Sunday, 22 January 2012

What If I Told You That Jesus Came to Emancipate Religion?

"Nobody who fails to keep a tight rein on the tongue can claim to be religious; this is a mere self-deception; that person's religion is worthless. Pure, unspoilt religion, in the eyes of God our Father, is this: coming to the help of orphans and widows in their hardships, and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world" James 1:26-27
I was going to just type out verse 27 above, but considering the source for this reflection, I thought the bit about reining in the tongue would be appropriate, too. There's this video going around right now. I'm sure you've heard of it. A guy wrote a poem about Jesus abolishing "religion" that's soared in popularity. Many people have really resonated with his message. Others have reacted pretty strongly against it. I fall pretty much in the second camp--hence the reflection.

Now, there are a lot of brilliant responses to Jefferson Bethke's video, and I'll include a couple of them at the end of this post. But their very existence certainly begs the question--why am I writing this blog? Many more talented and intelligent people have already done the work for me, after all. And I'm pretty sure this blogpost won't get 16 million viewers in a week's time! So why? I hope it's not for vainglory or a need to pick a fight. I just know that over that same week of 16 million views, I've had many conversations with people who haven't seen the responses that are out there, and who have been caused to question their religious beliefs based on Bethke's comments. So maybe my blog won't contribute much to the grand scheme of the "religion vs. Jesus" debate--but maybe it'll say something or reach somebody that might have gone unsaid or unreached otherwise. Oh--I was going to try to make it rhyme, but, well, I know where my strengths don't lie!

Now, my point with citing St. James' comments on bridling the tongue apply, to my mind, to Bethke's video in this regard: The words we speak can have damaging effects in ways that go beyond simply lying or insulting speech. In the case of this video, the damage occurs mainly through imprecise speech. The wrong or careless use of words leads to many harmful misunderstandings. If we give Jefferson Bethke the benefit of the doubt, we can appreciate that he was ranting against hypocritical self-righteous legalism, and not against "Religion" as such. But instead of actually ranting against "hypocritical self-righteous legalism", he simply calls it "religion." Instead of telling hypocrites, "Hey, you should be more religious!" he instead tells everyone else that they shouldn't be religious at all!

In Bethke's defence, he has specifically clarified that he wasn't intending to attack the Church, but only to attack those who don't practise what they preach:
If you are using my video to bash "the church" be careful. I was in no way intending to do that. My heart came from trying to highlight and expose legalism and hypocrisy. The Church is Jesus' bride so be careful how you speak of His wife. If a normal dude has right to get pissed when you bash His wife, it makes me tremble to think how great the weight is when we do it to Jesus' wife. The church is His vehicle to reach a lost word. A hospital for sinners. Saying you love Jesus but hate the Church, is like a fiancé saying he loves his future bride, but hates her kids. We are all under grace. Look to Him.
Unfortunately, though, the 16 million people who've watched his video aren't necessarily going to read his clarifications. He hasn't removed the video, or edited it to elaborate on and explain his clarifications. And so the message that "religion is bad" is still getting touted, and people are still left wondering whether they should leave the very Religion that Jesus Himself founded in order to seek Him better!

And that's where I have a problem!

See, contrary to what our post-modern rebellious, individualistic culture likes to think, "Organised Religion" isn't a bad thing. It's not about starting wars or building expensive church buildings to the detriment of the poor. It's not about defining how good you have to be before Jesus will love you. And it's certainly not about pompous, self-righteous hypocrites showing how holy they are by judging everyone else.

Religion, specifically the Christian Religion, is about helping us get to know and grow closer to God. It's not about having a list of rules and beliefs in order to limit our freedom, but precisely so that we can truly be free! When we know the boundaries, we can be free to live safely within them. That's what the Church is about! That's what a home is about--parents who raise you, who tell you when to go to bed and that you have to eat your vegetable; who tell you not to play in the street and not to hit your brother. The Church lays out certain things that we must believe and things that we must not believe, that we must do and that we must not do, in order to free us from the harm that we will otherwise do to ourselves and to others. It's a loving Church; a loving Family. Recently, Heather King put it this way:
Catholicism is not counter-cultural in that the world is liberal and Catholicism is conservative. It’s counter-cultural in that it is explosively, wildly, anarchically radical. Catholicism is our hearts, our bowels, our erotic energy, our lives! Catholicism is not some timid, rigid, dead set of rules. The whole purpose of the rules is to allow us to explode within them. To follow Christ, to be Catholic (or catholic-in-spirit) is to hover on the edge of metaphorical orgasm and to consent to continue to hover, indefinitely, in almost unbearable tension…which paradoxically allows us to break out in all kinds of other sublimely interesting, glorious directions and ways.
Consider a romantic relationship. Many who want to denigrate "religion" will contrast it with a "relationship with Jesus". But what does it mean to have a relationship? When a couple first begins that journey of falling in love, their desire to be with each other and know each other is insatiable. Their gestures of love and romance come naturally and spontaneously. At the same time, their desire to pledge themselves to each other exclusively, formally, and publically is also a natural, spontaneous part of being in love. But those early passionate feelings eventually wane. The "I love yous" and the flowers, the setting aside of special times for dates, the taking the time to eat together, to talk together, even to make love to each other, can end up seeming more and more like work. What once seemed like freedom now seems oppressively restrictive. If our attitude toward marriage is the same as the common evangelical or atheistic attitudes toward religion, then we will see very little point in sticking to our relationship with our spouse. After all, if a relationship is supposed to be about passionate love for my spouse, and I'm not getting that in this marriage, then let's end the marriage, right?

Religion, on the other hand, comes from that same stock of common sense that says, when in the humdrum of married life, we will stick it out and say our "I love yous" and make even more effort to really be good to each other--not because I feel like it, but because I truly want the best for my spouse. Love isn't about feelings; it's about actions. And we prove our love most by doing the actions especially when we don't feel like it. If the goal is a relationship with Jesus, then Religion is how we maintain that relationship during those times when we'd really rather not.

And the amazing thing is, those "Our Fathers", those Rosaries, those beautiful church buildings, and especially those Sacraments, actually serve not only to keep us going when we just don't feel like it, but more, they can rekindle those feelings, too!

The word "Religion" comes from the Latin re- ("again") and ligare (compare "ligament"). In sum, it refers to binding or joining together again. It images a triage. Since the Fall, we've lost that vital connection with God. The various religions throughout history have been our ways of staunching that wound in our souls; of fixing our dislocated spiritual joints. In Christianity, God Himself made that healing possible. Jesus Christ established the true healing Religion. He is the one who "binds up" our wounds, and He gave that binding and loosing authority to Peter and the Apostles, not so that they could lord it over us, but so that, through the ordaining of successors, that life-giving religion could be preserved and passed on throughout all generations!

Jesus didn't come to abolish religion! He came to set us free to be truly religious! Through His Grace, that is, through His very life communicated to us through the Sacraments, He has made us able to live the kind of free, full life that is ultimately at the core of who He made us to be. The very irony of our modern society's desire to be free, to be out from under the oppression of the "establishment" of religion, is that they're striving for the very freedom that True Religion provides--that passionate, explosive, orgasmic freedom!
As promised, here are a few of the great responses inspired by Bethke's video


Gregory said...

So, immediately after finishing this post, I went and visited my favourite website and homepage, Godzdogz, the blog of the English Dominican Studentate at Blackfriars, Oxford. Turns out, they'd just posted their own response:

Can You Hate Religion, and Still Love Jesus?

As always, I love their thoughts--and I loved the black and white vid of the teenage boy! Right on!

Eric said...

Excellent post, my friend. I've had people berating my in defense of Bethke saying, "It's not like he's preaching a false of incomplete Gospel!"

That is absolutely the case. Falsifying the teachings of Jesus is heresy, and though he may not of meant it this way, he is guilty of it.

Just because something is about Jesus doesn't mean it is good, but hopefully the Lord will use this to suit His Divine Will.