While reading Nadia Bolz Weber’s blog, Sarcastic Lutheran, I was introduced to this video. The poet, Jefferson Bethke (who self-identifies as “bball1989” on YouTube), has crafted a beautiful expression of his faith. In it, he identifies well the perspective of many on the outside of the church regarding Christianity. And that depiction isn’t entirely inaccurate. The church deserves this rant: “Religion is just putting perfume on a casket.”
I wholeheartedly agree with Bethke as he asserts that Jesus “finishes” religion (and in this context I mean “put an end to”). Religion promotes a religious identity, whereas Christ calls us to enter into a fully human identity, a state of being in which we identify with all those around us through their humanity. When religion gets in the way of this (as it often does), it only invalidates itself.
A quick caveat though. There is a lot of beauty, compassion, and transformation that happens within the structure of religion. For those who are open to it, a well-done worship service can take them into new levels as human beings growing into God. When this happens, religion has served its divine purpose. Despite its flaws (and there are many), I would argue that religion isn’t necessarily bad.
My concern with this video is that its criticism of “religion” rings hollow to me. I don’t know the poet personally, so I’m not going to say that the hollowness that I hear is actually coming from him (though I also can’t say that it isn’t). The hollowness I hear in this reflects what I’ve heard in others who basically say the same thing. They believe in Jesus, they believe in the Bible, they go to church, but they don’t see themselves as “religious.” Their concern over “sin” and what we “should” and “shouldn’t” do dominates religious conversation. I hear the gospel transformed into the recitation of religious formulas guiding us through a divine morality tale that calls people away from sin and into a more sanctified life, despite the rhetoric of “freedom” and “grace.” In short, people suck, but God accepts us, and in response we grow into behavioral conformity (with or without a church as part of the equation). As a result, they end up becoming billboards for the oft-scoffed at “religious but not spiritual” (or, perhaps more accurately, “decidedly more religious than spiritual”), and don’t even know it (and if they do, they actually don’t understand why).
Even though I’m a pastor, I consider myself to belong in the “spiritual but not religious” camp (or, perhaps more accurately, “decidedly more spiritual than religious”). Perhaps this is because I didn’t grow up in the church. I don’t think that religion is hopeless (though sometimes I wonder). It’s just that modern, organized religion doesn’t seem to function well within current cultural organizational and social models. Its emphasis on hierarchy, control, and conformity (the propagandist term is “unity”) are antithetical to liberation into diverse ways of living.
In the video, the criticism of religion, especially the heralding of the end of religion, is to be lauded, and even echoed. But that which takes its place can’t be another version of the same thing. We need to move beyond cosmic morality tales. We need to move beyond “shoulds” and “should nots.” As we move forward, we need to move in a way that honors and celebrates our humanity, with its unique beauty and potential, all the while drawing us into deeper dimensions of life. We need to reject the idea that we are the enemies of God, and embrace the idea that we re partners with God in life together. This is not something we can do if we carry a “people suck and need fixing” attitude, which naturally leads us to what the video calls “behavior modification.” But I believe this is something we can do, because I suspect God is calling us down a different path than we’ve ever known before.
Edit: I found the poet’s name and added it.