1.13.2012

When it comes to Jesus, we are all unbelievers


Why I love Jesus but Hate Religion, is the title of a short spoken word video that has recently gone viral.  Let me just say at the top, I like the sentiment in it, but what I find interesting is the variety of perspectives on it.  We have both the non-religious giving it a shout-out, and the Evangelical crowd trying to draw a distinction between "religion" and the one true way.  Others are accurately pointing out how "religious" Jesus was, pointing to chapter and verse where he regularly went to the synagogue.

As is often the case, we commonly see what we want to see, myself included.  What Evangelicals see in this film is a line of reasoning that says, "I'm not merely religious, I take this stuff seriously.  A relationship with Jesus is so much more than mere religion."  While in contrast, the non-church attender sees in this video a version of Jesus they like, one which allows them to understandably reject what they see as the inconsistencies of religion.

But are Jesus and religion actually odds?  The answer is a mixed bag.

We already noted that Jesus was a religious person.  He was a practicing Jew who attended synagogue on a regular basis. However he also had harsh words for the religious leaders of his day.  He took exception to the fact that the faith leaders would load people down with immense religious, social, and psychological burdens yet did little to help them.

The Apostle Paul took up a similar problem in his letter to the church in Rome, hypocrisy.  If you're brought up Jewish, (Evangelical, Catholic, or whatever one's tradition is) don't assume that you can lean back in the arms of your religion and take it easy, feeling smug because you're an insider to God's revelation, a connoisseur of the best things of God, informed on the latest doctrines! While preaching "Don't steal!" are you going to rob people blind? Who would suspect you? The same with adultery. You can get by with almost anything if you front it with eloquent talk about God and his law...  "It's because of you Jews that the outsiders are down on God." Romans 2:17-24 MSG

Clearly religious hypocrisy has been a problem for a long time.  But if I loosely lump all religious people together, I'm not really adding anything to the conversation, that is just a caricature.

What made Jesus unique is that while being religious, he was most comfortable with those that the religious leaders of his day despised.  And what made him truly exceptional was that he lived a life consistent with what he taught.  He spoke with an authority that demanded a response. Jesus spoke with the kind of authority that I sometimes see in say a beloved grandfather who can lovingly and thoughtfully call me out.  "That's bull shit, and you know it" he might say with a twinkle in his eye, in response to my protest that there is nothing wrong with whatever I might want to justify that day.  The truth is that if I know what I am doing is wrong, and I just try to fool people, I condemn myself.

So do I hate religion but love Jesus?  I appreciate the sentiment, but if I go to church on a regular basis, I am religious by any standard dictionary definition.  I do, therefore I am religious.

That said, I identify with both the religious and the irreligious.  I find a film like Religulous with Bill Maher to be both hilarious and telling.  Yet I still attend worship services on a regular basis.  (Why is a separate conversation.)  While I appreciate the sentiment in Bad Religion's, American Jesus, to say I am not religious but love Jesus would be disingenuous for me.  Maybe those that don't go to church on a regular basis can accurately say this, but not those of us who are a part of the church.

I understand that the word "religious" has negative connotations, and people are trying to distance themselves from those connotations, but I think it is better to simply own who I am.  The whole, "religion is us reaching up, but in Christ, God reached down" is a good one-liner Evangelicals and others like to use, but if you go to church on a regular basis, then you are religious.

At the end of the day I am a Christian: a religious, orthodox, follower of Jesus... except when I do not, which is often.  Most of us who call ourselves Christians in America today "lean back in the arms of our religion, and take it easy."

Here are a few thoughts that I feel do express an appropriate attitude toward religion.

"Don't pray that God's on our side, pray that we're on his side" - President Lincoln.

"Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair." - G.K. Chesterson

"Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress." - The Apostle James

In many respects, the themes of that spoken word piece are in step with these thoughts.  I don't directly disagree with him. The problem is, I don't do any of these things well either.  Have I tried to integrate my career and my spirituality with what James called true religion?  Yes.  I have gone out of my way to live amongst the poor and the down trodden on the wrong side of the free-way, and I have been a part of some unique churches that place a premium on service, but that is...  (how shall we put it) of little consequence.  Rather, I identify with a father who came to Jesus desperate for the salvation of his child.  He came asking for a literal salvation from the demons that besieged his son, and in the midst of his desperation he cried out, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”  That man found salvation.  And I think he expresses the struggle many of us share.

When it comes to following the example of Jesus Christ, we are all unbelievers.  We have domesticated the raw power of the man-god that strips away the pretensions of religious and irreligious alike; the fiction that I can go it alone, or that because I'm in, I'm good.  In actuality, we are all fatally flawed.

The author of this spoken word piece tries to draw a distinction between religion and Christ, saying that Jesus is the object of true religion.  It is an understandable stance.  But the real divide is between human and divine, not Jesus and religion. In this life, the religious and the irreligious stand together, flawed, human, and in need of someone to help us with our manifest unbelief.

7 comments:

Wikkid Person said...

Lotta good thoughts in that. I think at all times there are two things going on:
-a very up front 'us vs. them' thing, which in modern times has become less of a "I would die for our side" and more of like cheering for one hockey team or another. It always confuses me when American republicans or democrats fling nasty spiteful-sounding 'we're it and you're shit' stuff at the other side, and if you try to have any kind of serious talk about it, suddenly they kind of reveal that to them, although they kind of claim to care about it, mostly it's a game. It's childish name-calling without any desire, interest or even ability to discuss any of it or back any of it up. They want to say "end of discussion" to make sure there isn't one, because they're not into comprehension and understanding each other, but just competing. Us vs. them.
-a much harder to see, and in my opinion easily missed and very valuable thing where understanding is pretty much waiting to happen. If you're willing to stop feeding your ego identity with the labels ("*I'M* a Christian/an atheist, while you're just the OTHER thing!") you will how much the same you are, and how much you agree upon, and how much you can connect and work together, so that when you do find things that you differ on, you can have a working relationship together that supports a discussion and will tend to lead to growing understanding and learning from each other.

That being said, I think Jesus wasn't very twinkley when he was saying all those things about what he thought was weak, self-righteous, fleshly, empty bullshit. You know? The stuff they wanted him dead over? The stuff people were offended at? I can't read the gospels without seeing someone who ranted and raved enough to upset people. Very political, very ascerbic. But only toward religious stuff. Not toward ANYTHING else. When it came to drunkards, whores and extortioners, he'd either not talk about it at all (he wasn't on earth to stop people from doing these things, not a whit more than we are either) or blankly mention it ("the one you're with right now is not your husband") if it was on topic, but not in the same ranty, name-calling way he used when publicly standing up and loudly attacking religious practices and figures like Pharisees and Sadducees.
Paul defines "true religion" as doing things that Jesus actually isn't documented as spending much time doing. According to Paul, true religion wasn't showing up at synagogue. It was helping the widows and fatherless. Jesus certainly healed the sick, but we don't read of him turning the widow's two mites into an hundred and twenty mites, nor making sure that the beggar's purse kept coming up with coins. He only did the "coin in a fish's mouth" trick to handle taxes for his own sake, and more importantly, to make a point.
So, given what Paul said, I don't think going to church or singing hymns or worshipping or bible-reading is religious. That's personal stuff between us and Jesus, and it's far too intimate and personal to be merely religious practice. True religion is charity work.
And we seem to need continually to un-confuse discussions which blur Jesus and church together. That's for a very simple reason: in our culture, what we call religion (in direct contradiction to any biblical definition of religion) has become for many, nothing but idolatry. Idolatry is a thing you do instead of directly dealing with the divine. Instead of talking to God, you sing about Him. Instead of feeling about Him, you sing about and do PowerPoint about how you feel about Him. And then in charity work (true religion) you spend huge amounts "raising awareness" of poverty, without having to actually talk to any dirty people.

David Best said...

I would agree that there was no twinkle when he was busting up the temple. That line was aimed at my fellow drunks and whores, in line with "then neither do I condemn you, now go and sin no more."

As for what is religious conduct and what is not. A definition of religion or religious conduct is the crux of much of the hair splitting going on around this video.

Some would take issue with the distinctions you make between Paul and Jesus, but I can see where you are coming from. While you may be textually accurate, I'm not sure that I would agree with you thematically. But again, I can see where you are coming from. It is not a big deal to me.

I chose to use the standard dictionary definition of religious because I think it is one that is accessible to the religious and irreligious alike. Many have their own definition. For the evangelical, most religion is false religion, therefore they are not religious. Others feel is is loaded with negative connotations. I tried to break that down and speak to both sides by using the standard definition.

Wikkid Person said...

I love it. What we're coming down to is pretty much "I can certainly disagree, but I think we can agree, so let's agree." Awesome. I think that's the point. Your blog fueled a blog entry of mine (and I hadn't blogged since Christmas). Hope you don't mind.

Wikkid Person said...

I'm trying to set up a strict protocol in my life where, once a topic gets sufficiently sensitive or sufficiently fine distinctions are being made, or sufficiently controversial points seem to need to be made, that I try to say "Okay, that's something that needs to be discussed at least by telephone, if we can't actually discuss it over a beer." With telecommunications being designed to put a buffer in place to limit intimacy of human interaction, I don't know that people do that enough. I believe in a Jesus who'd say some pretty harsh stuff, including name-calling and posting a physical threat, but I can't imagine him flaming someone on YouTube or sending rude texts. Disagreeing with what I perceived to be your points caused a pretty heart-felt blog entry. Don't mean to presume or claim or wish to be in any position to judge the correctness of your points as you feel and understand them on any deep level. Responding to what I thought they were, and using it as a springboard to saying stuff that matters to me, how I see things. (through a glass darkly)

David Best said...

As to the thematic agreement of Paul, Jesus, and James, consider Luke 4.

14 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15 He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.

16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[f]

Wikkid Person said...

Isn't that the one that ends with them trying to toss him off a cliff, for his religious behaviour?

I think a much better poem video, and one with more integrity (I see your problems with Christians claiming stuff they shouldn't) is this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EieFdXy_HwM

David Best said...

Correct. When they realized he was not just reading a passage but talking about them (Romans 2 applied to Evangelicals) they were not so happy about that. Though more specifically, they realized he was calling himself the Son of God, and well that we just can't have.