I recently came across this video on Facebook, and then after a short while saw it posted by more and more people. While there is nothing in this video that hasn’t been said time after time by many Christians in the last few decades, it still has a message that many Christians connect to. So I’d like to give my response to the video, but first, here is the video if you haven’t already seen it:
I would like to state up front that on a personal level, I find the creative, artistic merit of this poet to be lacking (and I have nothing against the genre of spoken word poetry). But what bothers me more than this artist not meeting my aesthetic standards, is the message of the poem.
So what’s the problem?
The problem is that the entire message of the poem is build around a false dichotomy. Jesus vs religion. Grace and love vs ethics/rules. God’s reaching out to humanity vs humanity’s reaching out to God. Jesus work on the cross vs Jesus’ followers making any effort for good.
The other primary problem I see is that the religion is used as a scapegoat. Everything that one sees wrong with Christianity, such as judgmentalism, self-righteousness/self-justification, and legalism, is used to define the word “religion”, which then has scorn heaped upon it, as if this makes the Christian doing this less judgmental, self-righteous and legalistic. If it does anything, this promotes an alternative form of spiritual pride that says “I thank God I’m not like those judgmental, legalistic, Christian religious people. I thank God I know about grace and forgiveness unlike those other people.”
Another problem is that he critiques how religion “is just behavior modification”, and that it’s all about what you do, but then goes on to say, “If religion is so great, why has it started so many wars, why does it build huge churches, but fails to feed the poor.” So is what you do important or not? You can’t critique religion for caring too much about what people do and then critique it for not caring enough about certain things people do or don’t do. And for the record, the Church does feed the poor, there are many good things like that that “religion” does to help people, often going unnoticed. And if you critique the Church for not being welcoming enough to sinners, how can you be upset when it “starts wars”, because of the sin of those within the Church. The Church is the home for both saints and sinners, and if we kicked people out every time they didn’t measure up, we’d all get kicked at some point (I know I definitely would).
One of the main criticisms, however, is that religion is supposedly all about human effort to earn one’s way to God, while Christianity (read “true Christianity”) is about God’s initiative alone. While there are many different definitions for religion, the best one I’ve come across is something like “religion is the human attempt to relate to the divine.” So this brings up a basic question: is religion a matter of humanity reaching out to the divine, or the divine reaching out to humanity? The poet seems to believe the latter, however, I would contend that it is both. Christian faith is not a passive event that happens in spite of us (unless you’re a full Calvinist, holding to its deterministic theology), but it is something that we partake in. God makes the gift of faith possible, and we choose faith. It is not an either/or, but a both/and. So too with the big question of faith and works. It is not a matter of whether faith alone or good works is the means of salvation (God is the source and power of salvation), but rather a real faith that shows itself in love and good works is what saves us, and we participate in that salvation becoming a reality in our lives. Again, not an either/or choice. So yes, Christian faith is both something that is “done” for us, by Jesus’ doing on the cross what we could not do, and something that we “do”, living out the implications, feeding the hungry, welcoming the rejected, as our salvation becomes realized in our lives. This in no way contradicts Jesus’, “it is finished.”
What this view of faith seems to really be seeking, however, is a faith that is completely between the individual and Jesus, without all the messiness of Christian history, the Church, and religious practice and tradition. But without this history, our history, we have nothing. Everything we have as Christians, including the Bible itself, is given to us by our Christian ancestors. And while our family history might be messy and embarrassing at times, it is our family, our home. Christianity, without the Church, is not much of a faith. While it often does not measure up to its best principles, we ought, rather than rejecting and distancing ourselves from it, to embrace it and work to strengthen it however we can, beginning with ourselves. God has chosen to do His work of reconciling the world to Himself especially through His people; that is good news, and that is the Christian religion.