Jefferson Bethke, Religion and the Evangelical Inquisitors
A year ago, a young Turk, Spoken Word poet Jefferson Bethke, puts out a winner evangelistic YouTube video, which has garnered in excess of 24 million hits to date. And the response from an outfit called the Gospel Coalition, a self-appointed Evangelical ‘Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’? No less than three of its regular bloggers saw fit to take Bethke to task on points of minutiae. To his credit of his person and profit to his ministry, Bethke responded with humble supplication to assuage the ego of one of these Guardians of the Faith.
The fiery darts that originate from within Christendom were more frequent and with understandably more sting than those from outside. If one is largely naive of the state of Christendom, one is prone not to place another shield against that direction.
About the actual critique though, I’ll be honest, there were times after the poem came out that I just started to crumble. The pain of the critiques was too painful (which I talk about later)… But the tone, words, and down right vitriol from fellow brothers and sisters in the faith have crushed me. I’m a 22 year old dude who has only been out of college 6 months, and who has only been walking with Jesus for a few years. I am beyond thankful to the older godly men who chose to pick up the phone and find ways to contact me privately, before discussing me publicly. I personally had to stop reading and trying to follow the blogs because Jesus showed me pretty quickly it wasn’t healthy for my heart (whether praise or critique). The ones I did come across stung. Some hardly even dealt with my content, but wrote more about my character, my salvation (or lack thereof), my looks, my poetry, etc. Part of me was extremely hurt, while part of me started to really wonder how blog posts fit into the words of Jesus in Matthew 12:36.1
Jefferson Bethke survived the ordeal with grace and wisdom beyond his years. However, it is those youths with less faith, support and strength of constitution with whom I worry. A youth pastor in my sister’s church still bears wounds from treatment by a prior congregation. The evident enthusiasm of another recently baptized youth, with whom I had acquaintance, was quickly doused by the older generation of another local church. Some could not forbear the thought of allowing this math wizard to make his own share of inexperienced mistakes, in the undertaking of a minor church administrative office. It remains a church in which the average age of its membership qualifies for retail discounts.
The irony is that the criticism from the Gospel Coalition, in particular one Kevin DeYoung, appears more deviant from the truth, from the perspective of my butterfly net of heresy and heterodoxy, than Bethke’s original rap poem.
Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus (transcript)
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 religions like spraying perfume on a casket
See the problem with religion, is it never gets to the core
It’s just behavior modification, like a long list of chores
Like lets dress up the outside make look nice and neat
But it’s funny that’s what they use to do to mummies
While the corpse rots underneath
Now I ain’t judgin, I’m just saying quit putting 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
You 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 getting faded
Acting if I was simply created just to have sex and get wasted
See I spent my whole life building this facade 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
Because it doesn’t depend on me it depends on him
See because 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 them 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
See 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
See one is the cure, but the other’s the infection
See 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 of your sin, and 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 it2
In a 685 word poem, the up-and-coming evangelist packed a remarkable amount of underlying theological doctrine and presented a Gospel, far more pristine than I have heard from the pulpit for a very long time. And there are but tertiary issues to be found with which I might contend if I had the inclination; and far fewer than those that I found in sifting through the sermons of the particular critic. You know the saying about people who live in glass houses…
However, I am unaware of any Scriptural reference where theological flyswatting is a divinely appointed ecclesiastical task and honourable role, beyond that which is fundamental to the faith. Therefore, any deconstruction project; any exegesis on DeYoung’s exegesis on Bethke’s piece will remain unattempted.
Most of DeYoung’s criticisms against Bethke are at best, catty. Even DeYoung’s own conscience seems to have indicated so. “All we have here is sound and fury signifying nothing. Maybe another Bellesque brouhaha in the making.”3 But what a curious change of heart in a single day from the pastor who the day prior complained “amidst a lot of true things in this poem there is a lot that is unhelpful and misleading” 4 But then, the young dude of 22 years old, paid humble paean to this current occupant of the Moses seat. Or has it now become the Jesus seat? As outsider David Brooks observed, “Bethke responded in a way that was humble, earnest and gracious, and that generally spoke well of his character. He also basically folded.”5
In speaking about the use of the term religion, the critic complains:
But words still matter and we shouldn’t just define them however we want.6
Many philosophers spend inordinate amount of energy in precisely defining their terms before proceeding to advance their propositions. I recall, in my teen-age years getting lost and somnolent in Kantian definitions in Kant’s signature work Critique of Pure Reason (1781). My youngest son experienced a similar tranquilizing effect last year.
Besides, Bethke clearly defined his concept and terms of religion and gives that “careful explanation and caveats”6 that the critic demands. It would certainly seem so, since the critic clearly understood Bethke’s use of the term. “Whether this argument is fair depends on your definition of religion. Bethke sees religion as a man made attempt to earn God’s favor.”6
His colleague protests:
Religion is not, as the fellow says, a man-made invention.7
Actually religion is. As a student of history, I must categorically disagree with DeYoung and his company of religionists and concur with Jeff Bethke that Religion is man searching for God; Christianity is God searching for man.
At a Muskoka Baptist (MBC) summer camp in 1970, where my conversion to Christ was secured; this differentiation between Christ (Christianity) and religion was a common motif, heard from itinerant preacher to dorm counselor and even in broader Evangelical literature at the time. The adage, which Bethe spouts, is not an outlier from the body of Evangelical orthodoxy.
Religion has always been a natural human propensity to strike a mercantile contract with the Almighty; to hunt God like game, to which “the sacrificer…holds him fast as the fowler does the bird.”8 God becomes “a wheel which the singer understands how to turn.”8 The sacrificial system, pervasive throughout human history since the mists of time, seeks to bargain with the gods; as weaker client to stronger patron; to wield obligation (control) or seduce them into protection, assistance and advantage over their human neighbours. In a Hindi hymn to Indra, it is unapologetically stated: “Eager for riches, men have formed for thee this song, like as a skilful craftsman fashioneth a car, so have they wrought thee to their bliss”9.
The means and motivations of appeasement vary. To invoke the gods from their negligent apathy, some will seduce with libations. (“They who with flowing Soma pray to thee, O Sage, to pour on them thy gifts of opulence and wealth.”10 Others pin their hope in “burnt offering…an aroma pleasing to the Lord”. 11 The means of appeasement is in the gift. “Here is the butter; where are thy gifts“12. It historically constitutes a feminine approach to placation of the Divine.
Alternatively, the plaintiff might seek to demonstrate his worthiness of that divine assistance; of demonstrations of fealty and piety, virtue and sacrifice. “When they [Jews] came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man [centurion] deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.”13 “It is not their meat, nor their blood that reaches Allah: it is your piety that reaches Him”. 14 The ascetic athleticism of (‘Christian’) Egyptian hermits of 4th and 5th Centuries also follows this latter stratagem; indicative historically of a masculine approach. The means of appeasement is in the worthiness of the giver.
Is it not curiousity that there is but one positive reference regarding ‘religion’ and ‘religiousity’ in New Testament Scriptures? “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”15 And even is this, the tone emits an odor of rebuke to that spirit of religiousity, noted in the previous verse (“If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.”16)
Jewish and Christian history overwhelmingly demonstrates this endemic and insidious human proclivity to reduce a relationship of trust (“Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness”17) towards a performance driven piety to exact obligation upon God. But surely, no conscious being likes to be indebted to the will of another; especially a God to which no rationality could justify such obligation. And the heart of God strains against this natural human religious inclination to swap out an informal, familial relationship with God in exchange for religion and formal ritual; to set God at arm’s length.
It’s not a museum for good people, it’s a hospital for the broken…
Don’t you see so much better than just following some rules
Before exiting from exercising my own flyswatting muscles on this other flyswatter, DeYoung cites another of his bugaboos
One, we have to remember that the purpose of a hospital is to help sick people get better. I’m sure Bethke would agree with that. But there is no indication in this poem that the grace that forgives is also the grace that transforms. Following Jesus is more than keeping rules, but it’s not less.
The weaknesses here can be the weaknesses of my generation (and younger)—not enough talk of repentance and sanctification, a tendency to underestimate the importance of obedience in the Christian life, a one-dimensional view of grace, little awareness that our heavenly Father might ever discipline his children or be grieved by their continued transgression, and a penchant for sloganeering instead of careful nuance.18
I do wonder if DeYoung would have also castigated Christ for not covering all the bases in His Parable of the Good Samaritan. For, only by stretch of hermeneutical imagination could one argue that the mugged victim was mugged by his own sin. Certainly, repentance and sanctification was not covered in Christ’s parable. And interpretative acrobatics would also be necessary to overlay Canon of Dort (Calvinism) over the Good Samaritan narrative; another favorite of DeYoung’s themes. So give the lad the break. Surely, one is not required to cover all the themes of the Institutes of the Christian Religion in one swift swoop of less than 700 words.
Besides, such criticisms betray ignorance of the times and the current spiritual landscape. As Paul Washer often iterates, it is an exercise in folly and futility to preach sanctification and holiness to an unregenerate generation. And to Bethke’s credit, he speaks to the precise problem of this generation; the need for Justification through the lifeblood and life of Christ alone, which gives God moral/legal license to practicably redeem, cleanse and save.
Besides, Bethke exemplified a superior sanctification toward his critics at the Gospel Coalition than they have shown. If Bethke’s critic (“can’t remember ever receiving such a teachable response to criticism”18) and David Brooks, a fair-minded outsider, can concur about a response that was humble, earnest and gracious, and that generally spoke well of his character; I don’t think that we need to dispute about Bethke’s concern for holiness.
But if one renders DeYoung’s blog entry, one does not come away with the same perception of DeYoung; not even like one of a more circumspect pastor who later castigated himself and repented thereof?
About a year ago, I blasted a dude named Jefferson Bethke who made a video called… I was one of the guys who hated on him…
I don’t know Mr. Bethke or anything about his faith and life — but in my arrogant selfishness and a subconscious attempt to piggyback off his success, I called him out on stupid secondary nitpicks that only made me look like an insecure moron…
…most of us self-professed Christians are too in love with the sound of our own voices and point our barrels of ideology at each other to win an invisible contest. We compulsively tear each other apart over ridiculous nonsense that makes no difference in the real world: because that’s easier than grace.
Here is a young man who made a sincere attempt to express himself in a creative, artistic, well-thought way, and there were millions who heard about the love of God through him. But I had to split hairs, as if I was the great gatekeeper of all Christian doctrine, and I blinded the truth with my mad flailing. They have a name for guys like me: a Pharisee. And to top it off, Jefferson Bethke wrote a gracious reply to those jerk-bags at The Gospel Coalition, which only served up a double heaping of humility.19
This is my bugaboo with these Evangelical Inquisitors at The Gospel Coalition that suffer from theological OCD. Others, reacting in abhorrence to these theologues, will be averse to becoming like them through intelligent appropriation of the Full Counsel of God (‘loving God with the mind’). They will be inclined to tolerate more elemental errors, which cannot be tolerated within the confines of the Church without bringing about its serious deterioration. There are basic doctrines, which cannot be denied without the existential demise of the Faith. The bodily resurrection of Christ (1 Corinthians 15), a gospel that preaches justification by anything other, less than or more than the Atonement through the Lifeblood of Christ (Galatians), of a specified and limited set of sins (1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Galatians 5:20-21) or denial of objective truth and its knowability (Hebrews 11:6); these are amongst the few explicitly enunciated Scriptural bases for pigeon squawks of “Heresy” and for membership expulsion.
There may be other circumstances, which I have not become convinced of. But anything else must come under the category to which Paul declares:
All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained.”20 “One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.21
Did Bethke’s video, which was declaimed by the Gospel Coalition, constitute a sufficient threat to the Gospel? Or was this one of those trivial concerns, like the tithing of mint, dill and cumin, the stain colour of the pews or the paint on the walls of the church building; to which sound and fury concerning these trifles ultimately diminishes the Gospel and the honour of Christ?
Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand…You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat… Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way.22
So; to the Kevin DeYoungs out there in the blogosphere. Stop it. Stop it right now. Go wash potatoes in a homeless shelter. You should prove more fruitful in that endeavour.
- Jeff Bethke, My Thoughts After Writing ‘Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus’, February 12, 2012, http://jeffbethke.com/my-thoughts-after-writing-why-i-hate-religion-but-love-jesus/
- Jeff Bethke, Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus, January 10, 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1IAhDGYlpqY
- Kevin DeYoung, “Following Up on the Jesus/Religion Video”, DeYoung, Restless and Reformed (blog), January 14, 2012, http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2012/01/14/following-up-on-the-jesusreligion-video/
- Kevin DeYoung, “Does Jesus Hate Religion? Kinda, Sorta, Not Really”, DeYoung, Restless and Reformed (blog), January 13, 2012, http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2012/01/13/does-jesus-hate-religion-kinda-sorta-not-really/
- David Brooks, “How to Fight the Man”, New York Times, February 2, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/03/opinion/brooks-how-to-fight-the-man.html
- Kevin DeYoung, Does Jesus Hate Religion? Kinda, Sorta, Not Really.
- Jared C. Wilson, “Jesus Was Religious”, The Gospel-Driven Church”, January 13, 2012, http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/gospeldrivenchurch/2012/01/13/jesus-was-religious/
- Joseph Pohle, Sacrifice, (Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913).
- Rig Veda, Hymn CXXX to Indra, Trans. Ralph T.H. Griffith (1896), Book 1, Section 6.
- Rig Veda, Hymn V to Indra Vaikuntha, Book 10, Section 7.
- Leviticus 1:9, 13, 17
- Gerardus van der Leeuw, Religion in essence and manifestation, (1933), 350.
- Luke 7:4-5
- Qur’an, Surat Al-Ĥajj 22:37
- James 1:27
- James 1:26
- Genesis 15:6, Romans 4:3, Galatians 3:6, James 2:23
- Kevin DeYoung, Does Jesus Hate Religion? Kinda, Sorta, Not Really.
- J.S. Park, “How Jefferson Bethke Showed Me I Was A Jerk”, J.S. Park’s Podcast, December 31, 2012, http://jsparkblog.com/2012/12/31/how-jefferson-bethke-showed-me-i-was-a-jerk/
- Philippians 3:15-16
- Romans 14:5
- Romans 14:4,10, 13