Why I Hate Religion But Love Jesus

This has gone pretty viral within Christian circles. Most of my evangelical friends love it and are madly posting it away on their Facebooks and Twitters and Google+s without comment. Most other commentators – including other Christians – are either confused or disagree. So if you’ve got a while to kill, I have some reading for you that I’ve come across regarding this video. Watch the video yourself, formulate your own thoughts, but don’t stop there – see how others are interpreting it before you either love or hate it.

Here are the other blogs I suggest you read, and I will reference back to them in my own analysis:

  1. Lame Poetry, False Dichotomies, and Bad Theology (Patrol Magazine)
  2. Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus (Kingdom Loving)
  3. Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus – The Smackdown (Patheos). This is a great Catholic perspective.
  4. Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus – The Smackdown: A Response (SmileItMakesMeHappy). This is in response to the previous.
  5. Red Letter Christians: A Well-Meaning False Dichotomy

So where to start. As you can see if you read all of those other posts, there’s a lot of different things to talk about with this. Ultimately I think this discussion is an issue because of a few different things. I think the biggest one is that there is no definition of this term “religion” that is being attacked. After delving into that, I’ll run through some of the minor points as well.

The Definition of Religion

Was Jesus anti-religion? Yes and no, depending on how you’re defining it. From a point of view of theology then, it is hard to agree or disagree with the poet without knowing his definition. In my experience, most evangelicals use the word religion to mean as the poet seems to: it is a negative term meaning “what we try to do on our own terms to earn our way to God’s love and salvation.” By that definition, I completely agree that Jesus was anti-religion. I even list the ending of religion as one of my four points in how I answer the question What is the Gospel? although I tried hard to emphasize exactly that I meant this definition of religion.

The rest of the world typically doesn’t have this definition. Most people would say a religion is simply a group of people with mostly-agreeing spiritual beliefs and practices. In this case, it is hard to be opposed to that and still be a Christian. There’s this weird phenomenon, and I don’t know if the poet is one of them, who essentially reject Christianity as an institution but love everything Christianity theology and ethics. As the Catholic blogger linked above points out: the theology, the Scriptures, the worship practices, even all of the writers who are proclaiming the anti-religion Jesus all came from the “religion” of Christianity. By the definition of “religion” that most of the world uses.

So that’s problem number 1. Evangelicals hear that Jesus ended religion and cheer because their idea of religion is low and to be replaced. Everyone else hears that Jesus ended religion and are either simply confused or else think evangelicals are suggesting religion-a-la-carte (everybody picks their own things completely independently with no structure) in place of any traditional group.

The latter interpretation of the lacking definition of religion leads into a second problem. The video does a spectacular job of tearing down religion, whatever that is, and instead placing Jesus as the core of everything. Now what? The poet goes on to provide the basics of penal substitution atonement theory – what many evangelicals call the Gospel and basically says that you need to accept them in place of religion. Realistically the poet, if he is representative of most evangelicals, would also suggest that you get involved with community (the church, institutional or otherwise), that you live a life of discipleship to Jesus, etc. The Red Letter Christians article points this out really well:

What bothers me the most is that, despite stretching out toward a post-religious understanding of Christ, he then falls right back into the same old lexicon of substitutionary atonement language. You know the drill: Jesus died for your sins, the blood flowed down, he absorbed your transgressions, and so on.

So my question is this: though he seems to be bent on tearing at the fabric of at least the evangelical Christian church, if not organized religion as a whole, why does his central message sound pretty much like every evangelical altar call I’ve ever heard?

Is this any different from what Catholics are doing? Whether this particular video was aimed at Catholics or not, Catholicism is a common attack point for this Jesus-not-religion mantra but I don’t think this is any different. Evangelicals have just as much “religion” – meaning rituals such as the four-point salvation tract and the ensuing altar call – as Catholics do. The forms of it may be less formal, less liturgical, but that doesn’t make it any less of a ritual.

For example, if you’re not a Pentecostal, you probably think that they have the least structure to their worship. I’ve been to more charismatic services and this is my belief (plus a Pentecostal instructor of mine has said the same thing): the cues may be more subtle, but there are certain rules about how the service goes. When they can talk, when they can pray out loud, when they can speak in tongues, etc. People who go regularly know these rules. At least Catholics are honest that they have these forms; evangelicals often aren’t, pretending to be all about Jesus and the institution has nothing to do with it. More to the point, though, this isn’t a bad thing. Imagine there was no “rule” of when to get together to worship. There would be no worship at all. We need to be organized or else we’re just counting on dumb luck to even be in the same place at the same time, let alone functioning together. The video unfortunately leaves people with the impression that they should completely avoid any institution because that is religion which Jesus hated. This isn’t helping anybody.

Ultimately he says that he isn’t trying to judge, but the absolute irony is that he is judging all “religious” people with a very broad brush of being anti-Jesus. He says that all religion is violent, all religion has ridiculous moral standards, all are just meaningless ritual. Is anybody else catching the hypocrisy here? What I’m hearing is “you people are all terrible and judgmental, so I’ll judge you and claim the higher ground that I know Jesus and don’t need organized religion.” I can’t help but assume this is a lot closer to a lament out of a personal negative experience than it is to a theological treatise – which is fine but he isn’t presenting it that way.

Violence

The poet claims that all religion has done is start wars. As a pacifist, I am inclined to agree. My belief is that people have a natural tendency to be violent, and being able to say that they have God on their side provides them with plenty of excuse. This still isn’t the same as saying that religion causes wars – just that religion gives an excuse sometimes to do what we wanted to do anyway. Of course in my case I also believe that Jesus specifically spoke against this technique and against violence for the Christian in general, but there are a few more points on that.

The Catholic blogger annoyed me on this point. He outright defended Christians being violent, not just in defense of themselves or loved ones (which could qualify as a just war), but even in defense of the faith (a holy war). He quotes the “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” line of Jesus as evidence that the church should be allowed to bear the sword for Jesus. I’ve said this before: look at that verse in context, and it is talking about the divisions that will happen in families between those who follow Jesus and those who don’t. It is a statement of the radical nature of Jesus’ message. It is a statement that we are to even put him ahead of our families. I don’t think, though, that it was meant to be taken literally that we are to kill our non-Christian family members. If you read it in context (which this blogger hasn’t) and assume it means physical violence the way this blogger has, that is what you must conclude: Christians are to kill our non-Christian family members. That’s a disturbing thought but yet this line of Jesus continually gets quoted out of context to justify violence.

Fancy Churches over the Poor

The poet also criticizes churches for having nice buildings when there are still poor. Even though I personally am not someone who cares one way or another about the appearance of my worship space, I need to side with the Catholic blogger on this one. First of all, most of these churches were built when the majority of the Western world were Christians. They needed churches that big to fit everyone. And when everyone came, they gave money which very directly contributed to work in the world such as feeding the poor. This is still true today – as the Catholic blogger points out, the Catholic Church is still the world’s most generous organization – and it just looks more ridiculous from the outside because we see these huge buildings now largely empty. So is the poet suggesting that they tear down the church and build a smaller one? That would solve the seeming arrogance of it, but it wouldn’t make any practical sense – they’d be spending even more money which they are currently giving to the poor!

Divorce

The Catholic blogger sees this as a direct attack on Catholicism since they are the only denomination to strictly condemn divorce. The response from my friend at Smile, It Makes Me Happy points out that most denominations are opposed to divorce even if they aren’t as strict about the rule for all but extreme circumstances as Catholicism is. She’s right. No Christian church encourages divorce. In hearing the poet, I suspect he was much more targeted at ethically-conservative evangelicalism. They often are not strictly opposed to all divorce in theory, but they will also treat you like you don’t belong and that is just as bad if not worse as being kicked out of the church. I’ve heard many horror stories even of women who left their abusive husband and were shunned by their churches for it (usually in this case the church also is complementarian and therefore the woman had no right to leave her husband – if the genders were reversed it would probably have been fine).

It is Finished

The poet seems to just assume that the “it” in question is religion. There is no context to suggest that. The most obvious is that Jesus’ life, Jesus’ work, is finished, since it was said on the cross… when those things were done at least until the resurrection. I suppose since he sees the destruction of religion as a goal of Jesus’ work, you could lump “religion” as part of the “it”. But it is definitely a hermeneutical stretch to simply assume that the “it” is strictly referring to religion. That’s the first time I’ve ever encountered that interpretation, although I have definitely heard interpretations with the “it” including religion (by the evangelical definition above) among other things.

So on that note, it is finished, and by it, I mean this blog post.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.