So this kid, Jefferson Bethke, aged 22, now has his 15 minutes of fame. I think less for his video in which he raps his contempt for religion but love of Christ, and more for the negative criticism it has engendered. LCMS Pastor Jonathan Fisk rapped his own response, and the blogs have weighed in, Catholic and Protestant, with an irenic back-and-forth between Bethke and Kevin DeYoung rounding out the rodeo.
So here’s my take on this whole I hate religion/love Jesus thing: the kid’s basically right, and everyone should stop getting their Roman collars and Geneva bands in a twist about it.
It shouldn’t come as any great surprise that a young evangelical hates religion but loves Jesus. Anyone who has spent any time in the evangelical world, which I did for many years, knows the familiar trope: Religion kills. Not in the Inquisition/Crusades/Thirty Years War kinda way (although that too). It kills the spirit. It’s the stuff of rite and ritual, litany and lethargy, pious sighs and disappointment.
Evangelical churches are filled with people who got fed up with religion, especially the religion of their youth. They wanted something more. They wanted a personal relationship with God. They wanted union with God. They wanted something that meant more that going through the diocesan or synodically approved motions. They no longer wanted the church, which had become falsely equated with religion, as their mediator — they wanted Christ. And Christ is a person, not a religion.
Religion can be looked at from another angle, as a kind of magical thinking: it makes demands of God in passive/aggressive ways. It makes deals and trade-offs, so much self-denial for so much blessing, so many good works for so many answered prayers. I have the power to wring from the Master of the Universe whatever I want, whatever I need, so long as I appease him in just the right manner. And when I begin to burn out from all that appeasing, and begin to doubt whether God is coming through with the goods, it’s easy to get bitter and to become filled with self-loathing, which then gets projected onto others who don’t seem to be making the same heroic efforts at heroic virtue that I’ve been making. And vóila: the church lady (and gentleman) is born.
I like to say that I’m neither religious nor spiritual — I’m a Lutheran. It’s more than just left of pithy; it’s true. I have zero interest in religion. I had plenty of it as a kid. Sunday school; religion classes in my Lutheran parochial schools; confirmation classes. I was an acolyte and a winner of some religion-essay contest at the tender age of 9. And then there was church. And the inevitable Monday morning role call. Every Monday, our home room teacher would ask whether we had gone to church, Sunday school, both, or neither. After about age 11 I was racking up an impressive list of neithers. I would do anything to get out of going. To this day, I cannot remember a single word any pastor ever preached on any text. Church was something to endure. And among many of the Lutherans of my childhood, it didn’t seem to matter. They subscribed to Woody Allen’s shallow philosophy: just showing up was good enough.
And when I was finally confirmed, I was not just an adult in the eyes of the church; I was also free. Free never to have to endure the brain-sapping banality that was my religion. And we’re not talking about a denomination exactly given to legalism. In fact, it had very few rules. Really, it had just one: show up. Just show up. And that was enough to make my religion unbearable. Because I wanted to be anywhere but there.
If only someone had told me to read Luther. Real Luther, not Sunday school Luther. The Luther who killed religion.
Quick question: Exactly what religion did Jesus start? Christianity? Jesus neither wrote a sacred text nor created coveted hierarchies. He threatened to destroy the one sacred space that his people would travel from around the Greco-Roman world to inhabit. He broke the rules because the rules were no longer what they were intended to be — signs. They had become ends in themselves.
Jesus came to do something else. Not start a new religion or reform an old one. He came to die. And ultimately to take as many people with him as he could. Ever tried fitting flying buttresses in a grave?
What exactly did the religious folk want of Jesus? They wanted a king. And Jesus gave them one “in the form of a slave.” They wanted relief from oppression, and they got parables. They wanted a kingdom, and they got the cross — a young Jewish man of dubious parentage apparently crushed by the collision of church and state but in reality bearing the iniquity of us all to reconcile us to a holy God, to inoculate us against sin, death, and the devil, to bury us alongside him, so he could raise us to eternal life. Their prayers were answered in the most startlingly appalling way: they received not power but promises.
Christianity isn’t a religion. It’s a conundrum. And no one has ever wrestled with and wrung the truth out of that conundrum better than Martin Luther. And it took a class at NYU to introduce me to his inimitable voice.
Luther hated that God who demanded perfect righteousness from an original sinner but who had already rigged the game with election. How could this possibly be good news? Where was hope of being a saint when you were still a sinner? How could a perfect God understand the weight of guilt, the pain of betrayal, the agony of a broken body? Luther had failed to bridge the chasm between a wrathful God and lowly, raging, libidinous man with his fastings and law keeping. How could he possibly get from despair to hope?
It was in the communication of properties — the dual nature of Christ understood such that we can speak of the death of the Son of God and the true union of God and man — that Luther saw a way out and was able slowly to forge the key to the Christian conundrum: Jesus takes my sin and gives me his righteousness. His righteousness. There is real union, but it is predicated on faith, trust in the promises, not an ascent on our part, but a condescension on his. We are passive recipients of a gift, which is Christ’s own flesh. He really took our sin into his own flesh on Calvary and he really communicates his favor and forgiveness by feeding us that same flesh. Because life is in the blood. The worst crime in history — he who called heaven and earth into being with his Word fixed immobile to two cross beams — is the only hope anyone has of true freedom.
The church should be the place where you hear the promises of God, and embrace them as your own. The Father’s wrath at his broken law should terrify you such that you run from him to Jesus, from the Just Judge to the Righteous Redeemer, who delivers not a sentence but his own self. If what you get instead is therapy or law or even encouragement to try harder, climb higher, or even to just show up, then you have religion, and you are doomed.
Luther knew that even the so-called rituals of religion, the sacraments, were meant to be transformed into promises in water, bread, and wine, not by the power of priests but by the power of the Word. Do you believe the promises? That God saves sinners? That God died to take away the sins of the world — your sin? That eternal life and a kingdom that shall have no end is yours by grace through faith? Do you believe them is such a personal way that you do not need religion anymore? Do you filter every decision, every day, through those promises? Are the promises of God — his salvation, his presence, his incorruptible kingdom, true freedom to serve your neighbor — so real to you that no vocation is so lowly as not to be holy ground because your gratitude alone is an acceptable sacrifice?
That personal relationship, that union with Christ, that evangelicals, young and old, are looking for can be found in the church of the original Evangelicals. But it must return to its roots, which is not merely catechisms and Books of Concord, but also (and I would say primarily) powerful preaching. The preached Word creates faith, seals promises, renews hearts, and opens minds to new possibilities in old places.
Who needs religion? Yeah, yeah, I know the dictionary definition too. Like Jesus came to confirm what people already knew. And there are plenty of evangelical churches that morph into religions quickly enough. They form their own rituals, their own rules of don’t touch this and don’t do that. And they easily fall into their own kind of magical thinking, with health-and-wealth hokum that turns faith into a work. But cut this Jefferson Bethke some slack. Granted, some of his knocks against the church sound more like talking points from a New Atheists’ Winter Solstice pot luck, and Rev. Fisk deals with them handily. But in the end, Bethke’s trusting in the promises. Who knows where he’ll be in his spiritual journey in 20 years?
So much of this blowback seems like just the kind of thing you’d expect from, you know … religious people.
Chuck your religion. Trust in the promises. And showing up will no longer be a chore but an opportunity for hope renewed.
Thus endeth the lesson. And will whoever saw where I parked a black Impala with a dented air foil please leave a comment and let me know?