Every so often, I read a book that leaves me feeling conflicted. Jesus > Religion by Jefferson Bethke is one of those. Bethke, who shot into the spotlight two years ago when his video, “Why I hate religion, but love Jesus,” exploded online. Within three days it was seen six million times. Within two weeks, that number had jumped to 16 million. Today it stands at 26 million views, with well over 60,000 comments.
It seems that Bethke struck a nerve, doesn’t it? The fervor surrounding the video—and the discussion and dissection across the evangelical landscape—led to the inevitable: this book. In Jesus > Religion, Bethke digs into the heart of his poem, the truth that Jesus is (as the subtitle says) “so much better than trying harder, doing more, and being good enough.”
A millennial writing to millennials
When I say I’m conflicted about Jesus > Religion, it’s not because there’s not a good deal to like about it. Bethke captures well the very real problem of the gospel-less gospel, the moralistic therapeutic deism that permeates so much of evangelicalism, that assumes that faith is really all about being a better person, and God exists to bless me (but he certainly isn’t my master).
It doesn’t work. We all know it, and Bethke is the latest among many voices to say it:
The reason we aren’t fulfilled or satisfied by our version is Christianity is because it isn’t Christianity.
We have religion, but we don’t have Jesus
We have a good role model, but we don’t have God.
We have theological debates, but we don’t have the living Word.
We have good works, but we don’t have the source of good works.
We have love, but not the God who is love. (12)
Where Bethke is different from many of his contemporaries, though, is he isn’t ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Rather than falling in with the disgruntled children of mid-80s evangelicalism, he advocates pursuing a deeper faith with the atonement of Jesus its the center. As he shares this vision, he couples it with his own story of faith—growing up poor, raised by a single mom, sleeping on a mattress in the hallway when his sister moved in, discovers his love for baseball, eventually girls and booze… and then he met Jesus for real, and it was like a light was switched on.
This is what more young people, the second- and third-generation Christians need to hear. That the gospel is bigger than their parents’ or grandparents’ examples (good or bad). That you shouldn’t judge Jesus based on the grumpy and hypocritical folks claiming his name. This is a good message, a needed message, and one that it’s helpful for millennials to hear from one of their peers.
So why do I say I feel conflicted about Jesus > Religion? Well, aside from the forced distinction between “religion” and “Jesus” that the Bible doesn’t feel is necessary to make (something others have already addressed), here’s the thing: I’m not sure this was the right time for Bethke to write this book.
That might sound strange, but hear me out. In Jesus > Religion, Bethke and publisher Thomas Nelson have shrewdly capitalized on the cultural zeitgest, and are sharing a good message. But reading the book, it doesn’t feel like Bethke “owns” that message. He doesn’t really have a voice of his own. At least, not yet.
Tim Challies once described Bethke as a popularizer of ideas; I think this is a very astute observation. When you read this book, you can clearly see his influences. Keller, Driscoll and so many others scream through Bethke’s prose. This is a common problem among those of us who are younger or less experienced. There’s a natural tendency to ape our influences, intentionally or otherwise. Think about the young preacher who listens to a lot of sermons by John Piper. What’s he going to do in his first several sermons? He’s going to try to preach like Piper does. At least, so long as he perseveres, until he finds his own voice.
Reading Jesus > Religion is like that. It reads like a book by a young man only beginning to figure out who he is in relationship to the Lord and others. Only beginning to figure out what his voice really is. What really leaves me conflicted is that I know how many mistakes I made trying to figure out what my voice is (which I’m only just starting to find, really), and I can’t help but wonder what this book would have looked like had it been written by a Jefferson Bethke with a few more years under his belt.
Title: Jesus > Religion: Why He Is So Much Better Than Trying Harder, Doing More, and Being Good Enough
Author: Jefferson Bethke
Publisher: Thomas Nelson (2013)