A teenager e-mailed me recently asking my opinion about a spoken word video that’s gone viral: Jefferson Bethke's “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus.”
I’ll admit all the hubbub didn’t draw my interest. After all, the video’s title tells pretty much the whole story, as do the titles of the countless responses to the video and the responses to the responses. It’s been a veritable social network version of the Reformation and the Counter Reformation in miniature.
Besides, the Christian’s first obligation in responding to the works of others - whether sermons, songs, novels, paintings, videos or blog posts - is charitableness. And a charitable interpretation of the video, while perhaps acknowledging an unclear or incorrect definition of “religion,” can’t take much issue with the spirit of the video’s message, which is a heartfelt rejection of Pharisaical, legalistic institutionalism in favor of a living, vibrant relationship with Christ.
But then my young friend approached me, seeking my opinion on the matter.
Lately there's been a lot of discussion about whether Christianity is a religion or not. I want to be able to have an intelligible conversation if someone asks me about it, so what do you think about the issue? Would you agree with me that Christianity is, in fact, a religion, and that making it sound nicer doesn't change what it actually is?
The e-mail included a link to the video. Now, like it or not, I needed to give the matter some thought. I responded:
Yes, Levi, Christianity is a religion.
The problem is that many people don’t know how to express the idea that Christianity is the one true religion or that it is more than a religion, so they express it in this simple way. They also feel like they should be ashamed or embarrassed about Christianity being a religion so they distance themselves from it. That’s like distancing yourself from your whole family because you have an uncle who’s a little strange sometimes. That is not only silly, but wrong.
My concern is not with the video, but rather with the larger issue of religion’s poor reputation these days. Let’s face it: religion has a bad rap. With all the god-is-not-great and delusion talk of the so-called New Atheists and the jihadists blowing things up and the political incorrectness of Western civilization in general, let’s just say religion - including Christianity - probably does need to powder her nose.
Even the framing of my friend Levi’s question - isn’t Christianity a religion and stating otherwise merely “making it sound nicer?” - presupposes that religion is a negative concept. Indeed, those of us who grew up in the anti-traditionalism of contemporary evangelicalism were indoctrinated with the mantra, “It’s not a religion; it’s a relationship.”
And it is a relationship. But to claim Christ yet deny that Christianity is my religion is to keep the baby while throwing out the baptismal waters.
For in one moment, the “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” debate was something I just wanted to ignore. But quick as an e-mail, it became something I needed to attend to because someone - my friend’s son, my student’s brother, a fellow sojourner in my religious faith, my brother in Christ - needed me to pay attention.
And this is the point of religion, a word whose root means to bind together. The notion that Christianity is just about “me and Jesus” is insufficient. Because while the church is the body, religion is the family. And a body is given life and lives most abundantly within the traditions, practices and relationships that set one family apart from another family, that make my family my family. Funny uncle and all.
(Photo courtesy of Cikproductions.)
...to claim Christ yet deny that Christianity is my religion is to keep the baby while throwing out the baptismal waters.