A young man from the miniscule neighborhood of Parkland, Washington in America has accomplished something no other Christian in recent memory has done – he has set the religious world ablaze with a simple video containing what some would call his “rant” and others his “revelation” regarding the word, the concept and the reality of religion.
In fact, as of the moment of this writing, Jefferson Bethke’ video, appearing on the YouTube site has experienced 15,480,336 hits – and counting. That’s more than fifteen million hits!
At the outset, it should be noted that Bethke is neither a theologian, nor does he claim infallibility. He is just like so many others who speak in the name or about the cause of Christ: He has a deep-rooted compendium of beliefs from which he bases his life and conduct before God. If the point in listening to Jeff’s poem is to dissect, find fault and to protest his views, the listener will find ample ammunition to do so in Jeff’s own words. But if, on the other hand, we may listen to this young man’s heart, we may find ourselves sufficiently disturbed to revisit an to reconsider our own, personal definitions of religion.
The topic of Jeff’s poem is one of those “religious” hot potatoes that find their way into the public discussion every now and then. It’s inevitable after all, since from time immemorial society has recognized that it’s bad form to discuss “religion or politics” at the dinner table.
Just to throw a (necessary) wrench into the works of this discussion, we must consider the evolution and gradual amendment of definitions. For instance, the term “by and by” as used by Jesus originally meant “straightway, immediately.” Today it means “in the future,” “eventually.“ The definition changed, and if we’re not aware of that change, we will misinterpret the point of Jesus’ words.
The definition of religion as “committed relationship to God” is the ancient meaning of the word. A more contemporary understanding of the same word might include words like “heavy yoke,” “ man-made rules,” “meaningless rituals.” Before moving on, please consider the gap between these two definitions: “relationship to God” and “meaningless ritual.” Neglecting to bear in mind Jeff’s, or yours or my definition will prevent us from ever coming to anything resembling a consensus of understanding and, at the extreme, but essential limit, “unity.”
And so before we are able to give thoughtful consideration to the discussion of religion, we must agree on some form of definition of the same.
Scholars have long attempted to define “religion,” but ultimately, these definitions have risen from individual, personal experience and the concepts influencing the individual who does the defining. These all have been found to be deficient by the majority of scholars, since each comes with the baggage of “experience.”
I would dare say that everyone reading these words is already interpreting my words through his or her own filter of experience. Those who have had positive experience with religious life may disagree with my conclusions, which are, admittedly my own interpretations. Those who have been injured by religion (what some identify as “bad religion”) will tend to agree with me. The key, I think is to find a largely neutral, objective and unbiased position.
Good, Bad or Ugly?
Can religion be good or bad? Is religion useful in some cases and injurious in others? That’s at the core of the praise or denunciation of Jeff’s video that started this discussion.
It is impossible to discuss the concept of religion without considering the institutional structures that promote, teach and embody religious attitude and action. And it is here, at the point of institutional systemization that there is a departure from “living faith” that moves to inanimate works – behaviors, attitudes, beliefs that compel but do not impel action. Those who lean towards a “law-bound” “law-influenced” religion conduct themselves according to external forces and influences. Those who tend towards “grace-enabled” inner influence (“Christ in you, the hope of glory”) are less sympathetic to lists of rules and required behaviors.
It is true to the disposition of New Covenant, grace-based life that the more a person recognizes and is influenced by the Spirit of Life, the Spirit of the risen Christ, the less one requires an external set of instructions that tells him how to live.
It is also true that the less one enjoys a vital relationship with the resurrected Christ, the greater the need for a “schoolmaster” (Gal. 3:24) not only to bring him to Christ, but also to maintain his daily connection with God. Hence, and because of a lack of Inner Voice (the indwelling Holy Spirit), the ensuing rules and regulations of religion are required.
Religion was necessary to bring us to Christ, and to the “doorway of life” but Faith is the Great room of New Creation life. Religion is essential, but only to a pre-determined degree. For instance, religion ceases, loses its purpose and force once we move from the habitation of this atmosphere and earth-realm and we move into the habitation of eternity and the fullness of the Kingdom of God (in this temporal life).
Likewise, the nearer we come to stepping through the invisible barrier that separates the physical, material emphasized life into the awareness and comprehension of the available “kingdom life” appropriated by the cross and resurrection-life of Jesus, the less we need the externals of religious obligation and reminder.
Once religion has served its purpose, by design it must fall away, just as during a multi-stage rocket launch. None of us panics when, after initial thrust, the primary rocket engine exhausts its fuel, separates and falls away from the main rocket. We’ve all grown accustomed to watching Shuttle launches take place: Such should also be the experience of our walk with Christ. Once religion has thrust us God-ward, its fuel is spent and religion naturally, and by intention falls away.
Paul saw the same thing as he addressed the Colossian church. He wrote:
“Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations– “Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,” which all concern things which perish with the using–according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh” Col. 2:20-23.
Using the term “religion” in the narrow sense of Christianity (since every “religion” has its own definition), and recognizing that much of the Christian world views their faith not as a religion but as a relationship, we might develop a working definition of religion as follows,
“An effort to represent and order beliefs, opinions and actions that arises in response to a personal experience of the sacred and the spiritual (God).”
This definition provides neither support for nor rejection of, religion. In this definition, religion is a matter of fact; it simply is. As with all things, Solomon’s wisdom applies here, “To everything there is a season, A time for every purpose under heaven: A time to embrace, And a time to refrain from embracing” (Eccl. 3:1,4).
My definition recognizes this emphasis, “in response to a personal experience of the sacred and the spiritual.” “A personal experience . . .” Without this, without a personal, vital, living experience with the living God, all one can ever hope to possess is empty, powerless, dead and deadly religion. Jesus testified that “unless one is born again, he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven,” (John 3:3) regardless of how much religion he embraces or how much law he meticulously observes.
The definition given (above) is not comprehensive or complete. As the initiative to represent and order beliefs, opinions and actions expands, it takes on form and often develops elaborate practices, (The Catholics have their elaborate practices and so do the Baptists, the Nazarenes, the Methodists – where do you think the name “Methodist” came from?).
What originates as an effort to describe and to ensure spiritual consistency soon becomes a process, a system that creates meaning for itself on a sustaining basis, in terms of both its originating experiences and its own continuing responses.
It is a function of the insecurity of man that even as he seeks to depart from onerous religious structures, he finds himself impulsively creating new religious structures to replace those he has discarded.
I have often poked fun at and with churches and groups experiencing what we call “renewal” or “revival.” I’ve pointed out that those who run fast and hard away from anything that smacks of religion often begin their own, new religion that I call “renewal religion” or “revival religion.”
Man is fundamentally prone to building a religious house in which he can find comfort and security. Once he has established the parameters of his “religious house,” he can relax in the conformity guaranteed by standardization, regulation and tradition.
(Witness the many “church” services that are comprised of the Opening Chorus, Greeting, “Worship Service” – chuckle, 2 fast, 2 slow – the Pastoral Prayer, Announcements, the “Special” (ever wonder what’s so “special” about the “Special?” I have). And then comes the culmination, the climax of the entire concerto – the “Sermon.” And we quickly label our brand of religion or non-religion as “New Testament Church” as if, by word association we are legitimizing our own subjective biases.
The Conclusion of the Matter
If the most common definition of religion is “a burdensome yoke of man-made rules and dead rituals; a futile attempt to please God and save oneself by good works,” I, for one applaud your rejection of religion in favor of knowing “in Whom we have believed” and of being “persuaded that He Who began a good work in (us) will complete it until the Day of Christ.”
If you view this little, eight-letter word as an expression of the highest hopes for life on the high plain of God’s manifest presence, fight the good fight, finish the race, and keep the faith. Heaven is our destination, and lots of company in getting there is our resolve.
Now, take a deep breath. Smile. We’re all in this boat together, whether we hold to a dearly treasured religion or we hate the word with a vengeance. We’re all in this life and pursuit of heaven together. As Canadian television actor Steve Smith used to say at the conclusion of each of his Red Green episodes, “Remember, I’m pullin’ for ya — we’re all in this together.”
And what of Jeff Bethke’s little, homemade video that started this whole discussion in the first place? As I edited this piece, I returned to YouTube and found that between the moment I wrote the first draft and now, a day and a half later, another 874,922 visits have been made to Jeff’s poem. Something in his rant or revelation is getting traction, catching fire.
Perhaps it’s a subject people believe find critical to probe, and perchance even, God is speaking to His people.