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

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.

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.

  • Joe

    Nicely stated. Also, wanted to give a heads up on a copy editing error: “But he is where he starts to make some problematic points.” I think you mean “But here”. Not meaning to be a bother but I noticed it.

    I appreciate the picking apart of the poem and the issue of church. Samuel Wells writes that you can’t have Jesus without the church and you can’t have church without Jesus because wherever Jesus is where church is.

  • Eden

    Mmm, true that. :) As a Born Again believer though, it’s hard explaining to non-believers how I’m Christian but don’t follow religion, i.e. the rules made by man in various religions that fall under the “Christian” umbrella. Sure I go to church and love it, but we are not taught rules – it’s more about our own personal relationship with Jesus and each other. “Religion” has such a stigma about it and people are angry and afraid of what it has caused in the past. Unfortunately, in the minds of non-believers, it also generalises all Christian churches. Of course Jesus loves his bride (the Church) but fear of religion stops people getting to know God because He is so often misrepresented. In the Bible, Jesus himself became angry at the religious leaders for being hypocritical and self righteous. He hung out with the sinners more because they at least listened. Kudos to this bloke for finding the courage to discover who Jesus really is and getting to know Him personally. I think this is a cool way of reaching out to non-believers (which is the most important thing) and letting them know that Jesus doesn’t necessarily equal the things they hate about religion. ♥♥♥

  • sarah

    Thank you Eden, my family and me have been feeling oppressed by what we call “peoples rules” for Christians, (you called them rules made by man) lately. It’s good to know we’re not alone in this.

    • Eden

      Hi Sarah!

      I understand what you mean and you are definitely not alone. So many people I have spoken to – friends, family and strangers – feel the same way. Even I am wary of occasional “Bible bashers” or religious people who tend to overwhelm me with scripture and make me feel bad. I know that’s not Jesus’ angle though. Instead I’ve come to know Him more as the father and friend I never had. Yes, he will freely give us wisdom and advice on how to live life better but only if we decide we want His help. That’s the freedom of choice He gave us. Unfortunately, the freedom He gave us to make our own decisions often results in bad stuff happening (our fault, not His!) but we can always go to Him in times of strife and He will always bring something awesome out of a terrible situation – no matter how bad it is!

      Personally speaking, my partying lifestyle got me into trouble a few years ago and I even played with thoughts of suicide. As a last resort, I decided that God was the only one who could help me and I took a leap of faith by visiting a church. Nobody knew who I was or why I was there so that was a relief. I said a simple prayer to God asking him to take over and I swear, my life did a 180 in a matter of weeks! I moved interstate, met my future husband and now we have our own businesses, a house and a gorgeous little boy! I am not the same person I used to be and guess what?! I didn’t have to stick to any rules whatsoever!

      Like I said, Jesus gave us freedom and he wants all of us to have an awesome life now and in the hereafter. All we have to do is ask Him into our hearts. Some people don’t want to do that because they’re afraid they’ll have to give up certain things they enjoy – usually things that aren’t good for them anyway. But the cool part is that it isn’t what we do or don’t do that makes us righteous in His eyes (Galatians 2:16 if ya wanna look it up). Instead, it’s all about what He’s done and that’s why we love Him!

      For example, in my partying days I would binge drink and even though it was bad for me, I still found it fun. I never made a conscious decision to give up alcohol thinking it was a rule I had to follow if I went to church. Instead, I just became willing to learn more about Jesus and as time went on, I just didn’t feel like drinking anymore! My way of life had completely changed and I hardly noticed a thing. It wasn’t hard and I didn’t miss it. I’ve heard of people beating other addictions (like smoking, over eating, etc) the same way! All God’s doing! Yay!! ^_^

      So yeah, you don’t need to feel oppressed anymore or let Christians turn you off from getting to know God. Heck, you don’t even have to go to church. God is everywhere else too and you can talk to Him any time, anywhere. Nobody has to know. You are His Princess, Sarah, and He loves you no matter what! :D

      God bless! <3<3<3

  • http://www.courageous-beauty.com/ Olivia

    helpful for us all to go examine the difference between the religion in the dictionary, and the religion we all live, and yet a third religion of what we say and write.
    he has a lot of truth in there.


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