When airing his beliefs that Jesus was on a crusade to actually fight against organised religion as opposed to championing it, spoken word poet Jeff Bethke caused controversy amongst both atheists and church goers alike. Now, with over 20 million views on his Youtube video Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus, Bethke has received everything from high praise to accusations that he's the anti-Christ.
He's been slated in the New York Times for having contradictory views and appeared on CBS in an interview to explain his poetic inspiration, yet the subject is still met with both hostility and admiration from all corners.
With the headcount in church diminishing rapidly in the last five years due to increasingly frequent natural disasters, a decade long war that has achieved little and banks conning people out of their homes with the use of foreclosure, many have lost their faith in god. So with a more liberal approach, Bethke, 22, wrote his verse and made the video to promote Jesus to the next generation, who he feels either have no faith at all or simply claim to be religious without following the teachings of the Bible.
Speaking from Seattle, he said: "I'm extremely passionate about the next generation falling in love with Jesus. I was sick of people always thinking being a Christian meant 'hates gays, can't drink beer, and no tattoos.'"
Some have accused Bethke of stepping on his own toes, saying that his message is contradictory and more along the lines of "I hate religion but love organised Christianity", but the poet has his own theories on what actually defines religion.
"When I used the word religion, I didn't mean it as an institution," he said. "I meant religion equals any work of righteousness that has someone hoping to earn favour with God. I came to the realisation that Jesus hated self-righteousness, though when I started reading the scriptures, I realised he was our righteousness.
He died to absorb all our sin and to give us his perfect standing. So to say we can earn it is spitting in his face and that his sacrifice on the cross wasn't good enough. Religion is man performing for God. Grace is Jesus performing for man. That fact humbled me, broke my heart, and changed my life."
Although at first it's hard to understand where Bethke's idea of religion ends and grace begins, his basic message is that you shouldn't have to follow god's instructions in order to have your name down on the entry list at the Pearly Gates, but that the commandments given to Moses are directions on how to live a happy life. According to Bethke, what Jesus taught was divine advice for a wholesome existence, and not rules on what you must do to earn a spot in god's VIP lounge.
"God definitely calls us to obedience, just like any good parent would," he explains. "The difference though, is that religion sets those things up as what you need to do to earn God.
However, in Christianity, we see the commandments of Jesus as commandments that he is giving to bring us joy. We obey them because he already loves us, we don't obey them to earn his love. When we think we can go outside of what God has shown us as the way for life to flourish most, it's not just a small decision, but actually asserting ourselves as our own god over the universe. We are saying by our actions that we are God, and that he isn't. We are saying 'eh, I don't trust you, I know better.'"
With a message meaningful but often hard to categorise, I asked Bethke how he responds when people ask if he's religious or not. "I ask them what they mean by religious, and then go from there," he fired back. "I want to respond in a way that aligns me most with Jesus and something that gives most glory to him. Man made religion is based on my performance for God, which puts the spotlight on me, not him. But when I trust Jesus and his performance for me, he automatically gets the spotlight. I don't care if you call that religious or not, that's what He is after."
In his own way Jeff Bethke seems fairly religious in my mind. He follows Jesus and God, and also takes heed of a book written by man and not the characters it centres upon. But he is not religious in the typical sense of the word. Bethke has dared to branch out with his own beliefs and has almost created his own sub-religion within Christianity. Bethke's idea of grace doesn't preach pointless self-loathing or holier-than-thou attitudes at the sight of a crucifix around the neck. He doesn't believe that we should all gather en masse at church every Sunday to be told what sinners we all are, and that the all-forgiving god will happily let us burn in the fiery pits of hell for having sex before marriage or telling a lie. Whether Bethke's approach can technically be defined as religious or not, his views are refreshing, praising a god not driven by spiteful revenge, but one who wants to guide, not dictate.
If Jesus were to return and walk the earth now, Bethke imagines it to be a hectic affair, with the bearded Messiah chilling out in the ghetto with addicts and dealers, and smashing religious bookshops and TV studios to pieces.
"I think the first place he'd go is some of the 'religious' bookstores, TV and radio stations and flip some tables. Then I think he'd head over to Skid Row in LA to hang out with people that looked most like him while he was on earth. Also, I think his heart would break. Being God he is most sensitive to all the pain, strife, hurt and evil in the world. And since his heart is untainted by sin, I can't even imagine the brokenness he feels for this world. Praise God for his sacrifice, love, and willingness to lay down his life for us."
Jeff Bethke is currently touring America, speaking about his religious views and preaching his message. He can be found next at the Whosever Conference in Los Angeles.