It may or may not be a religion, depending on your definition (pt I)


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!

Shalom

Bram

(stay tuned for pt II about the gospel like it’s presented in the video!)

9 responses to “It may or may not be a religion, depending on your definition (pt I)

  1. We all have opinions about this and that,…. semantical discussions whether christianity is a religion or a relationship. We look at the trees but miss the forest.

    What if all people that watched that video left with an understanding that christianity is not about going to church, not cursing, being ‘good’, going through rituals, etc. But understood that Jesus loved them enough that He was willing to die on a cross, so that they could be reconciled to an absolutely good Father, the Creator of it all? So that they too could receive His acceptence, so that they could accept, love others, serve others as they are loved and accepted by the Power themselves in Christ?

    So what if people just acted upon that and started to see themselves in a new light, loving other the way they are loved? Would that not be a revolution? And would we then not need need to intellectualize all these clips but just let them affect us in reminding us again of the finished work of the cross.

    We seem to be good at throwing our opinions around about what constitues religion and what not. But does it matter in the grand scheme of things? People stop talking with one another over intellectual issues like this because they don’t agree with one another. And thus we end up with all these denominations.

    To paraphrase Greg Boyd in ‘Myth of a Christian nation’: ‘I have seen people break fellowship with people over doctrinal issues, but I have never seen them break fellowship for not being loving enough’.

    • I don’t like all the negativity against ‘religion’ in his rhetoric. It’s needlessly negative, and full of false dichotomies. It gives me a feeling of immature superiority from his side (maybe that’s also because of the ‘coolness’ he exhibits in the video?) and it’s a turn-off for me.

      “What if all people that watched that video left with an understanding that christianity is not about going to church, not cursing, being ‘good’, going through rituals, etc. But understood that Jesus loved them enough that He was willing to die on a cross, so that they could be reconciled to an absolutely good Father, the Creator of it all? So that they too could receive His acceptence, so that they could accept, love others, serve others as they are loved and accepted by the Power themselves in Christ?

      So what if people just acted upon that and started to see themselves in a new light, loving other the way they are loved? Would that not be a revolution? And would we then not need need to intellectualize all these clips but just let them affect us in reminding us again of the finished work of the cross.”

      It’s not at all what my reaction to the video would be, to be honest… It’s not a question intellectualising, but it just doesn’t work for me, sorry…

  2. Hey Bram,

    As someone who runs a website called “Christianity Against Religion”, this is an issue pertinent to me. I agree with you that there is a danger in redefining a word so that we can make *what we do* seem better. Further, I agree that most of the people pushing this idea are actually practicing a religion in all the normal meanings of the term.

    However, I do reject religion, and I do so in two very specific ways. In the definition above, I reject the “Ritual” and the “Institutional” aspects, which I feel are the most prominent customary meanings of the word “religion”.

    I hold that Jesus specifically rejected these things as well, forbidding his disciples from exercising or accepting authority, and quite deliberately explaining that rituals were irrelevant.

    James gives a Christian redefinition of religion, which explains service to God without respect to ritual or institution, for probably the first time.

    So while I have a religion as a system of beliefs and thought, that religion specifically rejects religion as a system of ritual and institutional authority.

    • thanks for your comment Micah

      I know where you’re coming from, but still do not completely agree: I do think that at least baptism cannot be seen otherwise than as a ritual, and that if you want bread and wine not to be one you have to have something like a love-meal in organic church setting, and even then there is something ritual about it… I don’t see ritual as something bad either, but as part of the human experience. And about the institutional aspect, it is there, though in a very weird way, even in the most organic settings like the very inspiring one Andrew Jones describes here. A anti-institutional structure is a subversive way to fill in the institututional aspect, but it will never completely be able to avoid it. (Just like the most free-form liturgy is still a form of liturgy, no matter if you say it is one or reject the word…)

      The usual way of religion might be subverted, but it will always be in the category ‘religion’. You can say that you don’t like blackmetal or Johan Cages avantgarde music and that it isn’t music, but that won’t make it anything but out-of-the-box music.

      (but stay tuned for my main point in part II)

      • Thanks Bram,

        My thought on baptism is here: http://micahredding.com/blog/2011/10/14/thought-baptism

        As for the bread and wine, I very definitely see that as talking about common meals occurring in everyday life. It’s what Paul talks about when he addresses it, and I would argue it’s what Jesus is saying when he is in the middle of the last supper.

        I usually talk about demythologizing things, but in a very special way, this is a making magic of the world. Jesus is investing every bite and every drink with a significance that had only been given to priests and temples. Now, it is all holy, now it is all infused with God.

        It’s not so much that I see first-century Christians challenging religion, as much as taking it apart and distributing it to everyone and everything.

      • Okay, I see more what you mean now, and I don’t disagree that much. I find the ‘agape meal’ version of bread and wine fascinating, but I’ve never experiened it. And I could say that in your view everything we do in Christ might be seen as a ritual, and a sacrament even… which is quite fascinating!

        And one could indeed say that in Christ religion is fulfilled, and given a whole new meaning… But that is no reason to demonise the concept of religion alltogether as the video guy does…

  3. Pingback: Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus | Jonathan Brink | Provoketive Magazine

  4. Yeah, religion can be hard to define. I think that it doesn’t matter what we call it, but we need to remember that relationships require action, and that action might look like religion sometimes, and that shouldn’t always scare us. I think that just dismissing religion by saying that “it’s a relationship” kind of shuts down our willingness to dig deeper into what that relationship should look like.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s