Friday, March 2, 2012

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Jesus vs. Religion? Yes and No.

So I've brooded over this long enough.  It seems like everyone has had something to say about Jefferson Bethke's video by now.  My revolutionary friend Bill over at For the Sake of the Gospel has expressed some sympathy for his views, while most of my more orthodox friends are more critical.  So let's discuss ...

We need to begin with Jefferson's poem.  Here it is for the few of you who haven't seen it yet.



Among the most well-known of responses to this--which Bill also cites--is that of Kevin DeYoung.  While he's critical of many parts of the video, he begins with this important statement, one which I agree with wholeheartedly:
... Jefferson Bethke seems like a sincere young man who wants people to know God’s scandalous grace. I’m sure he’s telling the truth when he says on his Facebook page: “I love Jesus, I’m addicted to grace, and I’m just a messed up dude trying to make Him famous.” If I met him face to face, I bet I’d like Jefferson and his honesty and passion. I bet I’d be encouraged by his story and his desire to free people from the snares of self-help, self-righteous religion.
Amen and amen!

Kevin then does a very thorough job of deconstructing the poem, which I won't confuse matters by trying to replicate here.  I will merely encourage you to read it in full and add what stands out to me.

First, Jefferson's most obvious problem is in setting up a false dichotomy between Jesus and religion, rather than reflecting the biblical dichotomy between pure religion and worthless religion.  I appeal here to James:
If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.  (James 1:26-27)
There's a little more to this than semantics.  Kevin rightly notes that Jesus was not exactly hostile to all religious practices.  What he couldn't stand was those which masked the practioners' hard-heartedness.  In other words, the problem was not that they were religious, but that their religion was proved worthless by their actions.

Semantics do matter, however, which is part of the problem.  Dean Roberts appeals to the dictionary to make the point that nowhere in the very bland definition of "religion" do you find the caricature Jefferson describes.  So why are we having this discussion?  Ah, for that we must refer to a different dictionary:
Religion - The biggest lie in human history. It has been responsible for more deaths throughout human history than all other unnatural causes combined. For a thousand years the Church was a tyrannical dictatorship that used religion to control the uneducated masses. Free your minds and come into the 21st century.
Of course, the Urban Dictionary is hardly known for its academic, dispassionate definitions.  Still, it is something of a weathervane for seeing which way the cultural winds are blowing.  The reason we need to listen to brothers like Jefferson is that they provide us important information about our own culture, which is the environment in which ministry happens.  In this case, it's important for my orthodox friends to understand that in the prevailing culture, the dictionary definition of "religion" his hardly the consensus.  Jefferson's views are important because they are prevalent, and that fact demands the church's attention.

Still, this is not to say I don't have problems with Jefferson's approach.  By accepting the prevailing culture's caricatures, he throws a lot of very faithful believers under the bus.  Again to Kevin here:
More to the point, Christians need to stop perpetuating the myth that we’ve basically been huge failures in the world. That may win us an audience with non-Christians, but it’s not true. We are sinners like everyone else, so our record is mixed. We’ve been stupid and selfish over the years. But we’ve also been the salt of the earth. The evangelical awakening in England in the eighteenth century is widely credited for preventing the sort of bloodbath that swept over France in the “enlightened” French Revolution. Christians ... give more to charitable causes than their secular counterparts. Christians run countless shelters, pregnancy centers, rescue missions, and food pantries. Christians operate orphanages, staff clinics, dig wells, raise crops, teach children, and fight AIDS around the globe. While we can always do more and may be blind to the needs around us at times, there is no group of people on the planet that do more for the poor than Christians. If you know of a church with a dozen escalators and no money and no heart for the hurting, then blast that church. But we have to stop the self-flagellation and the slander that says Christians do nothing for the poor.
Finally, I suppose something should be said about Jefferson's gratuitous slap at Republicans.  There are hypocrites across the political spectrum.  But there are also devoted lovers of Jesus.  I've taken note before of the tendency for the church to over-rely on political solutions, and that's a real problem, but it's a real problem for everyone.

So in response to Bill's question, "How Would You Respond to Jefferson?" I would offer this:  Dear brother Jefferson, I admire your passion, and I appreciate the call to authenticity.  Your energy is needed, but beware of the arrogance of youth.  Or to shamelessly quote myself circa 2009:
Arrogance and ingratitude are endemic to our sinful condition, and the young are especially vulnerable, as they have not yet been chastised by the hard lessons of years. Most of us learned to despise the wisdom of our elders from an early age, and then had to unlearn that hubris the hard way. As a young believer, I quickly grew to be an "expert" in many things, and I have grown progressively "dumber" over the years, as the experience of those years has exposed me to my limitations. We naturally cling to our vanity and pride until God lets us follow them to their logical, humiliating conclusion.
So that's the trick.  We need to hear the call to constant reformation and renewal enunciated by Jefferson (and shared by many), without being sucked in by the accompanying judgmentalism toward our brothers and sisters, or over-identifying with the world's cynical dismissal of all things "religious".  We need a "religion that is pure and undefiled before God."

10 comments:

  1. On religion, true and false:

    There is One True and Living God, who has manifested Himself in history, ultimately in the Person of His Son. True religion is worship of Him and service for Him, as He has revealed Himself, and as He has told us He desires to be worshipped and served. Graciously, He has made this possible for us.

    BUT He has enemies, over whom He will ultimately triumph, but who presently seek to pervert His creation and the religion He has established. Some of this perversion establishes cults - for instance Muhammad's - outside of Christ's church. But some of it - a lot of it, really! - seeks to deform it from within. As the hymn says, "there are false sons in her pale". All this has been true from the beginning. In particular, it's been true from the beginning of the New Covenant church.

    So we can have no real issue with a believer who wakes up one day and grasps that there is a lot that goes on in Christ's church that is, in reality, anti-Christian. However, if, in his pride, he decides to "throw the baby out with the bathwater", our response should be to defend "the baby" AND to warn this believer that his soul is in real danger: Any number of others have begun where he has and have ended up in some truly abominable places, very far from Christ. A well-crafted on-line video doesn't really make what he's doing new.

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  2. Hey, Jailer, thanks for stopping by my blog. Just so your readers can see the questions I posed on my blog, I'm posting a few of them below for their consideration in this matter......

    ......Do we dismiss the entire truth of his message (i.e. Jesus and religion is not the same) simply because of the way he chose to express himself? Is truth only truth when presented by an "authority," or is truth itself the authority even when it's from a most unlikely source? At what point do we ask if there's a lesson in here for us as the people of God? Why so little discussion among ourselves about ourselves? Why so much about him and his character and the parsing of words?

    For the sake of the Gospel, how might our attitudes and actions need to change so as to ensure that the clarity of our message is not being muddled by the "baggage" that Jefferson speaks of? As important as it is, is it solely an issue of embracing sound doctrine, or could there be more to this matter that we simply "don't get?" If so, what?

    Jefferson's message needs to be taken seriously by the people of God, in my opinion, but it requires a certain degree of humility on our part to do so. I'm afraid that the fact that we are mostly unable to do so only confirms the heart of his message, which to me is regrettable.

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  3. Hi Bill,

    A couple of problems with your argument and its premises. One is that, to channel my favorite George Will quote, "You are a pyromaniac in a field of straw men". I don't know of anyone who argues that Jesus and religion are the same, or who rejects Jefferson's message merely because he's not a recognized authority. Actually, I would say at present that since he is currently out on a speaking tour, he has become much more of a recognized authority than either of us. As of this writing, Jefferson Bethke has 41,580 Twitter followers. Franklin Graham (son of Billy, director of a major nonprofit org, frequently in the news) has only 13,681. Uh, the Jailer has ... um, 73.

    Secondly, is there indeed "so little discussion among ourselves about ourselves"? Are we "mostly unable" to take him seriously? I'm inclined to think there is more discussion about ourselves than ever, in part due to the fragmentation of the church, the historically low regard in which the Western church has come to be held, and the explosion of "new media outlets (Jefferson's video has been viewed nearly 20 million times)! On the whole, it seems to me he's been taken extremely seriously.

    My sense of the matter is that the danger lies in the opposite direction, that of the bandwagon effect. It's important to discuss what 20 million YouTube viewers are discussing, but it's also important to pay attention to where the bandwagon might be taking you. I think there is room for an evenhanded discussion about the content of his message. Criticism of the church should not be considered out of bounds, but neither should all criticism be accepted uncritically. Humility is important all the way around.

    Grace to you, dear brother and friend. I always enjoy our discussions.

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  4. P.S. - Please accept the "pyromaniac" line in the spirit of fun with which it was intended. George Will used it when talking to Sam Donaldson once and I thought it was hilarious. :)

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  5. He's got 10s of thousands of Twitter followers and is out on a speaking tour.

    So he's got followers and so, by definition, could be called a "sect leader" (from the latin, "sequi", "to follow"). One wonders what concrete organizational form this will take, as time goes on. If it's concrete enough, it will be hard to avoid speculating about a new "religious body", which will be, at the very least, ironic.

    Sects tend to become cults when their leader adopts positions which cut him - and with him, his faithful followers - off from communion with Christians. That has the effect of binding the followers to him: They "circle the wagons". It's a sad commentary on the state of today's church that Mr. Bethke's views on the visible church aren't heretical enough to cut him off from very many Christians, but Christian history is full of other candidates that would do the trick. My personal view is that this could easily be in the cards here. That may seem uncharitable, but I didn't see a whole lot of humility in what I saw of that video, not to mention Twitter and the speaking tour.

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  6. Well, Presbyter, I'm not anywhere close to that level of alarm. I think he's having his 15 minutes of fame, which will likely subside as the bandwagon ambles along to the next big thing (which in today's media environment should be along right ... about ...).

    As for, "It's a sad commentary on the state of today's church that Mr. Bethke's views on the visible church aren't heretical enough to cut him off from very many Christians ...", I think the sad state of the church is rather the point, though of course not in the same sense you suggest.

    Nor am I inclined to cut him off, as I have a much more hopeful view of him. He states his point rhythmically, adolescently and erroneously, but I'm not willing to invoke the severe implications of the "H" word. Having had the chance to look over his various statements and other videos, I generally agree with Pastor DeYoung that Jefferson Bethke appears to be a young and sincere Christian who, as is the case with many young believers, is inclined to rather extreme levels of confidence and sweeping judgments. He currently has a bigger microphone than most.

    I pray that he will learn humility and accept correction (a goal we should all aspire to), which is no doubt difficult when you're young and being widely revered. However, if Christ is at work in him then his long-term prospects are good.

    Grace and peace to you.

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  7. It finally occurred to me to check. Google led me to a David Brooks article, which led me to this one:

    http://www.christianpost.com/news/why-i-hate-religion-but-love-jesus-poet-jefferson-bethke-talks-jesus-religion-67470/

    I guess that leads me to Proverbs 18:13: "If one gives an answer before he hears, that is his folly and shame."

    Mr. Bethke recanted. I certainly do. We can leave my comment on sects and cults as an example to others who, in the words of one of my colleagues, "put their mind in neutral and charge full-speed ahead".

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    Replies
    1. Wow! That's an amazing article! So amazing I felt it deserved its own follow-up post: http://www.philippianjailer.com/2012/03/jesus-vs-religion-ii-jefferson-bethke.html

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