Sunday, January 15, 2012

"Religion" vs. The Gospel?

You've probably seen this video shared more than a few times on Facebook, maybe even reposted it yourself. (I did so, largely because of how well and earnestly he presented this poem that doubled as his testimony)

This video, a spoken word recitation by Jefferson Bethke, has recently been sending viewers into a flurry of praise, discussion, and debate. The first line pretty much sums up its controversial aspect:
What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion?
I'm not going to do an in-depth analysis of the poem as other Christian bloggers have already done so, some addressing the controversy more or less thoughtfully. The general reactions I've seen to this video (from Christians) have either been excited, emphatic approval and agreement with its message or confusion and concern that people think "Jesus came to abolish religion" and that young believers have turned dangerously astray.

I'm going to argue that both of these groups really agree on the issue at hand, and that the argument here is a semantic one. The dictionary definition of "religion" goes like this.

Definition of RELIGION
1 a : the state of a religious
b (1) : the service and worship of God or the supernatural (2) : commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance
2: a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
archaic : scrupulous conformity : conscientiousness
4: a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith
Jesus came to abolish that? I don't think Bethke or really any Christians would agree. What is going on here is that I've seen "religion" take on at best a whole new set of connotations, or at worst, an entire new definition. In a nutshell, I previously summed it up at "legalism and superficial self-righteousness"; in a few more words, it is devotion to "Christian" laws, principles, or expectations more than to serving and worshipping God himself. It's focusing on surface-level change and the appearance of holiness and righteousness rather than a deep, life-changing self-sacrificing relationship with God that truly brings about holiness. This expectation of living a "clean" life is not just for oneself, but is projected to others in or outside the church. Bethke describes the hypocrisy of "religion":
Religion might preach grace, but another thing they practice
Tend to ridicule God’s people, they did it to John the Baptist
They can’t fix their problems, and so they just mask it
Not realizing religions like spraying perfume on a casket
See the problem with religion, is it never gets to the core
It’s just behavior modification, like a long list of chores
Like lets dress up the outside make it look nice and neat
This definition of "religion" was exactly what Jesus couldn't stand about the pharisees of the New Testament, and it's alive and well today; as I describe in my previous post (which you really should read), I was unwittingly ensnared by it in an even deeper form for years. "Religion" is, at one level or another, a human attempt at taking holiness into our own hands rather than trusting God to take and mold our entire lives. The concern I hold, and that is expressed in this video, is not merely that Christians struggle with this (as we inevitably will in this life), but that it is often enshrined as true, Biblical Christianity, set on a pedestal, not evaluated for its flaws.

And again, I think virtually all Christians can agree that this is not what God intended His church to look like, if Jesus' reaction to the pharisees was any example. The reason for the controversy surrounding the video is this:  most people hold one of these definitions of "religion" and may not even be aware of the other. For those who hold the first definition of the word, the video will seem alarming and against all doctrine; for those who hold the second (like Bethke himself, and my church), it will be an elegant and refreshing statement of their convictions and fears about the church. I really wish those holding to the second definition had picked a different, less strong-defined word closer to their intended meaning (like "legalism") to get their wholly valid point across rather than redefining "religion". But it seems the damage has been done.

At this point I'm going to do a quick but complete Biblical survey of the word, since it appears in just six verses (at least in the ESV).

Acts 17:22:
So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: "Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.

Acts 25:19:
Rather they had certain points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus, who was dead, but whom Paul asserted to be alive.
Acts 26:5:
They have known for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that according to the strictest party of our religion I have lived as a Pharisee.
Colossians 2:23:
These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. 
James 1:26:
If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless.
James 1:27:
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
The Acts verses all seem to be using the first definition of "religion" (to refer to Greek paganism or Judaism) James uses the same basic word (θρησκεια) as Acts, contrasting "pure and undefiled" and "worthless" religion. It seems to be a neutral term here, capable of being good or bad; the test is whether it leads to holiness. This is consistent with interpreting it as a system of beliefs or practices. Only the Colossians passage, a stern warning against legalism, seems to approach the second definition of "religion", but again, it's specified to be "self-made" religion, or more simply, idolatry. We still don't get any sense of religion being a terrible thing.

I find some words from C.S. Lewis' 60-year-old classic Mere Christianity on a similar confusion over the definition of "Christian" quite appropriate here:
The word gentleman originally meant something recognisable; one who had a coat of arms and ome landed property. When you called someone 'a gentleman' you were not paying him a complement, but merely stating a fact. If you said he was no 'a gentleman' you were not insulting him but giving information. ... But then there came people who said...'Ah, but surely the important thing about a gentleman is not the coat of arms and the land, but the behavior? Surely he is the true gentleman who behaves as a gentleman should?...' They meant well. To be honorable and courteous and brave is of course a far better thing than to have a coat of arms. But it is not the same thing. Worse still, it is not a thing everyone will agree about. ... A gentleman, once it has been spiritualised and refined out of its old coarse, objective sense, means hardly more than a man whom the speaker likes. As a result, gentleman is now a useless word. We had lots of terms of approval already, so it was not needed for that purpose; on the other hand if anyone (say, in a historical work) wants to use it in its old sense, he cannot do so without explanations. It has been spoiled for that purpose.
Now if once we allow people to start spiritualising and refining, or as they might say 'deepening', the sense of the word Christian, it too will speedily become a useless word. ... We must therefore stick to the original, obvious meaning. The name Christians was first given at Antioch (Acts 11:26) to 'the disciples', to those who accepted the teachings of the apostles. ... There is no question of its being extended to those who in some refined, spiritual, inward fashion were 'far closer to the spirit of Christ' than the less satisfactory of the disciples. The point is not a theological or moral one. It is only a question of using words so that we can all understand what is being said. When a man who accepts the Christian doctrine lives unworthily of it, it is much clearer to say he is a bad Christian than to say he is not a Christian.
As with "gentleman", as with "Christian", now with "religion"; we are at risk of making it into a subjective and therefore useless term thrown around in contempt. At the very least I want everyone to be aware of this semantic shift, and I would encourage you to stop adding to the confusion by using a more appropriate term like "legalism" instead. Yes, you lose the shock value of phrases like "Jesus came to abolish religion" in favor of the much less surprising "Jesus came to abolish legalism", but it's worth it to stop this needless debate.

Make no mistake, I am glad for Bethke's video; both for the message he so eloquently conveys in it and for the conversation it has started. I think it brings to the forefront the confusion of many young, earnest Christians about the place of doctrine, tradition, "the church", and the 2000+-year-old word of God in today's world. This is a question we all have to answer for ourselves, as I am still doing.

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