I can't blame Jefferson Bethke for his views. At one time, I also was a twentysomething who delighted myself with the hip "spiritual" crowd of a non-denominational church, bent on reaching the "unchurched" with our cool, un-demanding church services. If you've not seen the video yet, here it is:
If you're unfamiliar with "spoken word," it's a style of poetry where the person stands up to recite a poem entirely from memory, with the cadence of a rapper and some dramatic gestures thrown in. I like spoken word and someday would like to try it. I may even create my own spoken word response to this one. We'll see.
But the point of this post is to once again challenge the notion that religion and love of Jesus are somehow incompatible or diametrically opposed from one another. From my church "world tour," I can now see the fallacy of such an argument.
Other Catholic writers have done a fantastic job in challenging this young man's points. Marc from the blog "Bad Catholic" hammered Bethke for the outrageous claim that Jesus Christ came to abolish religion. Just because a few hard-headed and hard-hearted Pharisees questioned Jesus' claims (and Jesus' responses to them), doesn't mean Jesus wished to kick Judaism to the curb.
Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin also weighed in and wisely pointed out that you cannot separate the Church from Jesus Christ, and you can't separate religion from Christ and the Church. I think both posts are well worth a read.
And my additional thoughts are this: Religion is for adults. As St. Paul says, "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways." (1 Cor. 13:11) Just as in the natural world, there is an evolution from being a child to becoming an adult; so it is in the spiritual world.
When we are young, we are naturally self-absorbed. We look for our own needs to be met and if we don't have adult supervision that reminds us the world does not revolve around us, we can easily become spoiled and carry that view into adulthood. As children, we don't want to do anything if we don't "feel like it." We want to choose the best slice of pie instead of giving it to our little brother. We think it's vastly unfair that our parents interrupt our fun by telling us it's time to go to bed. Every time a wise parent says "no" to our demands, we twist inside, angry and resentful while realizing deep down that it just might be for our own good.
When a person suddenly becomes serious about their relationship with God through His Son, Jesus Christ, there is a beautiful elated period that many call "the honeymoon." Everything is sunshine and roses. The person can't help but tell others of this amazing thing that just happened to them. They often try wrong-headed but good-hearted approaches to get others on board. They splash around the Bible, delighting in deeper study because now the Holy Spirit is showing them the many beautiful facets of truth.
And then reality sets in.
Reality is suddenly realizing that there is suffering involved. Sacrifice. Prayer that often feels dry. Meeting people in church that you really don't like. Tackling church politics and responding to false accusations with love, truth, and grace; followed by more prayer for those who want to destroy you.
What is the foundation that will help a Christian withstand such challenges while maturing them in their faith? Is it what I now call the "entertainment centers" where the biggest draw to a church service is a rocking worship band? Is it the squishy doctrine of the "Emerging Church" where they claim they're unsure what the Bible says about homosexuality? The Emerging Church also wants to find common ground with Islam, which is another topic altogether regarding polytheism but serves as a reminder that gnosticism is alive and well.
Perhaps the reason religion gets such a bad rap is because it expects something from us. There is a specific doctrine that requires obedience. This doesn't sit well with those who wish to believe whatever they believe because it's "true for them." Rationalization is often an attempt to justify doing whatever we want, whenever and wherever. Much like the child who argues with a parent that if they stay up past their bedtime to watch a movie, they'll still be able to get up early the next morning.
Bethke says in the video regarding religion (He says 'see' quite often. But I don't think he does.):
"See, one is the work of God, the other is a man-made invention. See, one is the cure, but the other is the infection. See, because religion says 'do,' and 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. And that's why religion and Jesus, are two different clans. Religion is man searching for God, Christianity is God searching for man.... 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."
So religion is an infection? A man-made invention? How does one square those views with the fact that God gave to Israel the Ten Commandments? And Levitical law? And Deuteronomy? (Which interestingly enough, the Hebrew word for Deuteronomy is Devarim, which means 'spoken words.')
And the "do" and "done" doesn't make sense. Yes, Jesus Christ's sacrificial death on the cross paid for our sin, but that doesn't mean we as believers in Christ have nothing left to do. St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians: "Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling." (Phil. 2:12)
The Greek word for "work out" is katergazomai, and it means "to perform, to accomplish, to achieve." Yes, Jesus paid the price, but it is I who am dependent upon the mercy and grace of God to live my life by doing the will of my heavenly Father.
And how does this doing come about? Is it from attending an entertainment center? Or is it from an intentional inquiry into doctrine to which I am held accountable? Does the doing come about because I float from one experience to the other? Or does it come from acknowledging there are rules to obey because they bring life and not death?
I made a joke when I first returned to Catholicism that I wanted to create tee-shirts which said, "I'm Religious, Not Spiritual." I find great value in religion and view it as bringing good into this world. I believe religion offers a high standard to which we all should aspire to meet. I do not believe this conflicts with Jesus' mission to the world and certainly don't believe that Jesus came to "abolish religion." If anything, Jesus' mission boosted religion's purpose. No longer was obedience to religious tenets a tedious and difficult affair as man fought with his flesh in fulfilling the Law. With the grace of God extended to man through the propitiation of Jesus Christ's death; religion was now a joyful adventure as man was strengthened by the Holy Spirit to live a life obedient to God. Jesus Christ abolishing religion? Far from it (emphasis mine):
Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5:17-20)
It doesn't sound as though Jesus is hatin' on the scribes and Pharisees in these verses. In fact, He is intentionally extolling them as role models. In Jesus' day, the Pharisees were the religious sect that represented the common people. It was the Sadducees who were comprised of elite and aristocratic Jews. The Sadducees were also sticklers for the written word while the Pharisees were into the oral tradition. They might of liked Bethke's performance but have been mystified by his points.
In summary, Scripture does not support Bethke's assertions.
Religion has done far more good than bad in this world. It has served as a strong foundation for building up the faith of many Christians. It has challenged Christians throughout history to serve God, no matter how high the cost and to bring the gospel to the lost. It has given Christians a clearly defined path toward becoming holy. It has drawn believers closer to God.
This is why I love religion. When Jesus Christ said He would not leave us orphans, He meant He would not leave us without the proper care and instruction a parent would give to His child. How else is this care and instruction provided except through the structure of religion? Who else can give this care and instruction except the apostles of Jesus Christ, who are our priests and bishops? And who else can lead the distribution of the care and instruction so it is consistent and accurately available to all, except our Pope?
St. Ignatius of Antioch said this in 107 A.D.: "Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church."
There is truth to be had in St. Ignatius' words. I am hoping the Jefferson Bethkes of the world will hear them.