It has been three years since a four-minute video called “Why I Hate Religion But Love Jesus” caused something of a stir among American Christians, sending ripples into the wider culture as well. The video features a young man named Jefferson Bethke performing, in something of a rap or hip-hop style, the text of a poem he wrote to contrast true Christian faith with “religion.” Since its release, it has been viewed more than 29 million times on YouTube.
The video is very well done, clearly a professional production with high quality sound and impressive graphics. I have worked in broadcasting, and I commend the producers of this piece for their attention to detail and their commitment to excellence. In fact, I think its quality as a video production, as in the case of most pop and rock music videos, greatly increased its popularity. The same content, simply read or recited, minus the slick production values, would not likely have gone viral. (And once again, Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that “the medium is the message” proves uncannily and disturbingly accurate.)
Jefferson Bethke was, I believe, 21 years old when this video came out. From all I can tell, he was, at the time, a thoughtful young man and a committed Christian, although I have not followed his pilgrimage closely. I did read some of what he wrote on Facebook and Twitter, and he seemed remarkably grounded in his faith and admirably humble in response to his critics.
He was, however, wrong when he juxtaposed Jesus and religion. Contrary to what Jefferson Bethke said in that video, Jesus did not hate religion. Nor should we.
Jesus was a devout Jew. He observed Jewish holy days (such as Passover) and attended synagogue services. One of his most important sermons was delivered in the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. He was addressed as “rabbi” by people who probably had never seen him before, leading many (including me) to assume that he wore some kind of distinctive attire, the first-century Jewish equivalent of a clerical collar.
To assert, as Bethke did, that religion causes wars is tantamount to blaming the divorce rate on marriage or suggesting that politics is responsible for corruption among elected officials. In each of these cases, it is a distortion of the institution that has produced the undesirable effect. It is, in fact, the human practitioners and participants who have done such damage to marriage, to politics, and yes, to religion.
It is no secret that Jesus locked horns with the leaders of the Jewish religious establishment on more than one occasion. It was not Jewish religion that perturbed him, however. It was the distortion and abuse of it by its leaders that so rankled Jesus.
It broke his heart to see that institutions intended by God to encourage genuine faith had been turned into a mechanism by which unscrupulous and power-hungry men could control and manipulate the well-intentioned faithful. When he pointed out their self-righteousness and hypocrisy, the religious establishment—which had taken on a political and judicial role among first-century Jews—conspired to silence him. Eventually they succeeded, albeit only briefly, by coercing the Roman governor of Judea into yielding to their demands that Jesus be put to death.
All of this notwithstanding, I still disagree with young Bethke’s blanket condemnation of religion. In lumping into the generic category of religion every distasteful, even repugnant, characteristic of people who claim to be religious but show little evidence of an encounter with God, he has thrown the baby out with the bath water. That is, in fact, what I find so objectionable about this video.
I fear that it may exacerbate an unsettling trend in contemporary Christianity. That is, it may encourage people, young people especially, to abandon the institutional church altogether. It could increase the perception that true Christian faith is an individualized experience, a “Jesus and me” proposition that requires no involvement with or participation in an organized faith community of any sort. That would be an unfortunate consequence of a well-meaning endeavor.
Jesus did not hate religion. He condemned self-righteousness, hypocrisy, greed, pride, injustice, and oppression. So should we. Jesus criticized those who misused their religious authority and distorted the tenets of their faith in order to advance their own interests and increase their power. So should we. Jesus longed for his people, the Jews, to recognize in him the fulfillment to which their religion pointed. But he never taught that people of faith should abandon all structure and organization, which human social interaction requires in order to encourage meaningful relationships and provide appropriate accountability.
Insofar as the church and organized religion have lost sight of the true purpose they are to serve in God’s kingdom, they need to be renewed and reformed. Let’s pray for revival of true religion, but let’s not abandon the idea nor forsake the institution. Jesus didn’t.