By now the only person I know who has yet to see the viral video "Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus" is my mother . . . and she doesn't actually own a computer. In the video, young spoken word poet Jefferson Bethke delivers what seems to be a critique against the institutional Church and in favor of a spirituality focused simply on the saving grace of Jesus Christ. Anyone who does just a little digging on Bethke's YouTube channel or on Google will quickly learn that this young poet is a conservative Christian and member of the Mars Hill Church led by controversial pastor Mark Driscoll. All this seems to me an odd résumé for one who lambastes organized religion. More puzzling still is the fact that Bethke's theology is centered in substitutionary atonement and a patriarchal understanding of God&mash;both theological constructions of the institutional Church. One wonders where he thinks his understanding of God and Christ came from if not for the 2,000-year history of the Christian religion.
So, yes, I have some problems with the video, even as I resonate with the need to call the Church out when it fails to focus on what really matters. Critiquing convention and institutions has always been a prerogative of youth and I applaud Bethke's willingness to speak out publicly in a way that has elicited so much conversation about the nature of religion and spirituality. Certainly one can agree or disagree with Bethke's take on religion but it's difficult not to admire the way he has stirred up those of us who may have been slumbering comfortably in our own faith without really thinking about why we do what we do. Some times the best way to wake up a sleeping giant is to poke it with a stick and Bethke has done just that.
As I took time last week to read multiple blog posts and essays from pastors giving their own opinions on the video, I began to wonder "How are teens and young adults reacting to Bethke's message?" I've been blessed in recent years to work with some very intelligent, thoughtful, and opinionated progressive Christian youth and so I asked a few of them to share their thoughts on the ideas behind "Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus." Though all of these youth are or have been active in the Church to one degree or another, I wouldn't describe any of them as hardcore defenders of the faith, which perhaps makes the following responses even more instructive:
Abbie, High School Senior: "Not all religion is bad. This guy would know nothing about Jesus or the Bible without it. Obviously he has made many, many inaccurate over-generalizations, and includes a few misunderstood/fabricated 'quotes from the Bible.' However, I too am concerned about the hypocritical nature that organized religion often evinces. He's right when he says that Jesus came not to condemn, but to be compassionate, and many people who claim to be religious often miss this important, and defining, characteristic of Jesus' ministry. I really liked/agreed with his line that said 'If grace is like water, then the church should be an ocean' but I felt like he was ready to tie up all 'religious' people and drown them in that ocean. I am disgusted by many things done in the name of God or religion: the enslavement of generations of African people, the oppression of anyone female, the judgment and harassment sometimes ending in violence or murder of anyone LGBT&mash;the list goes on and on and on. He's totally right when he says that's part of what Jesus came to end, but a ton of churches and individuals are doing just that. He's got a lot of good points, but he needs to come up with a more diplomatic, educated, less-over-generalized way of expressing them."
Will, High School Senior: "Yeah, Jesus said (or the Bible says he said) most of those things, but if religion didn't exist no one (Bethke included) would know or believe any of those things. I think Bethke gives himself too much credit for these ideas. These are things that people have said about the Church for centuries and part of why different sects have broken off . . . because they thought they could give Jesus his due. Not to mention Bethke seems to use the term religion to mean Christianity when it doesn't. If he said he loved Jesus but detested large organized denominations of Christianity it would make more sense, but because he hates religion (the idea of belief and spirituality) it seems to denounce part of the point he is attempting to make. His confession in belief of the word of Jesus is a belief in religion and spirituality, not to mention the fact that he never mentions any religion besides Christianity but denounces all faithfulness. I think Bethke needs to stop and consider the implications of what he is saying. Why denounce faith and not work to increase other's belief in Jesus or their ability to do good in the world instead?"