Christianity’s Identity Crisis

Jefferson Bethke’s “Jesus hates religion” video has gained enormous popularity among the Facebook walls and Twitter feeds of America’s young evangelicals. This slick production features Bethke reciting a poem about Jesus and his teachings being the antithesis of “religion,” (to which he applies a peculiar definition). More to the point, it is a critique of hypocrisy, though his message is distorted by extraneous and frequently inaccurate attacks on Christianity and America.


The politically charged opening lines set the tone—perhaps the inspiration—for the rest of Bethke’s prose. It is clearly his view that many Republicans are fake Christians who are judgmental and heartless, yet have claimed moral superiority and hijacked the church. He continues on, recklessly blasting the church for starting wars, not feeding the poor, excommunicating divorcees and generally not representing the gospel. Thus, he concludes, the church—and, of course, Republicans—are following “religion,” but true Christians follow Jesus.

Unfortunately, while there is an important message to be shared here, the video is littered with theological inaccuracies, erroneous assumptions and, yes, its very own glaring hypocrisies (jump to the bottom to see what others have said). Bethke has been thoroughly critiqued, and has taken it with respect and humility, but what I really want to ask is this: How is it that a video with so many wrongheaded statements is so widely praised among my peers? I can think of at least three reasons.

1. The popularization of church

Most Christians do not study theology. That is understandable just as much as the fact that most people do not read philosophy literature. But we should expect pastors and preachers to uphold a high level of intellectual discipline. Furthermore, it is their responsibility to find ways to bring all people to a greater understanding of the history and theology of their faith. In too many churches, substance in teaching has been replaced with opinions, based on the whims of passion, with a supporting act by jumbotrons and coffee shops.

More and more people are rejecting traditions and congregations in favor of independent study and transient attendance at flavor-of-the-month churches. This disconnection from the larger Church body, and its theological and historical context, has left younger Christians with a blank slate and unsteady foundation.

2. Politically and historically biased education

Our public education system has a markedly left-wing bias. It is not uncommon to characterize our Founding Fathers as power-hungry racists, our foreign policy as imperialist, and our economic system as an instrument of oppression and destruction. American successes are counted as steps toward a progressive vision of equality and opportunity, led by protests and presidents, against conservative power structures.

Thus, many young people have been trained to see themselves as part of this ongoing political movement. Their enemies are tradition and wealth, and the party that protects them. Christianity is ordinarily a part of the tradition to be rejected, but Christians themselves call instead for a revolution in the church. Left-wing Christian populism emerged in opposition to the “American Dream,” wrongly interpreted as the acquisition of material success and status.

3. The MTV generation’s reaction to TBN

We live in a media-driven world. Television—especially cable—brought with it new values and ways of communicating. Appearance and production became extremely important for attracting an audience. In the late 1980s, Music Television did to a whole generation what Elvis did in the 1950s: it energized America’s youth and changed the industry. Indeed, the “reality tv” phenomenon first began with MTV’s “real world.” Amidst news anchors and soap operas, MTV made television cool.

Trinity Broadcasting Network

Image via Wikipedia

In an attempt to utilize television as a ministry tool, along came Trinity Broadcasting Network, featuring gaudy furniture, big hair, fanciful clothing and very uncool entertainment. To my peers, the face of Christian America was outdated and kitschy, while the secular entertainment industry was electrifying. Then came the scandals with Jim Bakker, the angry rhetoric of Rev. Jerry Falwell, and the controversial statements of Pat Robertson and his “Christian Coalition.”  The Church, it seemed, was becoming a voice of division.

All of this left young Christians without public role models. In a battle of words, people like C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton could compete. But in a battle of popular entertainment, Christianity failed to supply a counterweight. Despite trying to keep up with changing trends, Christianity seemed out of touch, out of date, and seriously in danger of collapse. Enter the emergent church, which is on a tacit mission to inject cool back into Christianity and make Jesus “relevant” to modern culture. One outcome is an explosion of new churches that have effectively exiled the over-40 crowd.

Without roots, Christianity is a slave to the winds.

I wrote a blog post last July called Postmodernism and the Great Protestant Exodus, in which I argued that postmodern philosophy had caused Christians to distance themselves from traditions and denominations. In their place is an idea that each individual is on a personal search for God and truth—relationship, not religion. But while the essence of the idea is true, according to Protestant claim, they swing the pendulum too far. By failing to recognize the role of liturgy, order, accountability, tradition and historical context, they are stepping out of the ship and into a life raft, then cutting the tether in the middle of a vast ocean.

In America, we grow up admiring revolutionaries, but we must also learn when to be loyalists. Of course we are each called to seek Christ on a personal level. But to interpret this as a call to do away with “religion” is throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water.

OTHER RESPONSES TO THE VIDEO:

- Does Jesus Hate Religion? Kinda, Sorta, Not Really, by Kevin DeYoung

- Video: Jesus=Religion, by Worldview Everlasting

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4 thoughts

  1. I thought that Bethke respond quite well to his criticisms. You’re right about most of the things you have mentioned here -especially since our culture is revolution drunk that we never know when to … well… relax.

    I’m at an age when I could still be a candidate for the Emergent church, and many of peers are. However, I think I want off the “how do we make Jesus cool” train since it seems downright unnecessary to me. I can still wear my hipster glasses, my ironic smoking jacket, and even my vest and still find Jesus in word and Sacrament instead of hopping on the next trend that is reaction to the last trend.

    Also, to hell with TBN.

  2. Thanks for stopping in to comment, Jin Roh. As I said in a conversation a few days ago, I don’t mind Jesus being cool, but when it becomes the focus we are no longer having church. I’d say the same for word and sacrament if people are engaging in them for their own sake.

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