Can you hate religion, but still love Jesus?
A video claiming “Jesus came to abolish religion” went viral on the internet last week and now stands at over 15.5 million views. It clearly speaks to the Zeitgeist, even if attracting a barrage of criticism at the same time.
In the midst of all this attention, the 22-year-old creator of “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus”, Jefferson Bethke, is expressing his desire to remain calm and humble. For him, it’s all about the grace of Jesus – he claims no credit for himself.
That is very admirable, but the video has rightly received a lot of critical comments. Many good responses have come from Christians who disagree with Bethke’s basic premise in a charitable and constructive way. See below for a quick round-up of the most imaginative, thoughtful and charitable Catholic responses – and a comment on just why this video is so popular. But first, here is the original video, if you haven’t seen it yet:
Now, the responses. Let’s start with ‘Fr Pontifex’, a hip-hopping priest of the Phat Mass ministry, who very closely imitates the original video while coming to a radically different conclusion:
For an apparent contrast, try ‘DB Disciple’, a Salesian priest (the DB stands for ‘Don Bosco’). Notice that the modern church architecture, the red jacket and the beard are just superficial differences: the video techniques, the style of ‘spoken word’ and the actual content of his message are all similar to Fr Pontifex.
Here’s a shorter one, with a Catholic MC rapping over chant. He speaks of the saints as witnesses to the truth of the Catholic religion. “See it’s sin that is the problem, only sin and not religion; for the Church that you indicted is the Bride of He Who’s risen.”
As Bethke shows, the internet is a great place for the young to be heard. It’s encouraging, then, to see this Catholic teenager responding with the same enthusiasm and sincerity:
If you watch any of these videos, you’ll see there are some major holes in Bethke’s argument, though it does also contain a lot that is true. I’m sure you have many reasons of your own.
Now, here’s the interesting question. Why has this video become so popular, when its argument is flawed? Fr Robert Barron thinks it is partly about the American preoccupation with freedom from institutions, and traces the religious impulse back to Luther in particular. But the video has resonated with a global audience, not just Americans. Still, Fr Barron is right to associate it with the contemporary mantra of “spiritual but not religious”, which for Bethke’s kind of evangelicalism becomes “Christian but not religious”.
Is it actually possible to be “Christian but not religious”? Jefferson Bethke has clarified that, for him and his Mars Hill megachurch in Seattle, ‘the word “religion” is pretty much synonymous with hypocrisy, legalism, self-righteousness, and self-justification’. But that is clearly not what “religion” means in ordinary English. The Bible itself uses “religion” in a positive sense: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (Jas. 1:27) If we can agree that there is a good kind of religion, then using it to mean all those pejorative things is little more than a provocative trick to gain attention. It sounds like a rhetorical trope, a slogan or buzzword, to push a particular religious point of view. But we should resist this misuse of language, as Orwell warned: “the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts”.
The power and poetry of these videos – both the original and its spin-offs – are compelling when you see them for the first time. This medium really speaks to people. But does it distract from what the words actually say? A slick presentation can mask mistaken thinking. We need to unpack our hidden assumptions, our prejudices, our suppressed premises, and discuss them openly. Otherwise, we risk lapsing into fanaticism or superstition, which St Thomas Aquinas intriguingly defines as “a vice contrary to religion by excess”. We need more than rhetoric; we need sound theology; we need the Church. Nothing else can provide a solid foundation for true religion.
So let’s take the discussion forward on a theological basis. In the interview cited above, Bethke summarises his theological point: “Religion picks the bad fruit off the tree when Jesus just plants a new tree. That’s essentially the crux, the root, and the core of my poem.” The argument is that human beings have no good inside them, until we accept Jesus as Lord. Catholic theology, however, is baffled by this Calvinistic idea of ‘total depravity’. If people are trees that can bear good or bad fruit (Mt. 7:16-20), removing the tree surely means destroying the person. Jesus doesn’t plant a new tree. He is the gardener who helps the tree to grow and “bear fruit – fruit that will last” (Jn. 15:16). Jesus loves us as we are, despite our sin (Rm. 5:8). He takes all that we are, all that we have, and all that we do, and lovingly transforms us by his grace.
Just as he spoke of religion itself, “the Law and the Prophets” (Mt. 5:17), so we are reassured by the Church that Jesus Christ came not to abolish us, but to fulfil us.