Rethink: Should I come back?
The first time I watched Jefferson Bethke’s YouTube poem, “I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus,” I knew it bothered me—I just didn’t know why.
I could point to surface reasons, like the video’s clichéd, formulaic nature; the fact that it doubles as a marketing campaign for interchangeable wristwatches (see the video’s information section); and the poem’s bizarre claim that Christianity is somehow not a religion. But nonetheless, I could tell there was something more to my discomfort, something deeper.
It took nearly a week, but it finally hit me. It wasn’t the video. It wasn’t the poem. It wasn’t even the disturbing concept of consuming for Jesus. No, what began to hit me were the experiences I could sense behind Bethke’s words—experiences I share.
Like Bethke, I too left organized religion for a period of time. In fact, had my experiences not predated YouTube, I suppose I could have been Bethke. In a sense, though, I suppose I was.
I didn’t give up overnight, because I didn’t have to wait that long. It all happened in a matter of hours. I was nineteen, a college student and inquisitive about my faith. The problem, I realize now, wasn’t my questions as much as where I chose to raise them.
The setting was an adult Sunday school class in my home church. My question, I recall, was a simple one, something to do with the nature of Scripture. The leader’s response was, well…this: “Why don’t you just not come back, Matt?”
I can remember leaving church that day having to ask myself a question I never thought I would ask: “Should I come back?”
The answer came several hours later in the form of a phone call from an adult whom I greatly respected at the time. He had called to accuse me of attempting to—I’ll never forget the words—“destroy the ministry of Christ.”
This wasn’t necessarily an isolated incident, but that day was the tipping point. That was the day I decided I didn’t need religion. I didn’t need its intolerant ways, its narrow-mindedness and self-righteous accusations. I had Jesus, I told myself, and that was enough. Or so I thought.
I can’t be certain, of course, but I imagine the experiences behind Jefferson Bethke’s poem are not all that unlike my own. In fact, I suspect they’re not all that unlike experiences many have had with organized religion at one point or another.
As I look back now, though, I see how wrong I was to assume that all I needed was Jesus. It’s an idea that may sound appealing in theory but ultimately overlooks religion’s role as the creative vehicle of our faith. The point is not that we should love religion; it’s that Jesus cannot be detached from it. Hating religion but loving Jesus is like saying, “I hate bikes, but love bicycling.” Or, “I hate history, but love George Washington.” Clearly, one depends on the other.
If my long journey back to organized religion has taught me just one thing, it’s how essential religion is to my faith as a Christian, how I meet and experience Jesus through the means of religion. Scripture, the creeds and confessions, the community of faith, the sacraments and the great cloud of witnesses—each underlie and enhance my faith in Christ. And for that I am grateful.
Religion may not be perfect, but it’s far from the “infection” that Jefferson Bethke claims it to be.
~ An invited commentary by Matthew Smith
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Originally Posted: Nov 17, 2011