Perhaps you have heard about the time religious rulers asked Jesus what the greatest of the commandments was and he answered, ” ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” Did you know that it wasn’t Jesus but another popular rabbi of the time, Rabbi Hillel who was responsible for popularizing the golden rule among first century Jews? Jesus would almost certainly have been familiar with this man and his teachings. (Rabbi Hillel was also well known for teaching against judging others and opening the study of the Torah to those who were interested but could not pay.) In fact, Rabbi Hillel took it a bit farther than Jesus did; he listed “Love your neighbor as yourself” as “the main idea of the Torah”. Jesus put it next to loving God.
I tell you all of this to point out that new, revolutionary ideas do not arrive whole-cloth out of the ether. They get built on protests and tweaks and half-steps and built-up experience. And it is in this context that I think we need to understand the viral phenomena that is “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus“. It’s a spoken word piece by Jefferson Bethke a 22 year old from Seattle which is the subject of David Brook’s (poorly written, poorly executed) column today in the NYT. You see, once the video went viral some “older theologians” (Brooks’ words) shot back, criticizing the piece because “Jesus was not your go-to-guy for hating religion” (Kevin DeYoung here). (Here’s the Christian Post story about the grown-ups coming out to tut-tut.) Bethke pretty much backed down from his original stance about religion:
“I wanted to say I really appreciate your article man,” Bethke wrote to DeYoung in an online exchange. “It hit me hard. I’ll even be honest and say I agree 100 percent.” (Quoted from the Brooks column.)
Too bad. We need people like Jefferson Bethke just like first century Jews needed people like Rabbi Hillel. They may not get it perfectly right, but they are helping to move things in the right direction.
Rod Dreher (who is even more clueless about the issue than Brooks, having been suckered in by the Dreher bait in Brooks’ column – “kids these days think they know every damn thing. Tradition is good.” He must have missed my post saying the same thing back when I wrote it.) likewise dismisses Bethke’s efforts:
when someone more knowledgeable about Christianity explained all that Bethke got wrong about historical and Biblical Christianity in that video, the Bethke politely folded, and repudiated his video claims. He didn’t stop to figure out if he knew what he was talking about before he made that video.
Bullshit. Bethke is clearly responding to his experiences and the experiences of many, many others. He shouldn’t have to know the intricacies of the theology of the church (which is a very complex area of theology) in order to put up something meant to draw people to Jesus. The only problem Bethke has, that too many people aren’t willing to allow for, is that seeing that something is wrong and even being able to explain what is wrong with it is not the same thing as having an answer. Sometimes we don’t have the answers, but we might have the question. Maybe if you put what you have out there, someone else can build on it. I think this kid’s video represents that.
I’m sorry to see that he backed down so quickly, but I understand. It must be really hard for a good kid from the church to put his opinions and talent out there and have the big men above him take notice and chastise him. (I keep calling him a kid, when he is not. But I’m old and not quite ready to go around handing out the “adult” title to any snot-nosed brat who turns 18. ) The fact that it has been so well received by the public must simply heighten the anxiety – does he back down from some rather anodyne opinions about the church and demonstrate his loyalty – choosing the body over the world? Everyone keeps saying, “clearly his heart is in the right place” and then quickly moving on. No. The fact that his heart is in the right place is the whole point. It is what should give him the freedom to reach out to others with what he knows about Jesus. If he gets some details wrong, shouldn’t he be able to trust that as long as people find their way to Jesus, God can work that stuff out? How many theologically false things did you once believe?
Yes, his condemnation of “religion” was too sweeping, but that’s kind of besides the point. He is articulating an experience that a lot of people have. And instead of addressing it, the old men came out, strained out the gnats while swallowing the camel without hardly breaking a sweat. Their defense of religion was rather weak anyways. Go back and read Leviticus and Deuteronomy and then read Jesus instituting our religious meal and then come back and tell me about those rituals Jesus created. Frankly, they should be far more concerned with Jesus’ continual condemnation of the religious than with him attending synagogue.
Even if the old guard are 100% correct in their critique, these are not new, novel or revolutionary criticisms. They shut up one kid, but did nothing to reach out to a generation for whom he speaks the truth. Until they have answers for them, perhaps the old men of the church would do well to hold their tongues. Unless they want to keep reminding the world just how contentious Jesus’ relationship with religion has always been.
In the meantime, I stand with Jefferson Bethke. Even though I can’t actually get myself to sit through the whole video. Sorry, dude. I’m probably not your target audience anyways. 😉