Jesus>Religion: Why He is So Much Better than Trying Harder, Doing More and Being Good Enough.
by Jefferson Bethke
Nelson Books, 2013, 240 pages, Paperback $16.99
In January of 2012, Jefferson Bethke debuted his YouTube video, “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus,” a poetry recitation which sought to highlight the difference between the true ministry of Jesus Christ and so-called “false religion.” The video immediately went viral, amassing millions of views in less than a month. Jesus>Religion is the follow-up book, which further elucidates upon this central theme. I found this work fascinating because it provides the reader a window into attitudes on Christianity held by the twenty-something or “millennial” generation. Bethke speaks for this generation, while admitting that he is not a pastor or theologian, “just a messed-up twenty-three-year-old guy” . . . [who hopes that] “in sharing my story . . . it would somehow thread itself into yours, ultimately weaving us both closer to the ultimate story of God in heaven who pursues and loves people like us.”
In this partially autobiographical work, Bethke recalls his troubled upbringing and his struggles with the Christian life. The child of unwed parents, he was raised by his single mother, who, due to physical and mental heath problems was often unable to work and depended upon subsidized housing and welfare to make ends meet. In his junior year of high school, she confessed to Jefferson that she was gay and was abandoning the Christian faith because, according to Bethke, “the treatments of gays by conservative Christians finally got to her.” He also abandoned the faith, turning to what he refers to as the “cool” life of drinking and promiscuity. But he reveals that later in college (after being placed on academic probation, breaking up with a serious girlfriend, and being cut from the baseball team) he was led back to Christ and began devoting much of his time to theological study.
Bethke’s work is filled with pithy insights, which make Jesus>Religion well worth the read. One such insight is that the modern Church has domesticated Jesus. Upon listening to Christian radio station one afternoon, Jefferson was taken aback by the station’s tagline, “Music you can trust because it’s safe for the whole family.” He pondered, “Safe for the whole family? Is Jesus really safe for the whole family? I realized we had created a Jesus who is safe for the whole family. But if we were honest, we’d ask, how is a homeless dude who was murdered on a cross for saying he was God safe for the whole family? . . . [We’ve] turned Jesus into Mr. Rogers (‘Howdy, neighbor’). But Jesus isn’t rocking a cardigan, and he doesn’t talk softly through his nose. He’s a roaring lion.” Another important topic in the book is struggle within the Christian life, a life which is often far more challenging after conversion than it is before conversion. He writes, “How come the preachers I heard growing up all told me if I came to Jesus, he would make my life better? No more pain, no more suffering. For me, if anything, things got worse. My failures started to haunt me, I couldn’t seem to stop doing things I knew were wrong. I felt guilty all the time, and relationships and circumstances in my life were falling apart. So much for my best life now.” Bethke later realized that the Christian life was not a panacea, but was instead a life where God meets us in our suffering.
While serving as a resident assistant his senior year in college, Bethke was amazed by the nearly uniform misunderstanding about Jesus Christ displayed by his fellow students. Most saw Christ as an intolerant prude whose sole purpose was to hate gays, tattoos, parties, and cursing. They viewed Christian music as “outdated, cheesy, and generic,” a view Bethke shared. He also notes that ‘the ones who worship[ped] in spirit and not in truth [were] easy to spot. They usually [said] things like ‘I’m spiritual but not religious.’” Yet these young people are members of a generation that often suffers from emotional turmoil and emptiness. He wondered, “If only [they] knew just how loved [they] really are.”
According to Bethke, the biggest threat to Christianity are Christians themselves, who have driven people from Christ and his Church through an adherence to “religion,” which is essentially comprised of judgmental attitudes and works righteousness. He, like many others in his generation, clings to a media characterization of the fundamentalist (or even evangelical) often displayed on the Larry King show: “mean, bigoted, hateful and sometimes stupid.” He also falls into the popular fallacy that Jesus was not himself really concerned about the law, while one would think that even a cursory reading of Matthew 5 should dispel this notion forever. He opines, “No wonder the world hates us. Most of the time we’re persecuted not because we love Jesus, but because we’re prideful, arrogant jerks who don’t love the real Jesus. We’re often judgmental, hypocritical, and legalistic while claiming to follow a Jesus who is forgiving, authentic, and loving.” But can the problem of declining church attendance among millennials be primarily attributed to “prideful, arrogant jerks” in the pews?
While there is a great deal to learn about religious views of the millennial generation in Jesus>Religion, the book fails to address one of the greatest problems in Christianity today: How can we introduce our young people to the true Jesus? While modern media can provide some information about Christ, the fact remains that our youth cannot be fully catechized by YouTube videos or tweets. Instead, Christian formation takes a church (even a sometimes hypocritical and judgmental one) and hundreds of Sunday School classes and sermons within a caring community of believers. And once reached, these young believers will need to come to understand the Bible and their faith as adults. How can we make them see the real Church, rather than the media characterization of it? How are we boldly reaching out to them in the love of Jesus Christ?
Dr. Dennis Di Mauro is the pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Warrenton, VA and he teaches at St. Paul Lutheran Seminary.