A viral video raises old theological disputes.
By JONATHAN D. FITZGERALD
YouTube videos go viral all the time, but sermons rarely do. Enter Jefferson Bethke, a young "spoken-word" poet who recently posted the video "Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus." It has been viewed more than 10 million times in the past 10 days.
The video opens with an eerie soundtrack and the phrase "Jesus>Religion" in a stark, white typeface. His poem begins, "What if I told you, Jesus came to abolish religion?"
In a polished, hip style, he continues with such controversial questions for four minutes: "If religion is so great, why has it started so many wars? Why does it build huge churches, but fails to feed the poor?" Mr. Bethke describes religion as no more than "behavior modification" and "a long list of chores." This leads him to conclude, "Jesus and religion are on opposite spectrums." And his grand finale: "So know I hate religion, in fact I literally resent it."
Other YouTube users have posted response videos, and countless bloggers have commented on the quality of his poetry, the sharpness of the production and the errors in his theology. Among the most ardent critics are Catholics who see Catholic-bashing in Mr. Bethke's attack against organized religion, particularly in his suggestion that religion is "just following some rules."
On his blog "Bad Catholic," Marc Barnes highlights Mr. Bethke's indictments of religion for building huge churches at the expense of the poor and telling "single Moms God doesn't love them if they've had a divorce." Though Mr. Barnes agrees with some of the poem, he writes, "I can't help but think, in the midst of all this, that this hating-religion-loving-Jesus thing is the logical consequence of Protestantism."
Yet the Protestant response has been strong as well. Kevin DeYoung, a blogger at "The Gospel Coalition," a popular Reformed Christian site, wrote that "amidst a lot of true things in this poem there is a lot that is unhelpful and misleading."
Mr. Bethke, he notes, "perfectly captures the mood, and in my mind the confusion, of a lot of earnest, young Christians" who interpret the word religion to mean "self-righteousness, moral preening, and hypocrisy." The problem, Mr. DeYoung notes, is this is not what religion is, and Jesus didn't hate religion. Jesus was an observant Jew, Mr. DeYoung points out. Jesus clearly said he didn't come to abolish the law or ignore the prophecies but to fulfill them. In fact he founded the church and instituted the sacrament of communion.
Mr. DeYoung is correct to identify Mr. Bethke's sentiment as typical of his generation of young evangelical Christians. The notion that "Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship" has been echoing through the sanctuaries of evangelical, and particularly nondenominational, churches since at least the 1970s. Mr. Bethke's own pastor, Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, promotes a distinction between "religious people" and "Jesus people": "Religion is about me" but "Christianity . . . is about Jesus," Mr. Driscoll preached in 2007.
As Mr. Barnes of "Bad Catholic" notes, this is a particularly Protestant sentiment that can be traced back to theologian Karl Barth, who often distinguished between "revelation" and religion.
This is the kind of Christianity in which I was raised, where a man with a high school degree and a "calling" can lead a congregation, where a pastor can spend millions advertising an apocalypse only he predicted, and where a church burns the Koran and leads to the unnecessary deaths of innocent people halfway across the world.
Stating that religions build churches at the expense of the poor, as Mr. Bethke does, turns a blind eye to the single greatest charitable institution on the planet. Blaming religion for wars ignores the fact that the greatest mass murderers in the 20th century—indeed in all of history—killed for nonreligious reasons. And advocating for a kind of Christianity that is free of the "bondage" of religion opens the door to dangerous theological anarchy that is all too common among young evangelicals and absolutely antithetical to biblical Christianity.
Mr. Fitzgerald is editor of Patrolmag.com.