The Poem Heard ‘Round the World

This makes me not want to be “famous.”

If you have not been paying attention to facebook, twitter, and blog posts, there has been a video going viral (7.7 million hits) about how Jesus is greater than religion.

Seattle resident Jeff Bethke made a sequel to his Sexual Healing video (which really was an excellent piece) and titled it Jesus >Religion.

I encourage you to watch it.

As the watch count grew rapidly, so did the critics.  People of all theological shapes and sizes, from Christian Orthodox clergy to lay Roman Catholic parishioners to Gospel Coalition pastors, have jumped on this video to comment on its theological assertions.  Some critics are legitimately out to shepherd their flock and guard the church.  I get that, it is the pastor’s job and dutiful delight.   They are charged to do so because they love their people.  Some of the “critics” (I put critics in quotations to try and differentiate between those who wrote to edify not to be associated with haters) in this camp were encouraging and helpful and genuinely wanted the best for Bethke. I thank God for them.

Others, however, make unhelpful comments and draw erroneous conclusions.  Those are the comments that are, quite frankly, the most destructive and hurtful.  It does not show how much they can theologically flex but rather how little thought they have given to this particular issue.  (For those in this camp, know that Jeff is not a wolf to shoot.)

This post is not intended to be a polemic against the polemicists.  I actually have a different reason for writing: some clarifications from the video that need to be made and then a couple lessons to be gleaned.

I will keep these observations brief.  First it seems beneficial to note differences between definitions. A common critique is that Bethke “anti-religion” and somehow promulgates a “Jesus and me” theology absent of any sort of ecclesiological background.  This is gathered from the first line and the central argument, “Jesus came to abolish religion.”  Okay so by that…Bethke does seem pretty anti-religious.

But let’s not put the cart before the horse on this one.  Rule number one of good listening  is to examine the authorial intent because problems arise when the receiver imports unintended meaning into the sender’s message.  So what is Bethke’s working definition of religion?  It seems that we have two options.

Option number one is that religion is the vibrant worshipful manifestation of the worshipper’s inward delight in God showing itself in community with joy filled acts that are by no means salvific but are dependent and Sprit wrought by their nature.  Option number two is the negative definition of this term.  It is used to describe unbelief covered up by good deeds and begrudging submission.  It is used to describe the act of trying to please the Father through self styled self-righteousness. It is used to describe those who revel in their legalism and moralism.  This definition sees the discontinuity of individuals who have Christian on their Facebook but live life divorced from any semblance of the gospel.

I submit that Jeff is dealing with the second option.  So when he says, “Jesus came to abolish religion” he is declaring that Jesus came to do away with the religion that tries to get God without receiving the risen Christ.  So is Bethke anti-religious?  Depends on what you mean.  Better, it depends on what he means. Yes. He is against religion that tries to be self-dependent to earn affection instead of resting in God’s given affection from our profound union in/with Christ. (Additionally when we speak of Jesus being rightly religious we mean the first definition.)
For a brilliant post on the differences between religion and the gospel see Tullian’s compilation from Tim Keller sermons on this topic.  There is also a video of Dr. Keller saying that we should speak of Jesus and religion differently.  (Citing Mr. Keller seems to authenticate the distinction.)

Secondly, we must do some work to examine Bethke’s intended audience.  I won’t spend much time on this so we will make this count.  Residing in Seattle area, Bethke does not lay his head in an area in which a majority profess to be Christian.  His context is largely those who know little of Jesus, little of the cross, but are well versed with the “dangers of religion” (religion used in the pejorative sense). His intended audience, as much as I can gather from his context and overall thrust of his message, are those who associate Christianity with Jesus, wars, picketing, hyper conservatism, followers who have no grace, and a defend/attack view of culture.  Bethke intends to reach those who have been hurt by the church, don’t feel that it is okay to not be okay in the church, who know nothing of the church, or hate the church all-together.  (Therefore in the beginning of the poem, Bethke is listing common views people have of Christianity to get those out of the way so that he can get to Jesus.)

Last thing I will say on this topic is that Bethke says very matter of fact that he loves the church, Jesus, and Scripture.  The backdrop of his poem, though specifically unstated, is a high ecclesiology with robust bibliology.  Ill let close this with Jeff’s own words from a Facebook status update, “I was in no way intending to [supply ammunition for people to bash the church]. My heart came from trying to highlight and expose legalism and hypocrisy. The Church is Jesus’ bride…The church is His vehicle to reach a lost word. A hospital for sinners. Saying you love Jesus but hate the Church, is [absolutely ludicrous]… We are all under grace. Look to Him.”

I conclude with a some lessons we can glean from this.

1) Humility.  One quality that I have admired about Bethke’s handling of both unhelpful and helpful criticism is his humility. Through tweets and facebook posts, he has thanked those who have sought to better him by clarifying his theology. For example, Kevin DeYoung wrote a critique to which Jeff responded. I am encouraged by humility from both Kevin and Jeff. DeYoungs first post. Jeff’s response.
Having humility to accept unhelpful criticism with grace and an attitude of learning is a testament to the work God is doing in Jeff.  As I am reproved by my church home and the brothers I do life with here at Moody,  I pray that I would react in manifesting my heartfelt desire to delight in the fruit of the Spirit.

2) I don’t think I could ever be famous. This whole ordeal reminds me that I am not one who could be a podcasted pastor or one of those “Christian celebrities.”  The words of those who are given a higher platform are scrutinized.  This is why James 3:1 says, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” God is the ultimate judge and He does judge teachers harsher.  Rightly so!  They teach His flock.
It is just a little terrifying.

3) His grace is sufficient. This is something I can rest in. I WILL say something wrong. I HAVE said wrong thing about God and His people. I can find rest in the fact that in Christ, His grace is sufficient to cover my slip-ups.  This is where a pastor or the author of a viral video should dwell.

4) Pray for your leaders.  I have this as the last one because your pastor or favorite prominent Christian leader stands on a platform that is easy pickens for those critics who just want to flex their theological muscles.  Those critics can be demoralizing and can singlehandedly rob the joy from pastoring.  (Again I want to state that there is a profound difference between those who sit at their keyboards ready for a debate and those who reprove for exhortation.)  Beg God to give them wisdom and to remind them that their identity lies in Jesus and His person and work rather than the comments of the “haters.”

Is Jeff’s video perfect? Absolutely not. There are things about communicating that Jeff could learn and some formal training that he would benefit from.  But dont miss the point.

God has done the work and brought us near to Himself. We need not earn it nor be afraid of it. Grace was given to us in the person and work of Christ.  

What did you think of the poem? What do you make of differentiating Jesus and religion?

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2 comments on “The Poem Heard ‘Round the World
  1. taylor says:

    Extremely well written review of the video. At first, I loved the video and was not critical enough in listening to what I was so quick to praise. I admit watching it and not stepping back to examine the context and intended audience. As followers of Christ we are called to be wise in discerning everything that comes our way-no matter how neatly packaged/popular/heavily criticized it is in the media or by other Christians. Thank you for clearly highlighting the strong points in Bethke’s claims for they shed new light on this poem.

    • Chris Lash says:

      Thanks Taylor!,

      I appreciate you reading and your thoughtful comments.
      Yeah we have a tendency to swing the pendulum of hating something because it is popular (hipster-syndrome/old-man-hating-everything-syndrome) or loving it simply because it evokes Jesus’ name (naive-youth-group-kid-syndrome). I admit i oscillate quite often. So it is good to evaluate the poem/other Christian material by the ruler of the gospel and see what is helpful.

      Not only that, but I know Jeff, so I felt like I needed to stick up for my boy.

      Thanks again Taylor!

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