Yesterday my wife drew my attention to this edgy hip hoppy poetic video by a guy called Jeff Bethke about Jesus v Religion which has gone very "viral" on youtube and is popping up all over the place in social media. The use of poetry is very clever and the video is well presented but I got a lot of red flags the first time I watched this. Have a look and see what you think . . .
This video serves as a great example of why pastors must train their flocks to practice biblical discernment. The fact that ultra liberal websites like Sojourners (run by Jim Wallis) love this video affirmed a lot of my initial fears about the type of people who would gravitate towards a video like this. This was also confirmed by the people I know who posted this video on Facebook but aren't too fond of biblical Christianity.
Bethke does say a lot of things that are true, which is a great way to package something deceptive or leave something too vague on a lot of points. And my initial impression was that a lot of Bethke's terms were too vague, undefined, and sometimes missed the point. Did Jesus die to set us free from the bondage of religion? Chapter and verse please Jeff because that is not what I read in my Bible (try reading Romans 3:10-26). Is all religion bad Jeff because the book of James tells us that:
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 1:27)
I don't think Bethke would disagree with the Epistle of James but it does highlight the need for him too tighten up his use of language and define his terms more clearly. His railing on self-righteousness is absolutely correct but again there is too much missing information. If I was a prostitute watching this I could easily feel like a victim who can receive affirmation from Jesus because those are the people Jesus hung out with. We need to remember that Jesus did hang out with drunks, whores, poor people, and pagans - but He also hung out with sober people, chaste people, rich people, and Pharisees. He hung out with all types of people because all types of people are sinners and he told them things like "go and sin no more" and often demanded repentance. Was Jesus imposing his religious legalism on these people? I wonder what Jeff Bethke would do with Jesus' closing words in Matthew chapter five (the Sermon on the Mount):
For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven . . . You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:20,48)
And this again points to the main meaning of the cross which gets completely missed in this video now seen by over 6 million people. Jesus death on the cross was necessary because of our violations of God's law. It was not to "set us free from religion" but to fulfill that law and then endure God's just wrath against sinful people. God's law requires sinless perfection which is why we require a Substitute to accomplish that in our place. Bethke may argue that the religion we need to be set free from is that of human works, but if that is the case then why didn't he point that out? Furthermore, the biblical reality is that sinful men are not pursuing God and trying to earn salvation. The Bible describes the sinner as "dead in trespasses" (Ephesians 2:1). Jesus describes the sinner (just after John 3:16) as someone who "loves darkness and hates the light", someone who will not will not come to the light because it will expose his evil works (John 3:19-20). So do we need freedom from religion, or do we need to repent from our sins and put our faith in the Author of the one and only True Religion?
Christianity is a religion as well, it's just that it is right and all the others are wrong because no other religion deals with atoning for our sin against a holy God. No other religion points to the finished work of Jesus instead of our futile and evil human efforts. That is why Jesus said "it is finished"!
I don't doubt that Jeff Bethke genuinely loves Jesus and wants to honor Him with this video. But redefining the core of the Christian faith is a very bad way to do that. Millions of undiscerning people are watching this every day and being deceived by a message that totally misrepresents the meaning of the cross. If Jeff loves Jesus he should apologize, pull the video down, and consider the option of remaking the video in a way that is faithful to the Gospel . . . like this one!
Here is some great and helpful discerning insights on the Jesus > Religion video courtesy of Jonathan D. Fitzgerald:
The poem is about “how the gospel of Jesus is the good news that breaks us free from the chains of religion.” Ah yes, the chains of religion. For four minutes, Bethke rhymes his way around all kinds of false dichotomies and outright bad theology.
He begins by suggesting that Jesus came to abolish religion, a popular claim among evangelicals, particularly those of the non-denominational persuasion, but one that has no theological foundation. He then goes on to say that “Republican doesn’t automatically mean Christian,” which is true, if not slightly off topic. Then, returning to the subject of religion, he plays right into the hand of the so-called New Atheists by asking “if religion is so great, why has it started so many wars?” There’s some stuff about single mothers, poor people, whores, and John the Baptist, all by way of showing the inconsistencies of religious people.
Religion, according to Bethke, never “gets to the core,” rather, he calls it “behavior modification” and says it’s like “a long list of chores.” Then he gets to what he’s actually talking about. See, he’s not actually on about religion, but about people whose expression of their faith doesn’t match his criteria. It’s not religious people he’s talking about, it’s what we used to call Sunday Christians. “It’s like saying you play for the Lakers just because you bought a jersey,” he says before digging into his own biography to show that he was once like you.
At just about 3 minutes, though, he returns to religion, claiming that “Jesus and religion are on opposite ends of the spectrum.” One is the work of god, he explains, and the other is “a man made invention” (slant rhyme). He continues, “one is the cure, and the other is the infection.” And now he’s on a roll, “religion says do, Jesus says done. Religion says slave, Jesus says son. Religion puts you in bondage, while Jesus sets you free. Religion makes you blind, but Jesus makes you see.” He is building toward this, “And that’s why religion and Jesus are two separate clans,” before his grand finale, ”So for religion, no I hate it. In fact, I literally resent it. Because when Jesus said ‘It is finished,’ I believe he meant it.”
Where do we begin? The number of false dichotomies and ridiculous claims is astounding. Religion is an infection? Religion puts you in bondage? Religion makes you blind? Is he just quoting Sam Harris here?
I believe Jesus meant it when he said, “It is finished,” as well, but I’m sure the “it” he meant wasn’t religion.
See the problem is, Bethke doesn’t mean religion either, but he’s rehearsing a popular evangelical trope, that the freedom that Christians find through Jesus is freedom from structure, organization, and authority. Of course, Bethke, like all Christians, is a member of a religion, he holds “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs,” as Dictionary.com defines it. What Bethke is actually railing against is people whose expression of religion doesn’t look like he believes it should. Thus, rather than discounting religion, he is just discounting other religions, or even just other manifestations of his own religion.
Had this poem, with its dramatic music and epic setting, simply been called “Sunday Christians,” and if every reference to religion was replaced by something like “hypocrisy,” this video would have been as easy to ignore as his others. But, here Bethke is doing far more harm than good by playing into hurtful stereotypes about religion–his religion and mine, as well as the other major world religions. Denouncing this video takes stepping outside of evangelical subculture to see its actual implications beyond our little playground, but doing so, I think, is extremely important.
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