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17 January 2012

Misunderstanding "Religion"

The above video of a spoken-word piece by poet Jeff Bethke has been making the rounds in the Twitter- and blogospheres. Sadly, Bethke has incorrectly conflated several concepts, and I think it deserves a response. Bethke is correct that Jesus did not intend to found a new religion. It is clear from the biblical texts that Jesus saw himself as a reformer. He was not, however, anti-religion as Bethke postulates. Religion/Jesus is a false dichotomy. It may be an appealing juxtaposition to young Evangelicals and to those who have been damaged by religious institutions and their leaders, but it is not consistent with the words and actions of the historic Jesus as transmitted through the Gospels. Jesus attempted to reorient but not to abolish.

Overall, though, thought along the lines of what Bethke preaches in his poetry is nothing new. It's part of an ongoing trend, that decline-of-communalism/increase-in-individualism theme to which I keep returning. Durkheim recognized that "religion" was inherently social. If it isn't social, it ain't religion. Radical Evangelicalism, as Bethke's piece demonstrates, is uncomfortable with the communal nature of religion. Beginning with Luther--who, like Jesus, did not intend to start a new religion but only to "reform" the one that he so loved--the unquestioned necessity of the mediating nature of a community gave way to direct access to the divine. Ironically, Luther sowed the seeds for the downfall of religion. If religion is by definition social and our theology no longer requires the social aspects of religion, religion goes away.

If we're discarding religion, what replaces it? Durkheim called it "magic," a practical, client-based endeavor that is decidedly individualistic in nature, but I don't think that exactly captures what Bethke intends. We might call it "spirituality," as in spritual-but-not-religious, but I don't think that's quite what Bethke means, either. I think this is something different.

The newer, younger, hipper brand of Evangelical Protestantism that seems to be gaining popularity lately is more socially minded than the older, more traditional Evangelicalism from which it came. People like Shane Claiborne are increasingly concerned with poverty and marginalization, what a hundred years ago might have been recognized as the social gospel. So, here is my question: is Evangelical Protestantism reversing course? Have its individualistic tendencies peaked like a ball having been tossed into the air resting for an instant at zero acceleration before beginning to find its way back down toward the ground? Can this explain the contradictions inherent to much of this new theology?

1 comment:

  1. Among my students here in the South, no, it has not peaked. They all want to belong to a group, but they want themselves to have autonomy in the group. I'm not from an Evangelical background (I'm a somewhat heretical Mormon), so I don't know the intricacies of it, but I do talk with my students in depth about it in some of my literature classes. I find that the Protestant students almost universally reject needing organized religion outside of the social aspect of coming together (either to praise or to socialize). They don't see a need though for a religion in a spiritual collective sense.

    I reacted very negatively to this video because, I'm getting middle-aged enough to dislike young people who speak in maxims. I found the video trite and self-serving. But, what do I know?