I wanted to ignore this. I really did. When a youth pastor friend of mine sent me a link to the YouTube page of Jeff Bethke, this quasi-rapping, Drake-looking, spoken-word poet, and asked my opinion, I said, “Lame.” The poem is called “Sexual Healing,” and in it Bethke gives his take on sex, using his own experience as an illustration. It’s not theologically unsound, I told my friend. It’s not wrong; it’s just lame. I told him it reminded me of this other Christian spoken word video. Lame.
But now, Bethke’s back. And he’s everywhere. First, over at the Sojourners blog, communications and new media professional Matthew Santoro posted Bethke’s latest video with the endorsement, “Bethke’s work challenges his listeners to second guess their preconceived notions about what it means to be a Christian.” Then, The Resurgence embedded it too, writing, “We don’t post poetry very often, but we do when it’s pretty good.”
This time, the video is titled “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus*” and, again according to The Resurgence post, the poem is about “how the gospel of Jesus is the good news that breaks us free from the chains of religion.” Ah yes, the chains of religion. For four minutes, Bethke rhymes his way around all kinds of false dichotomies and outright bad theology.
He begins by suggesting that Jesus came to abolish religion, a popular claim among evangelicals, particularly those of the non-denominational persuasion, but one that has no theological foundation. He then goes on to say that “Republican doesn’t automatically mean Christian,” which is true, if not slightly off topic. Then, returning to the subject of religion, he plays right into the hand of the so-called New Atheists by asking “if religion is so great, why has it started so many wars?” There’s some stuff about single mothers, poor people, whores, and John the Baptist, all by way of showing the inconsistencies of religious people.
Religion, according to Bethke, never “gets to the core,” rather, he calls it “behavior modification” and says it’s like “a long list of chores.” Then he gets to what he’s actually talking about. See, he’s not actually on about religion, but about people whose expression of their faith doesn’t match his criteria. It’s not religious people he’s talking about, it’s what we used to call Sunday Christians. “It’s like saying you play for the Lakers just because you bought a jersey,” he says before digging into his own biography to show that he was once like you.
At just about 3 minutes, though, he returns to religion, claiming that “Jesus and religion are on opposite ends of the spectrum.” One is the work of god, he explains, and the other is “a man made invention” (slant rhyme). He continues, “one is the cure, and the other is the infection.” And now he’s on a roll, “religion says do, Jesus says done. Religion says slave, Jesus says son. Religion puts you in bondage, while Jesus sets you free. Religion makes you blind, but Jesus makes you see.” He is building toward this, “And that’s why religion and Jesus are two separate clans,” before his grand finale, “So for religion, no I hate it. In fact, I literally resent it. Because when Jesus said ‘It is finished,’ I believe he meant it.”
Where do we begin? The number of false dichotomies and ridiculous claims is astounding. Religion is an infection? Religion puts you in bondage? Religion makes you blind? Is he just quoting Sam Harris here?
I believe Jesus meant it when he said, “It is finished,” as well, but I’m sure the “it” he meant wasn’t religion.
See the problem is, Bethke doesn’t mean religion either, but he’s rehearsing a popular evangelical trope, that the freedom that Christians find through Jesus is freedom from structure, organization, and authority. Of course, Bethke, like all Christians, is a member of a religion, he holds “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs,” as Dictionary.com defines it. What Bethke is actually railing against is people whose expression of religion doesn’t look like he believes it should. Thus, rather than discounting religion, he is just discounting other religions, or even just other manifestations of his own religion.
Had this poem, with its dramatic music and epic setting, simply been called “Sunday Christians,” and if every reference to religion was replaced by something like “hypocrisy,” this video would have been as easy to ignore as his others. But, here Bethke is doing far more harm than good by playing into hurtful stereotypes about religion–his religion and mine, as well as the other major world religions. Denouncing this video takes stepping outside of evangelical subculture to see its actual implications beyond our little playground, but doing so, I think, is extremely important.
*The title of the poem was initially written as “Jesus > Religion,” which is displayed in the video, but is not the title.
Jonathan D. Fitzgerald
Jonathan D. Fitzgerald is editor of Patrol and author of Not Your Mother's Morals: How the New Sincerity is Changing Pop Culture for the Better. Follow Fitz on Twitter.
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