25 January 2012

Why I Love Jesus And True Religion

bethkeA poet named Jeff Bethke has posted a performance poem to Youtube which seems to have won a lot of fans. It’s entitled ‘Why I hate religion but love Jesus.’ Is he talking sense?

Bethke asks why religion has started so many wars. Why has it built huge churches but not fed the poor? It’s clear that the target of Bethke’s criticism is the church. Well, the church has built great cathedrals. It has sponsored great works of art (Bethke’s question belies an outlook that denigrates art and aesthetics). And it has fed the poor too in plenty of places across its history. As the video progresses, we see Bethke unwittingly using the same technique as Dawkins, picking out practices that few Christians would defend and tarring the whole Church with whatever’s on his brush.

As for Bethke’s denouncement of religion per se, it is simply mistaken. The poem begins with the question: ‘what if I told you that Jesus came to abolish religion?’ If you told me that, you’d be wrong. The people of God in the Old Testament related to Him through a religion instituted by revelation to Moses. Jesus upheld the true practice of that covenant religion before his death and resurrection inaugurated a new covenant. The people of God in the New Testament relate to him through that new covenant religion which is revealed by, and centred on, Jesus the Christ. Christianity is a religion (although Bethke specifically contrasts Christianity with religion). It has sacraments, discipline, rituals and doctrine. The important distinction is not between Jesus and Religion, but between True and False Religion. False Religion can be found both inside and outside the Church – and False Religion is the problem. For example, it’s self-made religion that’s the problem in Colossians 2:23, not religion per se.

Bethke goes wrong because he equates religion with self-righteousness and he defines it as a man-made invention. Words are important, and Bethke has got his definition wrong. In the OED you find that religion is ‘a particular system of faith and worship’. More importantly, when the apostle James writes about ‘true religion’, he’s using a word which is used for Jewish worship, and pagan worship too. The apostle James clearly doesn’t believe that Jesus came to abolish religion. James believes that being religious is good, as long as it is pure or true religion (1:27) and not worthless religion (1:26).