Sunday, January 22, 2012

My Objections to Yours

Jefferson Bethke...friend or foe?

I realize I am entering this conversation a little late, but I promised a friend I would write about the viral video, so here I go.  Answering a controversy effectively, requires much time and careful thought and I acknowledge that I have only invested a fraction of what I probably should have before going public.  Nevertheless, this is the best I've got for now, so here's my slightly-reactionary, slightly-analytical take on Bethke's video and the ensuing public debate.

I would be remiss in not posting the actual video, so give it a look and a careful listen...AGAIN, even if you've already seen it.  While listening through this several times, I wrote down the text which I've posted below....I hope I didn't make any errors in quoting Bethke's words.  ( I chose to break it into 4-line verses, which may not have been his original intent...)

It is also important to highlight the commentary which accompanied the original YouTube video, but has been frequently overlooked:  "A poem I wrote to highlight the difference between Jesus and false religion. In the scriptures Jesus received the most opposition from the most religious people of his day. At it's core Jesus' gospel and the good news of the Cross is in pure opposition to self-righteousness/self-justification. Religion is man centered, Jesus is God-centered. This poem highlights my journey to discover this truth. Religion either ends in pride or despair. Pride because you make a list and can do it and act better than everyone, or despair because you can't do your own list of rules and feel "not good enough" for God. With Jesus though you have humble confident joy because He represents you, you don't represent yourself and His sacrifice is perfect putting us in perfect standing with God!"

What if I told you, Jesus came to abolish religion?
What if I told you voting Republican,  really wasn’t his mission?
What if I told you Republican doesn’t automatically mean Christian,
And just because you call some people "blind," doesn’t automatically give you vision.

I mean, if religion is so great, why has it started so many wars?
Why does it build huge churches, but fails to feed the poor?
Tells single moms God doesn’t love them if they’ve ever had a divorce,
But in the Old Testament, God actually calls religious people "whores."

Religion might preach grace, but another thing they practice.
Tend to ridicule God's people, they did it to John the Baptist.
They can't fix their problems, and so they just mask it,
Not realizing religion's like spraying perfume on a casket.

You see, the problem with religion is that it never gets to the core,
It’s just behavior modification, like a long list of chores.
Like "Let’s dress up the outside, make it look nice and neat."
But it's funny...that’s what they used to do to mummies, while the corpse rots underneath.

Now I ain’t judgin' I’m just saying', "Quit puttin' on a fake look."
'Cause there’s a problem if people only know you’re a Christian by your Facebook.
I mean, in every other aspect of life, you know that logic's unworthy -
It's like saying you play for the Lakers just because you bought a jersey.

See, this was me too, but no one seemed to be on to me.
Acting like a church kid, while addicted to pornography.
See on Sunday I'd go to church, but Saturday gettin' faded,
Acting as if I was simply created to have sex and get wasted.

See, I spent my whole life building this fa├žade of neatness,
But now that I know Jesus, I boast in my weakness.
Because if grace is water, then the church should be an ocean,
It's not a museum for good people, it’s a hospital for the broken.

Which means I don't have to hide my failure. I don’t have to hide my sin,
'Cause it doesn’t depend on me, it depends on him.
 See, when I was God's enemy and certainly not a fan,
He looked down and said, “I want that man!”

Which is why Jesus hated religion and for it he called 'em fools.
Don’t you see? So much better than just following some rules.
Now let me clarify:  I love the church.  I love the Bible.  And yes, I believe in sin.
But if Jesus came to your church, would they actually let him in?

Remember He was called a glutton and a drunkard by  “religious men.”
But the Son of God never supports self-righteousness - Not now.  Not then.
Now back to the point, one thing is vital to mention:
How Jesus and religion are on opposite spectrums.

See, one's the work of God,  but one's a man made invention,
One is the cure, but the other's the infection.
Because 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.
And that's why religion and Jesus are two different clans.
Religion is man searching for God; Christianity is God searching for man.

Which is why salvation is freely mine, and forgiveness is my own;
Not based on my merits, but Jesus's obedience alone.
Because he took the crown of thorns, and the blood dripped down his face;
He took what we all deserved, I guess that’s why you call it "Grace."

And while being murdered, he yelled “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do!"
Because when he was dangling on that cross, he was thinking of you.
And he absorbed all your sin, and he buried it in the tomb,
Which is why I'm kneeling at the cross saying, "Come on...there’s room."

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.

So there it is...this controversial video which has generated 16,000,000 views and hundreds of comments, blog posts, and video responses.  Wow.  There is no way I can speak to every statement of his that has been critiqued, nor to every debate that has been raised in its shadow (like how great the Pharisees were b/c their theology was precise and most close to Jesus's own...etc.).  I'll keep it simple and only address a couple of the most predominant accusations.

One of the primary criticisms leveled by Christians has been Bethke's use of the word "religion."  Those of you who know me well, know that words matter to me.  Every word has an etymological origin from which its most basic definition is drawn and from which it should never be entirely severed.   But words rarely remain static...they also carry cultural and contextual meaning.  This viability of language is unavoidable, and accounts for common linguistic decisions such as not declaring, "I'm feeling unusually gay today."   Though the word "gay" in its history and origin implies nothing of homosexuality, modern context dictates the ways we choose to use  and not use the word.  Does that mean we are conceding its improper use rather than reclaiming it in its redemptive context?  Perhaps. But we have the gift of MANY words at our disposal which can communicate the same idea, emotion or truth while avoiding controversy or potential misunderstanding, so we generally avoid its more archaic use.   

The word "religion" is no different.  It too has an the Latin, of course!  Religio means sanction or constraint and it is historically associated with the words obligare and religare, which both mean to  restrain, to tie back, to impede, to bind fast.  Throughout history, the word has been used to refer to a variety of systems that include beliefs, rites, rituals and sanctions for living.  Its use has never referred exclusively to The Church or fact, its broad  application to "false religions" has led many Christians to abandon its positive use for decades, even denouncing its use to reference Christianity.  I think Bethke's use of the word is not inconsistent with its origin nor with its historical use.  (Noah Webster's 1828 dictionary is the only source I could find linking the word primarily to Christianity.  This too is a reflection of the time and culture in which he lived, as well as his personal beliefs.)  To accuse Bethke of highjacking the word from its origin,  definition, and common use is a bit disingenuous.

Because he was supposedly using the word "religion" outside of its ordinary use, Bethke has been repeatedly advised to "define his terms."  Yet, if you listen to him, he makes it infinitely clear what he does and doesn't mean by "religion."  He carefully defines religion as an outward display of self-righteousness that is inconsistent with the state of the heart.  His language echoes that of Christ, who called such people "white-washed tombs," while Bethke uses parallel imagery of a mummy...beautified on the outside but full of death on the inside.  The young man is right.  Religion, as he defines it in his poem, IS on the opposite spectrum of The Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

Think about it.  Most of us would concede that the same is true of the word "spirituality," which many of us avoid because of its common, rather distorted use.  Even though its thoroughly Christian use means "of the Holy Spirit," this is not the modern cultural sense of the word at all.  Bethke could just as easily have said, "Why I Hate Spirituality, But Love Jesus" and we should have understood that too, because "Of the Holy Spirit" is a GOOD THING, but "spirituality" as popularly understood is AN ENEMY of The Gospel!  

He goes out of his way to clarify that he is NOT speaking of The Church or The Bible, or even Christianity.  And by the way, where were all the critics when Peter Leithart published his book titled, Against Christianity?!  How is this any different?  Both men use a term provocatively in order to get our attention and make valid points.  I don't recall anyone calling Leithart to account for his misleading use of the word.  And his defense of the negative use of "Christianity" is much less accessible to the population than Bethke's.  But of course, Leithart is not an easy target.  He's an intellectual giant with a reputation for nuance within the bounds of orthodoxy.  If you challenge him, you sure as hell better know your stuff.  Bethke, however, is just "some young punk using the web irresponsibly to communicate theological error."  Hmmm.

Conclusion #1: Bethke clearly defines the way in which he is using the word religion, and his use reflects a common cultural understanding.

The next major criticism is that Bethke was not scrupulous enough in his theology.  He has repeatedly been accused of belittling obedience and promoting lawlessness.   The truth is, he never sets up this dichotomy between obedience and grace or relationship and rules.  In fact, he very clearly points out that in his personal movement from religion to Christ, he was transformed from a law breaker into a  law keeper!!  Not a self-righteous slave to the law, but an obedient son to his Father.  

Perhaps we've reacted strongly to Bethke's words because we don't take kindly to having some of our most glaring failures highlighted.  As professing Christians, we often have placed our trust in politicians; we often do pursue size, prestige and success while neglecting the poor and rejecting real sinners who are seeking grace.  We older Christians should take heed to the rebukes of the younger generation and humble ourselves enough to hear and consider their accusations.

It disturbs me greatly that Bethke is being called out for his lack of theological precision.  Do we really think so highly of ourselves as to suggest that any public words about Jesus and the Gospel demand the theological precision of a seminary professor, or of a council composing an official credal statement?    How shamefully arrogant!  

Here is a 23-year-old kid who never imagined he'd receive such widespread influence.  He is taking Jesus and His life-giving, grace-filled Gospel seriously and applying its truths to his own life.  And I find it impressive that his criticisms were leveled without a tone of disrespect or bitterness.  This is evidence of an active faith and the work of the Holy Spirit, which should prompt us to rejoice, not publicly mock or disparage the kid!  Bethke is responding in faith, with truth, and without hatefulness to the realities of his own life experience with religion.  Isn't that the point after all??

Conclusion #2:  While he may not have been as theologically precise as some would like, Bethke denounces hypocritical Pharisaism (as did Christ Himself), and he promotes the work, merit and grace of Jesus Christ!  Whatever way The Gospel is preached, I rejoice!

Finally, (and somewhat lamely...), I'll address the issue of brotherly confrontation.  I find it interesting that many chose to publicly chatise Bethke's video without contacting him personally.  While many of the critiques I read were fairly gracious and careful in their criticisms, they were all presented publicly FIRST (which in response to a public proclamation is not entirely unwarranted, but I am particularly sensitive to this issue because of what my pastor has been through...).  

In contrast, Bethke responded privately and with grand displays of humility and grace to his public contenders. For example, in his correspondence with Kevin DeYoung of The Gospel Coalition (with whom Bethke initiated the conversation after reading DeYoung's online response to the video), he writes:

I just wanted to say I really appreciate your article man.  It hit me hard.  I'll even be honest and say I agree 100%.   God has been working with me in the last 6 months on loving Jesus AND loving his church.  For the first few years of walking with Jesus (started in '08) I had a warped/poor paradigm of the church and it didn't build up, unify, or glorify His wife (the Bride).  If I can be brutally honest I didn't think this video would get much over a couple thousand views maybe, and because of that, my points/theology wasn't as air-tight as I would've liked.  If I redid the video tomorrow, I'd keep the overall message, but would articulate, elaborate, and expand on the parts where my words and delivery were chosen poorly...My prayer is my generation would represent Christ faithfully and not swing to the other spectrum...thankful for your words and more importantly thankful for your tone and fatherly like grace on me as my elder.  Humbled.  Blessed.  Thankful for painful growth.  Blessings.  

Grace and Peace,


Even though I was already in this kid's corner, this response made me even more so.  What a mature and gracious response, devoid of bitterness, arrogance and even defensiveness.  

Sometimes, I fear, we heady Christians are too eager to demonstrate our intellectual acuity by being more "discerning" than the low masses who approved of  Bethke's video.  This is made most clear by our analytical denouncement of any statement we deem as theologically inferior.  And YES...I realize the irony of that statement as I so discerningly naysay the naysayers - I am definitely not immune from the same temptation.

Conclusion #3: Perhaps we should consider private rebuke before public rebuke, and take the time to learn the person's heart and theology BEFORE we react.   And certainly, we can all learn from and seek to emulate the humility exercised by Jefferson Bethke in his willingness to be rebuked and in his desire to promote the gracious Gospel of our Lord Jesus.

May we learn to encourage, rather than censor, young folks whose commitment to Christ prompts them to speak openly of their trust in Him.  May we seek to cultivate maturity in them and not unnecessarily disparage their attempts to take ownership of their faith in Jesus and His grace.

And that's about all I have to say about that.


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