You don’t have to “hate” religion to critique it

Jefferson Bethke’s enormously successful viral video “Why I hate religion” has spawned a number of in-kind responses—most of which aspire to imitate his unique style. Here’s one example:

PRO TIP: If the name of your video series is “Worldview Everlasting,” do not attempt freestyle rap and/or slam poetry.

PRO TIP #2: Please don’t make me watch a 13-minute rebuttal to a 4-minute video.

The truth is, I’m appreciate what Bethke has to say—even if, like others who’ve weighed in, I wonder whether “religion” is the right target.

Kevin DeYoung (who mercifully chose not to respond in poetic form) took issue with Bethke’s question, “What if I told you ‘Republican’ doesn’t automatically mean Christian?” DeYoung writes: “I doubt that putting right-wingers in their place is the most pressing issue in Seattle.”

The implication being that people in the Pacific Northwest (where Bethke lives) are liberal enough already.

But the dominant view of Christianity—not just among Seattleites but across America—is that it’s synonymous with a particular political ideology. Bethke is right to say this is a problem.

Gabe Lyons has done a lot to identify the church’s image problem. Here’s what came back when he asked emerging adults to share their top perceptions of Christianity:

  1. Anti-homosexual (91% said this)
  2. Judgmental (87%)
  3. Hypocritical (85%)
  4. Sheltered (78%)
  5. Too political (75%)

I would argue that dealing with these perceptions IS a pressing issue—and not just in in Seattle.

But I’m more inclined to agree with DeYoung’s response to the first line in Bethke’s video: “What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion?”

The problem—depending on what we mean by “religion”—is that Jesus appears to have taught the opposite:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets [which for his Jewish audience was synonymous with “religion”]; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

This problem has been articulated in yet another video response—which, I’m sorry to say, also uses spoken word poetry, this time from a guy who Mark Driscoll would accuse of wearing a “dress.” (Thanks to Cognitive Discopants for sharing.)

The key takeaway is this:

You can’t have Christ without his church [warts and all].

You can’t have the King without his kingdom.

Again, it may be more a matter of semantics. Jesus had plenty of harsh words for the religious establishment. In fact, most (if not all) of his judgment diatribes were aimed at corrupt religious leaders, not outsiders. To put it another way, if Jesus were physically present today, he would probably say many of the same things about “religion” that Bethke said in his video.

But we mustn’t forget that Jesus operated from within the system, even as he was prophetically critiquing it (sometimes by throwing tables around).

He still worshiped at the temple, even though the high priests were in bed with imperial Rome. He still wanted religious leaders, along with everyone else, to embrace the kingdom of God (as can be seen in Luke 7).

Five hundred years after the Protestant Reformation, evangelicals have grown accustomed to fragmentation. For all the good it did, part of the Reformation’s enduring legacy is the myriad of denominations we have today—some of whom split from each other for the most ridiculous of reasons.

Some reject denominationalism altogether, opting instead for a loosely affiliated “network” of churches. Some don’t even want that, priding themselves on their independence and autonomy.

What gets lost after 500 years of fragmenting is that Martin Luther, father of the Reformation, never set out to break from the church. He wanted to reform it from within. And he didn’t stop trying until he was finally kicked out.

Yes, the church is broken. Yes, it’s constantly in need of reform. But there’s a danger of cutting our nose off to spite our face. Like it or not, the church is still God’s best plan for inaugurating his kingdom. Religion is not a dirty word.

Yes, lots of bad things have been done in the name of religion. And when people like Bethke remind us of this, we shouldn’t shrug them off. We should listen.

But we should also take to heart these words from James, the brother of Jesus:

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

But mostly, we should call a moratorium on spoken-word poetry responses to Bethke’s video.


Update: I got to interact briefly with Bethke on Twitter after this post when up. It says something about a person when they make a video that generates 17 million hits but can still take a moment to interact with the thoughts of someone whose blog has, well, nothing like 17 million hits.

It’s clear there’s more nuance to Bethke’s perspective than what can be squeezed into a 4-minute video. Besides, whether you like everything in the video or not, he’s started a conversation about who Jesus really is. He’s got a lot of people talking. And you’ve got to admire that.

Making our trash someone else’s problem

Kurt Willems has an interesting post about the Seattle City Council’s decision to ban single-use plastic bags.

In 2008, Seattle tried to impose a fee on plastic shopping bags, but voters overturned it after a petition drive funded by the plastics industry.

Kurt thinks the ban is a good idea, and I agree. But some of my libertarian friends raise an important point: they say while it’s good for individuals to make eco-friendly choices, governments have no business legislating something just because it happens to be a good idea.

Is this a cop-out? A feeble excuse from those with no real intention of making eco-friendly choices?

Not necessarily. One friend who made this very argument also puts his kids in cloth diapers. He uses reusable garbage bags. (I don’t even do that.) He’s walking the talk, as they say.

I happen to be skeptical of big government, without necessarily being anti-government. (I think government has a legitimate responsibility to regulate, within reason, a wide range of things.)

But I’m equally skeptical of big business, without being anti-business. The market plays a vital role in creating economic opportunity for billions. But what happens when a business becomes larger than some countries? Wal-Mart, for example, would be the world’s 25th largest economy if it were a country. Who holds them accountable? Individual consumers? Not likely.

Back to the point: should governments be deciding whether or not we can use disposable shopping bags? Has the Seattle City Council overstepped its bounds? Should environmental responsibility be a personal choice rather than a mandate?

The “personal choice” argument might work if no one else is affected by your behavior. In other words, if you’re the only one impacted by your decision to use a disposable shopping bag, then fine. You should be able to carry on, free from government interference.

But what if you’re not the only person affected by your behavior? Does government have a responsibility to intervene when your choices negatively impact others?

Consider that it takes around 500 years for a plastic bag to decompose. As I understand it, even biodegradable bags take a long time to break down, because decomposition requires air, and there’s not much of that to be found inside a heavily compacted landfill. (Thanks to Dan Martin for providing sharing this insight.)

Something from which we derive a few minutes’ use will spend centuries in a landfill.

So here’s my question. Do we have the moral right to make our trash someone else’s problem? We derive all the benefit; our children and grandchildren get to deal with our mess.

“It’s just a plastic bag,” someone might say. Except that it’s 500 billion plastic bags every year. One million every minute. And almost 90% of them wind up in landfills, where they will continue to be someone else’s problem, long after we’re gone.

Do we have that right?

Do Christians, for whom the second greatest commandment is “love your neighbor,” have that right?

Might our “neighbors” include those who inherit the earth after us?

And do governments have a moral obligation to protect others from the negative consequences of our bad behavior?

Some politicians in the US follow this line of reasoning when they protest the growing federal debt. They say it’s not right for us to spend money we don’t have and leave the bill for our kids and grandkids.

They have a point. But perhaps the same logic applies to the debate over plastic bags, nuclear energy, and other environmental issues.