Sunday, January 13, 2013
Wednesday, January 25, 2012
Friday, January 13, 2012
A few days ago, I saw a video that had gone viral of a man named Jefferson Bethke performing a spoken word piece about how the concept of religion was compromising the true gospel…at least, that was my interpretation of the piece. I realize that pieces of art (such as spoken word) can be very subjective and many different people can take it many different ways. Following are the links to the video and the transcription of the piece:
Two people in particular, an Orthodox Christian pastor named Andrew Stephen Damick and a Catholic named Marc Barnes took issue with the "dangerous" message and posted their responses (props to my wife for directing me to these sites):
They both had really good things to say and even admittedly agree with Bethke on many of his statements. In my opinion, however, they both largely missed the point of Bethke’s piece. Since I was so moved by Bethke’s message and Damick and Barnes appear to be so appalled, I figured I would blog about it. Please note: I am not claiming to be any kind of authority on Catholicism, scripture or orthodoxy…I just felt compelled to comment on some of the things that were said.
Originally, I had planned to do a line by line response to each of their responses but, realized that it might end up taking up too many pages and get too confusing. Instead, I will take some parts from both where I disagree most strongly and respond accordingly. Before I do that, however, I thought it worth prefacing this whole post with the following three points which summarize my overall disagreement with both Damick and Barnes:
1. It is important to recognize Bethke’s piece as a piece of art and not an attempt to condemn any particular church or even the concept of religion in its true sense. Bethke makes it clear that he “love[s] the church” and “the Bible.” Furthermore, many of his words of choice are based on both rhyming and the cadence of his performance. Both Damick and Barnes pick away at many portions within the piece with little to no regard to the artistic license that should be afforded such a piece that never claims to be anything but a spoken word piece. Their combined thrust seems to be a misguided attempt to defend entities that were never attacked in the first place…not by Bethke anyway. Damick goes so far as the stop publishing comments such as these (due to the excessive responses) where arguments are made for artistic license amonst other things.
2. Bethke never specifically states what he means by “religion” despite attempts by both Damick and Barnes to suggest that his use of the word applies to either the Catholic or Orthodox church or specific tenets and/or concepts therein. He leaves his use of the word religion open to interpretation but, the entire piece, in context, suggests that it is meant to refer to the concept of religion in many peoples’ minds (most of them outside the church or having left the church due to being hurt in one way or another by one or more of its members). To these people, religion is likely the judgmental, exclusionary, archaic, impersonal version that they experienced. Many people seeking Jesus have found religion to ultimately represent the opposite of what he was about. Due to our collective brokenness as humankind, we inevitably will provide a poor representation of Jesus which is what people really need. There are t-shirts made about this very thing (http://www.zazzle.com/please_jesus_t_shirt-235643392170620846). Bethke paints a picture of what Jesus is (i.e. the gospel) which, for many people, flies in the face of their concept of religion. This was true in Jesus’ time and today.
3. Damick, Barnes and the collective body of Christ are arguably not Bethke’s target audience. I suspect that, much like Jesus, Bethke is speaking to the sick and the broken. If I had to guess, I would think that most people whose concept of religion most closely match Bethke’s piece are not found in the church. They are likely the people who continue to search for meaning or purpose and may or may not have been left wanting through their personal experience with religion or church. If church goers fall into Bethke’s “religion” category, they are likely the one’s giving Jesus a bad name by either failing to feed the poor, telling “single moms God doesn’t love them if they’ve ever been divorced” or engaging in some other condescending and/or judgmental behavior that has for so long defined “religious people” in the minds of those outside the body of Christ.
If you read the comments after Damick’s article, there is a commentor named Melvin who probably best summarizes my main beefs with his critique better than I ever could. I still wanted to speak to some of the specific things said in both articles, however. I have done my best to keep this organized as it is my response to two different people’s response to one person’s spoken word piece. In some instances, I only respond to one of them as the other may or may not have responded to Bethke.
Bethke: What if I told you, Jesus came to abolish religion?
Damick’s response to Bethke: Well, I’d ask what exactly you mean by “religion.” After all, that word, which you use as if it were some monolithic institution or set of behaviors or philosophy, can refer to everything from exactly what you’re doing in this video to when Jesus went up to Jerusalem for the Passover to the human sacrifice of the Thuggee cult in India to the fivefold kneeling in prayer of the Muslim. There really is no such thing as “religion” in any sense that it could be criticized with any detail. There are religions, but there isn’t “religion,” not really. No doubt you just mean Jesus came to abolish bad religions. But you didn’t say that. What’s worst about this, though, is that religion is actually a rather great word, once you look inside it. It’s from Latin, and it means “reconnection” (re + ligio). Is that what you mean Jesus came to abolish? I had gotten the impression that reconnection was actually the purpose of His coming.
My response to Damick’s response to Bethke: Your assumption is equally dangerous in that you take his statement as either meant to refer to bad religions or worse yet left open ended enough for interpretation where one might suggest that Bethke is saying that Jesus came to abolish any kind of “reconnection” with Jesus. Taking the entire piece in context clearly refutes your attempt at skewing Bethke’s words to even possibly suggest such a thing. Suffice to say that your response, particularly the last part, is irresponsible and makes no attempt to recognize Bethke’s (admittedly assumed, on my part) interpretation of religion. You essentially take one sentence from a poem and extrapolate that the poet is either not specific enough thereby making him a heretic or making an argument that Jesus came to abolish any reconnection with him. Absurd.
Barnes response to Bethke: So onto the first bit of silliness — the idea that Jesus came to abolish religion. Unforgivable. He literally said the opposite: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” What were the Law and the Prophets? Judaism. What is Judaism? A religion. What did Jesus specifically say he was NOT going to abolish? That’s right. A religion.
My response to Barnes’s response to Bethke: The law and the prophets were aspects and individuals associated with Judaism. By your logic, Jesus came to fulfill Judaism. The law and the prophets all point to Jesus. He came to fulfill his role as the focal point of all creation…not to justify the existence of a religious institution. Judaism as a term did not even exist when he was on earth. Your argument and your logic are flawed, weak and ultimately wrong. If Jesus wanted to specifically say that he was NOT going to abolish religion, he would have said exactly that.
Bethke: What if I told you, getting you to vote republican, really wasn’t his mission?
Damick’s response to Bethke: He didn’t seem to have much to say about voting in general, actually. I’ve met Democrats who insist to me that a true Christian can only vote Democrat, mapping Jesus’ commands to love with compassion onto a progressivist social agenda. I’m not really sure who you’re responding to here, but I don’t think there’s really any significant movement of Christians who actually believe that “vot[ing] Republican really [was] his mission.” (Do you?)
My response to Damick’s response to Bethke: Whether Damick wants to admit it or not and whether this occurs in his church or not, there are plenty of people within the conservative movement (not all, mind you) who are more than willing to pray on the feeble minded church goer to convince them that if you consider yourself a Christian, you have to vote Republican (read Kuo’s “Tempting Faith” for a particularly insightful look into the George W. Bush administration). The same can be said (and has, by you) of certain people on the left. I think that is Bethke’s point and he just as easily could have swapped out the word “Republican” for “Democrat” and made it just the same. Ask 9 out of 10 people on the street, however, which one of the two parties considers themselves most representative of the “religious” in the country and they will say Republican. This is because the Republicans have by and large intentionally made a point to co-opt that “religious” demographic for the purposes of garnering votes. So, while there may not be a “significant movement of Christians who actually believe that ‘vot[ing] Republican really [was] his mission,’” there most definitely is a significant movement of Christian Republicans who actually believe that you should be voting Republican if you call yourself a Christian. Bethke’s point when he says “..republican doesn’t automatically mean Christian” is simple and accurate: Jesus was not out to get your vote and if people (in the church or otherwise) are guilt-tripping you into thinking so, they don’t accurately reflect what Jesus was about.
Bethke: If religion is so great, why has it started so many wars?
Damick’s response to Bethke: I have to assume that you’re just ignorant here. Any real examination of the realities of military history will reveal that religion is almost never the actual impetus for armed conflict. Indeed, even the “Wars of Religion” in Europe frequently saw alliances between various factions who had different religious allegiances, often acting as co-belligerents against co-religionists. (For more on this, I highly recommend David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, which is a very badly titled book about doing an honest examination of the evidence of the history of Christianity, especially in the West. It’s a good book, and it’s a slam-dunk against the old urban legends about “religion” being anti-science, starting wars, pursuing witch-hunts, etc.) Of course, you put that in the present tense, so I have to ask: Can you name even one currently ongoing war that is started by religion?
My response to Damick’s response to Bethke: Ignorant would be your refusal to acknowledge how many people outside of the church associate religion with wars. John Lennon wrote a song about it and if there was an anthem to the anti-war movement it would be that song. Also, the Israeli-Arab conflict can be traced back to the account of Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac in the Bible. When you search “Crusades” in Wikipedia, the first sentence reads “The Crusades were a series of religious expeditionary wars blessed by the Pope and the Catholic Church…” The bombing of abortion clinics (while not technically a war) were done by “religious” fanatics. The Muslims who flew two planes into the WTC and anther into the pentagon were widely considered “religious” zealots. This “religious” act resulted in the current war in Afghanistan. It isn’t hard to see that this is what Bethke is alluding to and what most people think of when they associate religion with war.
Barnes response to Bethke: The fact that religion starts wars could equally be held as evidence that religion is good as evidence that it is bad. For men desire good and will fight for it far more often than they will fight for bad. Did Christ not say “I have not come to bring peace, but the Sword?”…Would I be morally justified in my desire to fight? Probably not. The point is simply that it is I who am accountable the fight [sic], not my religion.
My response to Barnes’s response to Bethke: How, in any possible way, could religion starting war be a good thing? This makes NO sense. None. Your quoting of scripture seems to me so out of context and your reasoning so bizarre that I am not exactly sure that I can properly respond. You answered your own question on whether you would be morally justified in your desire to fight correctly...most definitely not. Bethke is not trying to remove personal responsibility from those involved in war. He is simply pointing out that far too often wars are waged in the name of religion. This is impossible to deny.
Bethke: Why does it build huge churches, but fails to feed the poor?
Damick’s response to Bethke: Did you know that the largest charity in the US is Lutheran? Did you know that Americans are the most charitable country on earth? Did you know that people who attend religious services regularly are the most likely to be charitable givers? Did you know that “religion” essentially invented the ideas of feeding the poor, building free hospitals, and has spent untold amounts of money sending people to the ends of the earth precisely to care for the suffering? Ever hear of Mother Teresa? Rumor has it she belonged to a big ol’ religion.
My response to Damick’s response to Bethke: Did you know that the main argument within the church against social justice programs such as welfare is that it is not the job of the government to take care of the poor but, that of the church? If the church was doing the job that it claims is theirs, we would theoretically not need welfare and other such social programs. “Religion” did not invent feeding the poor…God did. Show me a “free” hospital and I’ll show you flying pigs. Bethke is not saying that all churches or even religion itself fails entirely in feeding the poor. For an outsider looking in, however, that sees a religious right movement fighting to end social welfare programs and building enormous cathedrals or other such “religious” buildings while the number of homeless people continue to grow, he or she is likely to associate religion with the very hypocrisy that you frequently (and accurately, I might add) decry later in your critique.
Barnes response to Bethke: Go to a man in poverty who attends a beautiful church and offer to tear down the beauty that surrounds him, to melt down the gold so he can buy more food. You will never see a man more insulted.
My response to Barnes’s response to Bethke: Extreme and poorly constructed hypothetical scenario much? Who said anything about tearing down churches? Barnes seems exceedingly defensive about the Catholic Church here, specifically. There are plenty of Protestant and Orthodox Church building more lavish or extravagant than Catholic churches. For Bethke’s target audience, they are not going to care whose church it when they associate large church buildings and growing numbers of poor as a failure of religion. Bethke’s antagonist in this particular line are the very real (however disparate) individuals who profess to believe what the Bible says about taking care of the poor but, have little to nothing to show for it in their personal lives.Bethke: But see I played this game too; no one seemed to be on to me,
I was acting like church kid, while addicted to pornography.
I’d go to church on Sunday, but on saturday getting faded,
Acting as if I was simply created to have sex and get wasted.
Spend my whole life putting on this façade of neatness,
But now that I know Jesus, I boast in my weakness.
If grace is water, then the church should be an ocean,
Cuz its not a museum for good people, it’s a hospital for the broken
Damick’s response to Bethke: You know what? This is the predicament of almost every Christian I’ve ever known. Perhaps their sins aren’t pornography (though that is unfortunately becoming frighteningly common), drugs (which is what I assume “getting faded” means) and sex and getting wasted (wait… that’s drugs twice!), but every single Christian is a sinner, and indeed just about every member of every religion would probably admit that he fails to live up to his religion’s moral code in some manner or other. The problem lies not in the sin but rather in hypocrisy (which is claiming to believe something you actually don’t, not merely failing to live up to your beliefs), in pretense. You say below that the church is a “hospital for the broken,” but you seem to believe that the broken are all just a bunch of fakes who have built a “façade of neatness.”…The fact that you’ve apparently been a hypocrite and that you probably have been burned or offended by hypocrites doesn’t mean that there really is actually no true religion.
My response to Damick’s response to Bethke: In what I believe to be the second most beautiful part of Bethke’s piece (the first being his overall goal of bringing the true message of Jesus to those misunderstood people who have felt hurt or disillusioned by their exposure to “religion”), he expresses true vulnerability and disarms the listener by smashing the stereotype that “religious people” claim to be perfect and look down on those who have sinned. Damick seems to center in on the difference between sin and hypocrisy and misses Bethke’s point entirely. The broken who match my aforementioned stereotype ARE all just a bunch of fakes who have built a “façade of neatness.” Those people that have been burned and offended by hypocrites are the very people that need to hear that Jesus wants no part of that. Damick suggest that every Christian would admit to failing to live up to a moral code but, the experience of the burned/offended would-be seeker is the exact opposite.
Bethke: Now let me clarify, I love the church, I love the bible, and I believe in sin…but my question, is if Jesus were here today, would your church let Him in?
Damick’s response to Bethke: Well, since you asked about my church… He comes to my church every day, and He actually is present on my altar at least once a week, and we not only let Him into the church, but we let Him into our actual bodies.
My response to Damick’s response to Bethke: Damick is answering a figurative question literally…and I would posit that he has at this point moved from critique to just plain semantic sparring (if there is such a thing). Barnes has a similar snarky remark that borders on sarcasm in response to this arguably crucial moment in Bethke’s narrative. Both of them seem to gloss over the fact that Bethke is touching on the essence of the latter part of the greatest commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus claims that whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me (Matthew 25). If a seeker is burned by a hypocritical member of a church, they associate that experience with religion and likely God. This is the opposite of the gospel.
This portion of Bethke’s piece is (in my opinion) very key in that he makes sure to clarify between one concept of religion (i.e. the actual Church, Bible and everything else that Damick and Barnes seem so intent on defending) and the other more distasteful concept on which he bases his whole message (i.e. hypocritical sinners who do more harm to the gospel of Christ by claiming to be Christians than they would if they were out embezzling money from old ladies and getting caught with their pants down in a seedy brothel). More simply put, Bethke more or less negates the need for both Damick’s and Barnes’ rebuttals because he (to me) makes it clear here that he is not attacking the good that has come out of organized religion and the people that represent it. He is attacking the people who wouldn’t know Jesus if they passed him in the street because they have missed the point of the gospel entirely.
I would love to go further and pick apart each and every line of both rebuttals but, this is already quite a few pages of reading and the likelihood that anyone has bothered to read this far decreases with every additional word I write. It is worth mentioning again that Damick especially seems to agree with much of what Bethke says. Why he chose to use his Orthodox faith to knock down a straw man is something you would have to ask him. I suspect there is a great amount of investment both Damick and Barnes have made in identifying themselves as religious. Ultimately, I think Bethke’s piece won’t cost Damick or Barnes any parishioners. If anything, I suspect it will serve as a much needed counter message to what is so often heard by those looking for Jesus (regardless of the building or community in which they search) only to find hypocrisy wrapped up in a “religious” package. If there is a danger in any of this, it is brothers in Christ losing sight of what should be the goal: the gospel...Jesus. If Bethke's piece brings one sheep into the fold, the angels will rejoice in heaven...as well they should.
All to often, even within the body of Christ, in humankind’s attempts to spread the good news (i.e. the gospel), the myriad facets of religion surrounding the modern day church cloud and obscure the most important part: Jesus. I think Rick Love says it best: “Don’t let the good stuff get in the way of Jesus.”
If more people made their focus to love Jesus and allow their faith and witness to extend from that starting point, we wouldn’t even need to have a debate about some silly and controversial word like “religion”…I think our world would be much more beautiful.
Thursday, January 05, 2012
As I sit here now with 2 twin boys of my own about to turn 5 months old, I find myself pleading with God to not test my faith. I pray that Mark and Lucas continue to find comfort and peace in God's loving arms. I pray the same for all of us.
"For men are not cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men." -Lamentations 3:31-33
Friday, November 25, 2011
Thursday, November 10, 2011
"And in my best behavior
I am really just like him
Look beneath the floor boards
For the secrets I have hid."
- Sufjan Stevens
I have thought about the Penn State situation a great deal over the past few days and when Paterno was fired last night, I had somewhat of an epiphany that made me want to write something on this old blog that has long since been neglected.
I think my mind immediately went to how I would feel if I were a parent of one of the victims. Maybe this is because my boys were born so recently. Regardless of the reason, I imagined that if I had a child that was abused and came to find out that the coach of the school that employed the abuser knew about the abuse and did not report it to the authorities, I would find it difficult to understand not only why he wasn't fired immediately (anything more than a day seems too long to me) and why there is no legal recourse in seeking further punishment but also how he could find it morally acceptable to let this kind of crime not be reported to the police. His son being a lawyer seems to explain how he was able to escape indictment but, it does not explain how any living breathing human being could allow a monster like that to go unpunished or shield him from prosecution. I shouldn't have to be the one to break it to JoePa that demoting someone for raping children is not punishment. It borders on implicit abetment. All this is to say that, his statement that he would retire at the end of the season and his subsequent disappointment in the Board of Trustees decision to relieve him of his duties smacks of a substantial level of either delusion, senility, or a bit of both.
Once I stepped out of the shoes of the abused child's parent, I stepped in to Paterno's. It was harder to do and I am still not sure I can fully grasp what is or might be going on in his mind. I wondered what I would do. I would like to say that I would have done the right thing. I think I would. As quickly as I asked myself that question, however, I started asking myself harder questions. What if it wasn't rape? What if it was a student athlete of mine that had cheated on a test? Would I kick him off the team? What if he was from a broken home and his scholarship was his hope of breaking his family's cycle of suffering in poverty and he was afraid that he would not graduate if he did not cheat? What is this was his only offense? What if it wasn't his only offense? I knew that I was not trying to make an argument for justifying how Paterno acted but, something was nagging at me about why I had some hesitation to vilify him. It is easy to do because 1) I am on the outside looking in and 2) I have never been in his situation. For whatever reason, my mind jumped from one scenario to another until I became dizzy and forgot what had started the whole line of thinking.
Once I re-gathered my thoughts, something hit me. What makes me any better than Paterno? For that matter, what makes me any better than Sandusky? Sure I have never abused a child. Does that mean I can judge someone who has? As I was taking a shower this morning, the lyrics to the Sufjan Stevens song "John Wayne Gacy" came to mind. I remember the first time I heard that song, it haunted me. It rocked me to my soul because I felt like Sufjan was touching on something very profound. He took a man who had done unspeakable things and related to him. He gave such a vulnerable look into (what I interpreted as) the darkest corners of all of our hearts. I could have completely missed the point of the song but, that is what I took away from it. We are all broken. Some of us seem to be more broken than others but, who gets to decide that? It doesn't seem fair that any of the broken people should have that right.
Finally, my mind found rest. Instead of trying to put myself in Paterno's or the abused parent's shoes. I put myself in Sandusky's shoes and immediately fell to my knees at God's feet and begged for mercy. I considered naming this post "I am Jerry Sandusky" in light of the song lyrics but, I would like to think that (by the grace of God) I am not capable of hurting a child. Then I realized that God sent his son to die for Jerry...and for Joe...and for me. I hope I never have to go through what these parent's went through and are going through now. I hope before they ever find justice, they find peace and forgiveness through the blood of Christ...and I hope Joe and Jerry find it, too.
"For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." - Romans 3:23
"He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." - John 8:7
I pray that God would give me humility and forgiveness every day.