The last two weeks has seen a new viral sensation take over our computer screens. A spoken word artist named Jefferson Bethke, who goes by the handle “Bball1989,” released a video on Youtube that has, in less than two weeks, received more than fifteen 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.