“What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion?…”
With those bold words, so began Jefferson Bethke’s provocative spoken-word YouTube poem, ‘Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus’. After being uploaded in January 2012, it stunningly racked up 7 million views within 48 hours and 16 million within a few weeks. Bethke, an unsuspecting twentysomething student from Tacoma, had gone viral.
The essence of the poem sees Bethke contrast the Jesus he finds in the Scriptures with the ‘religion’ (as he calls it) that he observes around him stateside. Unsurprisingly some people loved it, and some were incensed. Evidently he’d put his finger on something that resonated, and now nearly 26 million have watched him online.
With those kind of numbers behind the guy, you don’t have to be much of a cynic to infer why Thomas Nelson Publishers thought there was a book in this. Now, nearly two years on from the video going online, Bethke’s first book is here, ‘Jesus > Religion – Why He is So Much Better than Trying Harder, Doing More, and Being Good Enough’. Interestingly the breadth of Bethke’s appeal can be seen with some surprising names amongst the book’s commendations: Republican Mike Huckabee, Real Madrid footballer Kaka, and even Russell Moore from Southern Baptist Convention. But before I share a review, why not watch the original video:
Essentially the book is a punchy expansion and elaboration on the theme of the video, but through the narrative lens of Bethke’s own life-story. His aim is to introduce readers to the “dangerous” Jesus of the Scriptures that changed his life, simultaneously exposing the shackles of ‘religion’. As he says, “I want to push you a little closer to Jesus”.
You might think from the title, or perhaps the video, that Bethke is gonna be proposing some sort of commitment-lite, doctrine-shy ‘spirituality’, but that’s far from his aim. As much as he hates self-righteousness dressed up in Christian clothes, so Bethke also has it in for any cheap-grace, Jeremiah-33:11-printed-on-your-T-shirt, ‘feel-good’ distortion of Christianity as well.
Sure, Bethke knows how to turn a phrase and capture what he’s trying to say in a few cleverly-phrased words. For example, he speaks of the difference between relating to Jesus and religion as about realising that “I’m not an employee, I’m a child” (28). In his pithiness you can spot some of his influences: Keller, Piper, Lewis, even Augustine. But what’s wrong with that? I don’t think Bethke would ever claim to be original in his message. Instead he’s a “popularizer of ideas”, getting the gospel of grace out to his generation.
But he’s not all soundbite and flash video. Ultimately I think the winsomeness of Bethke’s message comes from the fact that he himself has tasted the emptiness and unending guilt of what he is now so zealously against. He speaks of a period in his own life where he became very proud, believing he was morally upright, almost to the extent that he resented his own family. He speaks of family members being treated harshly by Christians for their sexuality. Later he attended a Christian college in the States, which he found “stuffy, hypocritical and judgmental”. He speaks openly but sensitively about his struggle with porn and sexual promiscuity, all the while feeling he’d not encountered the Jesus of outrageous grace, a Jesus that confronts our rejection of God head on, but deals with it and helps us change: “we don’t have to hide the fact that we are messy, because God doesn’t hide the face that that’s exactly the type of people he came to save. God doesn’t hide sin … he put it on display two thousand years ago in a splintered T-shaped piece of wood” (135).
As I read Bethke’s book I couldn’t help but feel this is a guy who is deeply passionate about his message, but also deeply humble about his own self-importance. This is further evidenced in a published email conversation between Bethke and pastor Kevin DeYoung, after DeYoung lovingly questioned how helpful Bethke’s video was to dismiss “religion’s” place in the Christian life. I’ll come back to that subject below, but evidently Bethke is humble, wants to learn, and is not out to simply make a name for himself. But at the same time he’s not gonna sit around doing nothing either; he says, “I’ve tasted grace and can’t help but tell others about it” (20).
As mentioned, a lot of the furore against Bethke’s video concerned his use of the term “religion”. Was it helpful to use that particular word? By denouncing religion, was Bethke giving people an excuse to ditch commitment, church and holy living? Was Jesus really against religion, or rather just a certain form of religion? After all, I’m part of a denomination that has Thirty-Nine Articles ‘of Religion’. Is that problematic? Thankfully and unsurprisingly Bethke takes the space a book allows to add the all-important nuance. Early on he explains that the ‘religion’ he is against is not the church, nor traditions, nor institutions, but rather “a system that upholds moral effort or good behaviour as the way in which we can have a proper relationship with God” (53). Perhaps ‘religion’ isn’t the perfect word for it, but one can’t deny that’s what lots of people have in mind when they hear and use the word. In that sense, the cap certainly fits in many cases.
I felt the book works by layering; chapter after chapter comes from a different angle or with a different application, but the overall message is the same: “in a postmodern world where all religious activity is seen as what we do for God, we need to proclaim Christianity is about what God has done for us” (34; my italics). One chapter interestingly explores how this view of religion actually turns us against other people, making enemies, not friends; “the minute you think you have gotten on God’s good side by your own behaviour, you are naturally prone to demonize those who haven’t” (62). Another chapter helpfully uses the image of subconsciously relating to God as if we’re “grading on a curve”, but “God doesn’t grade on a curve, he grades on a cross” (78). Coming to Jesus means realising that there “aren’t good and bad people, with Jesus there are only bad people in need of grace” (76). As he puts later, “the paradox of Scripture is that it calls us way more sinful than we think we are, and it calls us way more loved than we think we are” (89).
Because Bethke’s context is the USA, then occasionally it feels as if some of his polemic slightly misses the UK reader in cultural translation. He has one eye on a cold and heartless ‘fundamentalism’ that harshly adds rules to the Bible, whereas on the other side he challenges a culture of ‘fakes’ who justify bad behaviour by citing a past faith decision. I’ve never lived in the States, but one can imagine Bethke’s words ringing home loud and clear for young people growing up in an overtly Christian culture, where the danger to never really grasp grace for oneself, or to divorce Christianity from the rest of their lives, are very real. However, I spot both those temptations within my own heart and so I’m not too concerned about handing this book to UK teenagers, students or 20somethings and letting them too marinate in grace.
Admittedly the last few chapters did feel slightly convoluted. Maybe in trying to tackle so much of what he sees as problematic in the American Christian subculture, for example the sacred/secular divide in chapter 9, it ends up feeling slightly tangential and less convincing. Given he approached the subject, I also felt he could have perhaps been clearer on God’s sovereignty over suffering, but his line about God not punishing his people as all their punishment has been taken by Jesus was powerful.
In conclusion I’m drawn to Bethke’s book. His tone is engaging and personable, and he has an uncanny ability to quickly cut to the heart. I feel the way he communicates the message of God’s grace in Jesus is so powerful, so surprising, so outrageous, that I’d happily put a book like this in someone’s hands. It informally exposes unhelpful stereotypes of Christianity. It gets grace on the table. It puts Jesus front and centre, and makes it hard for you to wriggle away playing the “but I’m quite religious” card. And so for these, I commend it.
‘Jesus > Religion’ is out in the US and comes out in the UK from October 22nd. You can pre-order on Amazon UK here.
Full disclosure: The publisher sent me a copy of the book for free, but I hope this is still a fair and honest review!
Read it? Seen the video? What do you think?