If you recognize the quote in the title you are a die-hard fan of my music. (If you don’t, it’s the opening lines from ‘NT Wright is a sound theologian‘ on my almost finished album ‘cyberluddism‘ that can still be listened and downloaded on bandcamp)
Now to the point, There is a a video that has been going round on facebook lately that is so viral that it seems everyone remotely Christian (from die-hard evangelicals to vaguely Jesus-inspired hippies) has been sharing it. It actually reminded me that the word ‘viral’ is derived from ‘virus’, like in a computer virus or a flu virus… It’s called “Why I hate religion, but love Jesus” by some Jeff Bethke guy who does some spoken word poetry with music behind it. And by now I’ve had it with everyone and even their goldfish sharing the bleeping video on facebook. Please, I’ve seen it pass like 20 times today… Have mercy…
Now there’s a lot of things that I like in the video, Jeff Bethke does makes some good points. (read the words of the poem here) And the production quality is great and the speaker is very articulate. That’s not my issue. But there are some things I find quite shallow, not to say cliché, and the ‘a relationship, not a religion’ rhetoric is getting a bit irritating sometimes….
Some interesting remarks about the problems with this video are written by the American Jesus, Sarah Moon, Elisabeth Esther, Jake Belder and Patrol Mag and by this girl on youtube. I’m not going to repeat everything those people say, so they might be interesting to read too…
So what’s my problem with this video and the ideas behind it? Actually there are several and maybe they indicate my theological disagreement with some articulations of popular evangelical theology. The first disagreement is a question of semantics. The definition of religion used is completely shallow, it seems like that word is used to describe all that those people don’t like. Which is kinda stupid, since everybody knows that Christianity IS a religion for most people.
Now I do know where the ‘it’s not a religion’ thing comes from… The simplest version I’ve heard is that religion in man’s way to get to God (or to get salvation), something which will never work, but that Christianity is God coming to man and we just need to accept that to be saved. That’s more or less the core of charismatic and post-evangelical idea behind ‘I am not religious’, like I’ve heard it for years and years…
But there is more to the word religion. Religion is something that innate in humans the way God created them, and the solution to wrong religion is not to abolish all religion, but to find good religion. Religion is something broad and is very hard to pin down, and the word has too much behind it to dismiss it all with an evangelical cliché… I find the seven dimensions of religion by Ninian Smart very interesting. (thanks to Matt Stone @glocal christianity)
Ninian Smart suggested that, whatever else a religion may be, it usually contains certain recognizable elements:
Ritual: Forms and orders of ceremonies (often regarded as revealed).
Narrative and Mythic: stories (often regarded as revealed) that work on several levels. Sometimes narratives fit together into a fairly complete and systematic interpretation of the universe and human’s place in it.
Experiential and emotional: dread, guilt, awe, mystery, devotion, liberation, ecstasy, inner peace, bliss.
Social and Institutional: belief system is shared and attitudes practiced by a group. Often rules for identifying community membership and participation.
Ethical and legal: Rules about human behaviour (often regarded as revealed).
Doctrinal and philosophical: systematic formulation of religious teachings in an intellectually coherent form.
Material: ordinary objects or places that symbolize or manifest the sacred or supernatural.
I think most of these are in one form or another present in almost every form of Christianity, (yes, the sacraments of bread and wine and baptism are clearly rituals!) except maybe the material aspect in protestantism. There might be discussion about this… And I do know there could be much more definitions of religion. But just re-defining religion so you can denounce it, like the evangelical tradition seems to do, is a bit weird. But they’re in good company. Bonhoeffer already did it. And people like Greg Boyd (a thinker I generally like and respect, like I do with Bonhoeffer) are doing the same.
But I would say let’s quit it please. It creates a sense of superiority in some christians who feel high above those poor ‘religious folks’. And it complicated conversation with a lot of people who just see religion as a word for believing in God or gods. Or have academic definitions like Ninian Smart.
Oh, and if we’re biblical christians, maybe we should look to the bible, where the book of James defines for us what good religion is supposed to be:
James 1:27 Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their misfortune and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
Or is that a liberal social gospel and being saved by works? Nah, it’s the bible!
(stay tuned for pt II about the gospel like it’s presented in the video!)