The “R” Word

A recent video has struck a chord with many people and it has spread like wildfire through social media, getting millions of views in only a couple of days. I was originally going to refrain from commenting about it, because I feel whatever needs to be said probably already has been said, but I eventually could not resist writing about a tension I saw surrounding this entire situation.  It’s going to take a while for me to get to my main point, so lets begin shall we.

Everyone hates religion, but what do we mean by that?

First, here is the video in question, Jeff Bethke’s spoken word piece “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus”:

The lyrics can be found here. 

Bethke’s words are certainly powerful, I agree with much of it and appreciate his artistic talent and the way which he communicated his message. I deeply value his ability to be transparent about his past sins. To those that know my testimony or read my blog is should come as no shock that I deeply resonated with his story of pretending to be a good church kid while concealing a sexual addiction to pornography.

His main message is that religion is bad, Jesus is good and both he (Bethke) and Jesus hate religion. It is this hatred of religion that I think struck a chord with so many people and is why this video has exploded in popularity and discussion.  If Bethke just did a spoken word piece on why he loved Jesus, it would not have caused such a stir.  It is his declaration of hatred for religion that is drawing criticism, praise and conversation like a lightning rod.

This hatred of religion is nothing new.  Many people throughout history have decried religion and it has been blamed for a variety of evils and injustices in the world.  For my generation in particular it appears religion is absolutely anathema.  We are the generation that may describe ourselves as “spiritual” but never as “religious.”

This hatred is so deep that calling someone the “R” word (“religious”) is basically an accusation, not just a description.

But what do we mean when you use religion as a pejorative term or a slur? Usually, when used as a slur, this word signals someone or something that is legalistic, judgmental, performance based, hypocritical, self-righteous, homophobic, selfish, politically compromised (usually by the Republican party), graceless, violent, insecure, controlling, and conforming. I am sure some people would add or remove some of these traits and Bethke himself hits on some of these traits but not all of them, but I think this is a fair snapshot of what people having in mind when they accuse someone of being “religious.”

For the most part, it is really these negative traits that are hated when people talk of hating religion. Most people I know are not categorically against organized religion.  They are not against religious people  having a set of beliefs, or worshiping in a certain way, or gathering to pray, or reading holy books, or even treating others in a certain way as inspired by their religion. While some people might just hate organized religion, most people usually just hate these negative traits.  This is why there are even people from organized religions that talk of hating religion.  This is not as insane as it seems as someone can be part of an organized religion, but still hate these negative traits everyone else does.

The deeper issue is that many of these negative traits (legalism, judgmental attitudes, self-righteousness, hypocrisy, etc.) have become, rightly or wrongly, associated with organized religions and/or religious people.  It is believed that religious people are more prone to these traits and/or that religion actively instills these negative traits into people.

I believe this association comes from an unbalanced but not unfounded perspective. On one hand, many religious people are ordinary people who are trying to do the best they can with what they have. They do not exhibit most of these traits or take them to degrees beyond what is common to humanity. In addition to this, I know people who exhibit many of these negative traits but have nothing to do with religion or spirituality. However, on the other hand, with things like Rick Perry’s advertisement and Ted Haggard’s scandal, can we really blame people associating religion, especially Christianity, with the negative traits inherent in these situations?

Does Jesus hate religion?

Before continuing I should make two comments about Jesus and religion.

First, there are aspects of what we call “organized religion” that Jesus did not come to abolish and Jesus certainly does not hate. I do not think it can be said that Jesus came to abolish belief or public teaching or communal worship or the reading of scriptures or morality or ethics or many other aspects of organized religion. I think many bloggers and commentators who reacted against Bethke’s attack on religion were defending these aspects of religion and not the negative traits that he was really targeting.

That being said I think our modern concept of organized religion is way too narrow and compartmentalized to represent what Jesus called us to.  Organized religion often functions as just a descriptor of how someone lives in their personal life or a set personal beliefs they mentally assent to.

Jesus has claimed Lordship over our entire lives and this entire world.  Confessing Jesus as Lord is not about making sure to get your individual spot in heaven after you die.  Confessing Jesus as Lord should change every aspect of how you live, including how you treat other believers, how you treat those who are not like you, and especially how you treat your enemies. Followers of Jesus are called to be the people and family of God. In this, what followers of Jesus are called to goes far beyond the contemporary notion of an organized religion.

Second, regardless of how fair it is to associate these negative traits with religion, these traits are evil and it is fair to say Jesus does hate them. The Bible as a whole and Jesus’ teachings in particular make this abundantly clear.  Part of the reason Jesus rebuked certain religious Jews was because they were neck-deep in these traits. It was not the fact that they prayed that upset Him, but how they prayed that upset Him.  It was not the fact that they read the scriptures that upset Him, it is what they did with those scriptures and their teachings. It was not the fact that they believed in sin and morality that upset Him, it was how hypocritical they were in their application of these beliefs.

I should take the time to remind everyone that eventually some Pharisees did become followers of Jesus.  There is hope, even for people who do embody the negative traits associated with religion that God does hate. God is willing to forgive and adopt every kind of broken person into His family, including people who are recovering from hypocrisy, judgmental attitudes, homophobia, nationalism, legalism, etc.

So far I feel I have been Captain Obvious of the blogosphere, so on my next page I will share about what really prompted me to write on this topic…

About Speakfaithfully

I am figuring out life and faith and taking other people along with me on my journey. Sometimes as fellow travelers, sometimes as hostages.
This entry was posted in Faith, Personal Commentary and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The “R” Word

  1. jrlookingbill says:

    ‘Captain Obvious’ can be very much forgiven so long as he admits to his own failings, which you have done eloquently. What’s more, others are challenged by this to do less work ‘hating religion’ and more looking in the mirror. I hope other people make us of this because I must not be the problem. 😉

  2. Phil Bjornberg says:

    Reinforces what I learned in a community of broken folks participating with God’s grace to practice daily progress not perfection: “Today I know that I am the problem.” Thanks for laying yourself out there Kevin.

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