On How to Respond to Critics
I'm sure you've seen You Tube video by Jefferson Bethke entitled “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus.” The video was uploaded last week and has become YouTube's most-watched video... and one of it's most controversial. There were several links to this video posted by Facebook friends (I never have to go looking for these; someone always brings them to my attention). If you you haven't watched it, go ahead and give it a look. Then I want to make a powerful point. Actually, it is a powerful point I was pointed to by Rachel Held Evans that Bethke himself makes in response to some of his critics.
Bethke is contrasting faith in Jesus with the kind of religiosity represented by the Pharisees that Jesus condemns in texts like Matthew 6 and Matthew 23. And I get it. It's a good point. So many of us (and Bethke includes his past self here) want to substitute doing religious things (like going to church, which is really pretty easy) for a genuine walk-like-Jesus discipleship (like actually taking the Sermon on the Mount seriously, which isn't very easy at all). And sometimes our religious systems get in the way of actually living like Jesus.
Where Bethke runs afoul of his critics (and they may have a point) is that he uses the word "religion" here as a synonym for the hypocritical and hypercritical ritualism that ignores the heart and the spirit of the Law that Jesus was condemning in the Pharisees. But that isn't how the New Testament uses it. The word "religion" (Greek "threskeia") is sometimes used to denounce the "self-made religion" (Greek "ethelothreskia") that focuses on the "appearance of wisdom" and "asceticism and severity to the body" (Col 2:22, ESV). But sometimes the New Testament uses "religion" to describe the disciple's willingness to control hos or her language, to help the poor and the powerless and to keep oneself "unstained by the world" (James 1:26-27, NRSV). So religion isn't bad; only bad religion is bad. Not only is religion not bad; sometimes even those external rituals (like observing holy days and eating kosher foods) can been good if they help us focus on God... and if we resist the annoying tendency to judge those who don't follow our exact program. There is nothing bad about religion... unless it's bad religion. For the record, I liked Bethke's video... except the part that I didn't.
But none of that is my point. In Rachel Held Evans' Sunday Superlatives 1/15/2012 blog (which is kind of highlight look back at the week on the blogoshere), she points to Bethke's response to some criticism he received for his video. As one who has been criticized (both constructively and otherwise) over things I've written and taught, I wish I could say that I always handled critics with as much grace and humility as does he. But I haven't. We'd have far fewer theological squabbles if we were all as open and willing to learn and as unwilling to depend our turf as is this brother here--
“I just wanted to say I really appreciate your article man. It hit me hard. I’ll even be honest and say I agree 100%. God has been working with me in the last 6 months on loving Jesus AND loving his church. For the first few years of walking with Jesus (started in ’08) I had a warped/poor paradigm of the church and it didn't build up, unify, or glorify His wife (the Bride). If I can be brutally honest I didn’t think this video would get much over a couple thousand views maybe, and because of that, my points/theology wasn’t as air-tight as I would’ve liked. If I redid the video tomorrow, I’d keep the overall message, but would articulate, elaborate, and expand on the parts where my words and delivery were chosen poorly… My prayer is my generation would represent Christ faithfully and not swing to the other spectrum….thankful for your words and more importantly thankful for your tone and fatherly like grace on me as my elder. Humbled. Blessed. Thankful for painful growth.”
I thought his video was good and helpful. But his example here on how to handle criticism and the critics who offer it is extremely helpful. Maybe if we would all follow his example, we'd come a bit closer to living out Jesus' prayer for our unity in John 17.