Revisiting Anti-Religious Religiosity

Jefferson Bethke has offered his thoughts following the reactions to ‘Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus’.  In essence, he is attempting to humbly explain what he intended (to deconstruct a few ideas and point to Jesus), what the reactions have been, and how he is walking through this process.

Taking a few of his points, art does n’t seek to be comprehensive, but rather, expresses a particular glimpse of something.  Bethke’s professor-friend is right to a point; parables are n’t up front about the truth.  Rather, they are intuitive and, naturally, imprecise.  We should rather ask is it true rather than is it factually flawless.

I agree with him to this point, but I believe art always performs in order to express something.  At this point, we observe, as far and as fairly as we can, whether that intention was successful or unsuccessful and good or bad.  It does not do for me to judge another wholly on my standards.

Jefferson’s choice of media fit his intended audience.  He hoped to provoke some thought for those who truly do hate religion, but might give Jesus a chance if some of their misconceptions were deconstructed.  I do n’t wish to deny that some good end has come of this – some have returned to church after seeing that they are n’t condemned.  Great.  We can and should move the dialogue past this point.  No church is perfect and no evangelization strategy is perfect.  Those who enter or re-enter a community of believers should be welcomed (and discipled in truth and character).  There ‘s no point in arguing against such items, and I would n’t want to.

 

How one chooses language can be mis-leading.  That ‘s a pre-concept for this very blog.  It ‘s the reason I think philosophy, religious philosophy in particular, is difficult.  There ‘s theory which tries to describe things which occur in ‘real life’.  Bethke states that he has used ‘religion’ in the same sense that Tim Keller and Mark Driscoll use the term: to mean “moral effort attempting to appease God.”  I sincerely think this use of the term is horribly naive.  Truly, in dominant culture there is a dislike of speaking of my convictions as ‘religious’, but I can describe my experiences and practices as ‘spiritual’.  Bethke intends to show that Jesus is better than self-righteousness, but even this is not how the term is used in society.

This usage really misses the point – ‘religion’, according to etymonline.com (a favorite source for me), traces from Latin meaning to “re-read” suggesting a devotion to the spiritual authorities.  We do see a divide today (and of course throughout history) in what we say and what we do.  People bearing the name of Christianity do un-Christian things.  Religious people (read: devoted) can, and often enough do, act in ways contrary to devotion.  Such things leave a bad taste in people’s mouths.

I think this is the sense which Bonhoeffer is using (and which I believe Bethke has mis-read in favor of his usage).  From his imprisonment, Dietrich speaks of the movement of society to a “religionless time” in saying, “Even those who honestly describe themselves as ‘religious’ do not in the least act up on it, and so they presumably mean something quite different by ‘religious’. (Letters and Papers from Prison, p. 362 [as quoted by Bethke])”  Put ‘devoted’ in for ‘religious’ both times Bonhoeffer uses the term and it works.

So, Bethke’s choice of terms was poor.  I do n’t begrudge him this personally, but I do see the potential results as damaging (even if such results are n’t overtly displayed).  If his purpose was to point away from self-righteousness to Jesus (and indirectly to the church), I do n’t see how that message came through.  A few bulletin-board pieces came through -e.g., following Jesus does n’t mean signing up to be a Republican, but I fail to see how self-righteousness in particular is communicated in this piece.

 

The responses, mine included, honed in on defending ‘devotion’ not ‘self-righteousness’, so at best the resulting dialogue has respectfully and lovingly sought to clear up the confusion.  In my view, this causes more problems than it solves.  I hope I ‘m wrong and I hope that many are saved and discipled regardless of my premonitions.  Questioning Bethke’s devotion is far outside my scope and I won’t engage in such rhetoric.  In short, I do n’t believe his choice was particularly helpful (again, I hope to be wrong) – especially in terms of his target.

 

My concern is honestly for those who find his words compelling.  If they should then look around at the church and be discontented in its self-righteousness, what is to save them from their own?  I know Jefferson does n’t claim to have it all together, but how can you point to a problem of this nature and cut off the means of improvement?  Please misunderstand me well: no problem is ever fixed if no one speaks up.  The path to improvement (where possible) is to fully and critically engage.  Maybe if more religious people respectfully asked questions and tried to do the right things there would be a more fruitful dialogue.  Condemning ‘religion’ confuses this process and lends little with which to overcome pride.

The church should be the place where self-righteous people are humbled and taught to live better – it should n’t be condemned when most of what is seen is failures.  The history of God and Adam, and Cain, and Noah, and Abram, and Hagar, and Moses, and the judges and prophets and prophetesses into the history of the church tells of a lot of failures.  Honestly, if you do n’t see failures in your community you probably are n’t looking well.  But positioning yourself, as Jonah, in a position against those who try to do right is naive.  Jesus came not condemning religion and its authorities, but demonstrating true religion in practice and in teaching.  The church does n’t often live up to that, but the answer is n’t to state what Jesus is better than, but rather to try to follow Him in community.

Setting up ourselves as critical authorities is a dangerous position – it’s a lot better to describe what shortcomings you see and try to humbly assist in correcting them.  I do n’t know how that can be accomplished via YouTube…but then, maybe it should n’t.  May we all be careful to critically engage in helpful ways and may God and others forgive us when we fail.

Anti-religious religiosity: insufficent complexity in a theology of sufficiency

“We cannot understand religion or religious expressions in terms which are overly simple, and we ought to have a deep, abiding suspicion for explanations of religious behavior which fail the test of sufficient complexity, whether those explanations are given by academics, politicians, members of religious communities, or some combination of all three.”

That’s from my friend, Zack.  I have been thoroughly nauseated in the past few weeks by this ‘Jesus>Religion’ video.  Sorry, I ‘m not going to address this substantively (and sorry Zack for letting the word ‘nausea’ creep a little too closely to your name, they aren’t associated in my mind), and I ‘m not going to pat Jefferson Bethke, Driscoll-iple, for “starting dialogue” or upholding authenticity.  I ‘m happy to hear that some people have been blessed by it – but my stomach churns when I listen to such items.  My heart mourns for those who are being and have been abused by Mars Hill.  I wish I could separate these two thoughts, but for the moment, I can’t.

Simple answers harm.  I believe, simply, that the problem is looking for a simple answer.  Even hearing Bethke admit openly that he was not condemning the church does n’t abate the nausea.  Using a term deceitfully in order to uphold your own view is poor form, especially when that form fits our preference for that which makes agreement a simple matter.  ‘Religion’ for religious people (and those who follow Jesus are by nature ‘religious’) intersects with innumerable aspects of their lives.  It intersects with the political (Jesus came announcing the establishment of his kingdom, interject a study of mishpat in Isaiah), with the communal (the very nature of the church in Acts coupled with the missing priorities extolled in Corinthians and James), with the sociological (uh, people are involved), with the historical (it happened in time – even claiming that others have got it all wrong requires that you acknowledge history), with the phenomenological (stuff happened), etc.

In short, it’s irreducible.  The straw man (straw women are n’t respected enough to be rejected in Driscoll’s overt teaching, which is all that his work can be judged by for most of us) is easily dismissed.  We hit ‘like’ and are lumped in with them or we ignore it, shake our heads, and don’t agree with them.  I completely fail to see how substantive dialogue develops when terms are chosen so poorly.  For me, these concepts fail to deal with issues in sufficient complexity, whether those problems are in the church, marriage, sex, identity, leadership-models, abuse, or counseling.  Explanations can only be applied insofar as they are helpful – I fail to see how anything substantive has been added to the discussions.