Yesterday I posted the above video by Jefferson Bethke on our blog. I posted it because I liked it, and I thought it was well done. The video has gotten a lot of attention on the Internet (not because of me) in the last couple of days, and not all of it has been positive. Today both Kevin DeYoung and Jared Wilson wrote thoughtful, helpful, insightful critiques of the video, pointing out that Jesus is not opposed to religion, and was actually very religious himself. The Friendly Atheist blog has also posted some critique of the video, as well as a number of other sources.
So let me offer a few of words in defense of the video, because I actually think it’s very good. I’m a songwriter who cares very much about creativity and sound doctrine. I love to see them blended and fused into something beautiful and doctrinally sound.
One of the first rules when it comes to interpreting a song, or any creative work for that matter, is that it must be judged on it’s own terms. In other words, the content must be interpreted based on the author’s intent. The first line of the piece is “Jesus came to abolish religion.” To that I say, “Oh really? Tell me exactly what you mean by the word ‘religion’.” Because the meaning of the entire piece depends on what Jefferson means by the word “religion”. If I’m going to critique it, I need to critique his meaning of religion, not my meaning of religion.
The critique of the video generally runs along the lines of this: Jesus was not against religion. That’s a false dichotomy that Jefferson is creating.
But I think that the wrong question is being asked. The question everyone seems to be asking is: was Jesus against religion? The answer to that question is: yes. And no. And maybe. It all depends on what you mean by the word “religion”.
But the question that everyone should be asking is: was Jesus opposed to religion as defined by Jefferson Bethke? The answer to that question is a definite yes. Jesus was opposed to self-righteous, man-made religion. Jesus was opposed to those who exalt man-made rules over the true, life-giving religion of God. The entire piece must be interpreted through that lens. You can’t separate out pieces of the song and say that they are doctrinally incorrect unless you first view the song through the lens that Jefferson intended. Every use of the word “religion” in the piece must be connected back to the original definition of the word “religion”.
In this piece, Jefferson is not talking about the Mosaic law. He’s not talking about the church as biblically defined. He’s talking about sterile, God-less, Christ-less religion.
So do I hate religion? Yes, if it’s a religion that leaves Jesus out. And that’s exactly what Jefferson is talking about. He’s not attacking the church. He says that both explicitly and implicitly. He’s not creating a false dichotomy between Jesus and religion. He is highlighting the real dichotomy between Jesus and man-made religion.
Now why do I even care about this? Because sometimes us Reformed folks, in our passion for sound doctrine and the Bible, are pretty agressive in our critique of artistic works. And in some ways, that’s very good. But I always want to make sure that our critiques are gracious AND that we critique the artist on his terms, not ours. I think that’s where some of the critiques are missing the boat.