Recently we’ve seen a bunch of Christian spoken word (that is, performance poetry, soft rap) videos on YouTube go viral. They often speak to the ‘cutting-edge’ of Christian theological and social developments – or at least, what is popular among some tech-savvy, plugged-in younger Christians. Our first one is called “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus.”
This video caused a huge stir when it was released in January this year (2012). At time of writing it has 22,167,394 views on YouTube and has garnered 123,580 comments, showcasing all the normal vitriol and passion that YouTube seems to draw out of people. The poem was written by Jeff Bethke and produced by Christ is King Productions, a Christian hip-hop production house.
In the video Bethke expresses his disdain for something he titles ‘religion,’ claiming that Jesus represents its opposite. Unfortunately it is not entirely clear what Bethke means by ‘religion.’ Although many would take it as meaning organised, institutionalised religion, Bethke denies this was his intention. “If you are using my video to bash ‘the church’ be careful. I was in no way intending to do that,” he wrote. “The Church is Jesus’ bride so be careful how you speak of His wife.”
Instead, ‘religion’ comes to have a very specific meaning in Bethke’s theology. “I meant religion equals any work of righteousness that has someone hoping to earn favour with God,” he told HuffPost in an interview. “Religion is man performing for God. Grace is Jesus performing for man. That fact humbled me, broke my heart, and changed my life.”
However convoluted Bethke’s own word usages are, the sentiment ties into a long historical development of evangelical Christianity in the United States. Bethke wasn’t the first to say Jesus Hates Religion. From the Reformation onwards, as Western society has become steadily more individualised, we’ve seen Christian theology take the same route. It’s not about following a priest, you don’t need any mediator, you only need the Bible and your own faith, it’s all about a personal relationship with Jesus – this has been the message of Protestant Christianity from the moment Martin Luther rejected the structures of Catholicism. Bethke is ultimately repackaging radical Protestant theology for a new, YouTube-connected audience.
“Religion’s like spraying perfume on a casket,” Bethke says in his video, it’s just “a long list of chores,” like decorating a mummy while “the corpse rots underneath.” There’s something eerily similar in these images to one presented in this next video: “This is us: heap up your good deeds. Chant. Pray. Meditate. Well all of that of course is spraying cologne on a corpse.” Check out “Life in Six Words: The GOSPEL.”
The video ostensibly summarises the message of the Gospels into a six-word acrostic poem. But, of course, no act of summarising is passive: what is ultimately produced is a particular interpretation of Jesus’ message, one that draws on particular historical streams of Christian thought. The primary thrust of the video is that “sin cannot be removed by good deeds,” only by faith in Jesus. This is the doctrine of sola fide, or grace by faith alone, and it is one of the major points of difference between most Protestant denominations and the Catholic Church (thanks again to our old friend Luther).
So don’t strive to be a good person, say our contemporary YouTube preachers. That’s not what Christianity is about. It’s only putting on a mask. After all, Jesus has done everything for you already – you just need to believe that. I just hope the good deeds sneak back in somewhere.