter

        What ws the point of his death and why do the angels celbrate him as the lamb who was slain?

        • Anonymous

          It might also be good to look at how ancient Jew’s viewed sacrifice, as it was usually NOT for substitution.

          • Peter

            what was it for?

          • Anonymous

            Generally, my understanding is that primarily sacrifice was for thanksgiving. For some good info on this, see “The Bible, an Introduction” by Jerry Sumney, the chapter containing Leviticus. I also heard that the New International Commentary on the Old Testament, The book of Leviticus, provides an excellent explanation of what sacrifice was about. Your comment about the words of institution begs the question we are discussing, namely: How does Jesus’ blood poured out for the forgiveness of sins? There have been many answers to this throughout Christian history, penal substation is but one of them.

          • Peter

            I must say that based on your answers (and Christian’s) the criticism of the young man in the video seems a bit absurd. You call his believe in the atonement an old dogma like he is some dope. The way the belief is dismissed smacks a new dogma. When asked why you object to his belief you say you disagree and there are theologians who agree with you. Do you not think he could produce a theologian to support his view?

            Is this life in the “relational hermeneutic”, a bunch of self-justifying prattle?  

          • Christian Piatt

            It’s clear you have not taken the time to read the other posts or sources we suggested. I respectfully ask commenters on my site to keep their words respectful. Thanks.

  • Graham

    Wouldn’t have been so controversial is he said Jesus > FALSE Religion, which is actually what he’s talking about. The NT rarely uses the term religion for the gospel, but James 1:27 tells us that there is a real religion rooted in responding the protect the vulnerable and seek to cultivate godly character.

  • Guido

    I have heard this refrain from Tim Keller “Prodigal God,”  Rob Bell “The Gods aren’t Angry,” Dan Kimball, “They love Jesus but hate the church.”  and even Brennan Manning.  So, Bettke is not promoting anything new…it just went viral.

    We live in a moment when every institution has failed: Church, govt., business, school, media, etc.  This video resonates with me, because there are times when I feel as a pastor that I am managing a church instead of leading folks to go deep.  Maybe, I am just tired.  Maybe, I am just an iconclast, old punk, rebel.  I hear the remarks, but last night the guy serving me beer heard me chatting about church and asked me if had seen it.  He does not go to church, but he resonated with it.  While we debate inside if this appropriate or not…this speaks to those folks who have the Jesus found in the church less than appealing.  This is nothing new…see Benedict, see Luther.  This video is not the 99 theses or the rule, but it is an echo of the cries that folks feel about church. 

    Jeez, only 3% of the church nationwide is in the category of 18-26.    Think about that.  A generation will be lost by the church and they may reinvent a church to fit their needs.  I am willing to let that happen and I think this video is speaking to that.

    Keep writing and keep the conversation flowing Christian.  (You kept it off of Tebow.)

  • Wes Via

    So my questions is this: though he seems to be bent on tearing at the fabric of at least the evangelical Christian church, if not organized religion as a whole, why does his central message sound pretty much like every evangelical altar call I’ve ever heard?

    I am curious about this statement. Is the message of the Bible not that Jesus Came to offer his life for ours? that his sacrifce attones for our transgression? Just because the larger evangelical body has misused and distorted the meaning of this should we throw out a teaching that is so explicit?

    Just wondering where your coming form I maybe misunderstanding.

    • Anonymous

      I would challenge the idea that the bible is about Jesus being a sacrificial, subsitutionary satisfaction of God’s wrath, which is an idea that developed from Augustine to Anselm to Luther. I am with you that, as a Christian, the bible is ALL about Christ and his “at-one-ment” with the world. For my difficulty accepting penal substitution, check out http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2011/06/whats-wrong-with-penal-substitution-from-the-archives.html

  • Tim Burt

    I find the standard boiler plate statement about fundamentalists obnoxious. While it sounds “open minded” it’s very insulting to us less “Emergent” folk. That is, there is clarity and definition that is NEVER considered in the attempt to sound or project the” purity “of political neutrality. Specifically consider WHY so many, once they get Born Again, become so conservative in their political views. The very foundation of the Liberal Democratic platform of “BELIEFS YOU MUST HOLD” is to be pro- [DEATH]-choice and pro- homosexual. I find it IMPOSSIBLE to be a BORN AGAIN Christian and hold these beliefs. They are 180 degrees from Christ and his WORD. You either is, or you ain’t. Jesus said “I have come to give you LIFE and that more abundantly.” There’s a GOOD  SOLID  reason why MANY who LOVE Christ, deplore Liberalism, it, as Libertarianism, promotes Satan’s law, which is one:  -           DO WHAT THOU WILT. This, I am convinced, is for the most part, why the fabric of our culture has been torn and found without remedy. Don’t think politics matter? Take a look at a satellite night view of N. & S. Korea. North= complete darkness, South= lit up like a Christmas tree. Thank God for the restraining influence of Born Again CONSERVATIVE  Christians on our culture and the world! 

    • Anonymous

      Read Mark Noll’s “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” as well as:
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_dilemma

    • Dijomc

      I find myself wasting the past ninety seconds reading this comment!    Just because we all don’t dance to the same tune, does not increase or decrease our worth, or stance with GOD!

  • Greenea2

    To love Jesus and hate religion is possible. This poet is pretty much saying before he follows the traditions of a church BUILDING or RELIGION/DENOMINATION, he rather follow the road map Jesus gave via the Bible. Before tearing apart someone’s words, ask them what he/she means, as everyone does not share equal meaning to every word, phrase, etc. Regardless to what…we should read the Bible for ourselves and correctly understand what is being said by researching the Word according to Greek & Hebrew. Some words in the Bible do not share the same meaning as we must understand them today, which is why u have to look them up using a Strong’s Concordance where Hebrew=Old Testament & Greek=New Testament.

  • http://middletree.blogspot.com James Williams

    I loved what you said here. I also wrote something in response, and will post if here  if links are allowed. I went through all his statements, in order, and commented on the inflammatory ones.  http://middletree.blogspot.com/2012/01/why-bethke-gets-it-wrong.html

  • cabugs

    “What bothers me the most is that, despite stretching out toward a post-religious understanding of Christ, he then falls right back into the same old lexicon of substitutionary atonement language. You know the drill: Jesus died for your sins, the blood flowed down, he absorbed your transgressions, and so on.”

    How do you think he should have ended his spoken word piece? I am not trying to ask you a question I already know the answer to. I am honestly curious. Jesus dying for our sins is the basis of following Christ and knowing him as a true believer, so I think it’s important that Christian thought goes back to that as the foundation of our faith. What or perhaps how do you think he should have phrased this?

  • Khal

    Having followed Jefferson Bethke on facebook for several months now, it is becoming apparent that he was seeking a fan base to promote Christian themed products, and to raise money to send him on mission work abroad.  I suspect that he was reaching out to those that self-identify as spiritual but not religious.  Having discovered that the very fundamentalist religious spend the most, with the least provocation, if they believe it is “for God”; he seems to have switched gears.  His posts are now mainline Christianity, promoting abstinence, being against porn, and urging people to go to Church – and that you can’t know Jesus without understanding the Bible. I recognize that I oversimplified his POV.  But that doesn’t invalidate the assessment – just another future Billy Graham wannabe.


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