Bad religion

Another YouTube video went viral this week.  I’m not talking about one by the smug tween Girl Scout from California spouting doggerel about how endangered she is because a Colorado troop has admitted an eight-year-old transgendered boy.  No, this is the quasi-hip-hop screed entitled, “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus.”

The video has generated more high-pitched wailing and chest beating YouTube responses than I can count, besides a fair number of earnest “Amens” from people who agree unreservedly with the narrator’s message, and even a few rebuttals from atheists weighing in about how religion and Jesus are for the birds.

Before proceeding to analysis, let me say that I get where the narrator’s coming from.  Twenty-one years ago, I shook the dust of a church from my feet, with my friends’ parting words, “Leaving this church means you’re rejecting God!” striating my soul.  Church, especially if you’re brought up in one, can be the cornerstone of your social world, a critical component of your understanding of self, and, in many cases, a thermometer to gauge the health of your personal relationship with God.   Coming to the realization that your church is not all it’s cracked up to be, especially if that realization compels you to leave the church, can catastrophically dismantle your psyche and your spirit. 

As one who has been there, I suspect that’s some of what we’re seeing in “Why I Hate Religion.”

That said, here’s my beef with the video.  It’s stuck in an all-or-nothing paradigm – our choices are reduced to “Jesus = Good” and “Religion = Bad.”  This is not unlike cut-and-dry doctrines that divide the world into tidy categories of “sacred” and “secular,”  “sinful” and “forgiven,” and “saved” and “damned.”   

In attacking religion as universally bad, the message here becomes, in itself, “bad religion.” And in a world full of tweets and sound bites masquerading as real communication, I think we need to be particularly wary of oversimplification, especially in matters involving God.

Religion, essentially, is a social construct in which we make sense of relationships.  Relationships with God, relationships with each other, and relationships with a Gospel message that can be used to build or bulldoze.  And all relationships have the potential of being healthy or unhealthy.

A wise friend once told me, “Only two unhealthy people can have an unhealthy relationship.  Because, if they’re both healthy, the relationship will be healthy.  And if only one of them is healthy, the relationship isn’t going to last because the healthy one will leave.”  The false dichotomy in “Why I Hate Religion” is the faith equivalent of a divorced person saying, “I hate the opposite sex!  All of them are pigs!  I hate all of them…but I love marriage.”

The church’s relationship with Christ is described as a marriage.  So could it not be that, as with love partners, there are other fish in the sea for people of faith who find themselves in an unhealthy relationship with a particular church, or a particular image of God, or even a particular religion?

I’ve sat through a handful of responses to “Why I Hate Religion” and my favorite is “Freestylin’: Jesus = Religion.”  I like the humor and logic of the video’s gung-ho Lutheran narrator.  I get the sense that his experience with church is more like that of the man who built his house upon stone, not sand.  That said, he engages in a little “bad religion” of his own.  Some compassion for the open spiritual wounds of the other narrator would have been a nice touch, albeit not nearly as entertaining.** 

To the narrator of “Why I Hate Religion,” I would say: don’t throw the baby out with the baptismal water.  Jesus was a worshipping Jew – we know he attended temple and synagogue services and he observed Jewish rituals, like Passover, with his friends.  What made his religion “good” religion was that he opened people’s hearts to his message, he opened their eyes to the suffering of one another, and ultimately, opened his hands and arms to reconcile the entire world to God.

There’s a lot of good religion out there.  Let’s find it and pay it forward.

* Come on, faithful readers.  Buy buttloads of Girl Scout cookies this year.  After last year’s “Thin Mint orgy” when I ate an entire box in one sitting during a particularly stressful phone meeting, I swore I would never touch the stuff again.  But in the interest of social justice, I’m making an exception.

** The love of Christ and a good stand-up routine are often strange bedfellows.  As you may have observed in this blog, I sometimes sacrifice the spirit of the former in favor of the social rewards of the latter.  In the absence of any hope of sainthood, I rely on Martin Luther for comfort when he said, “Be a sinner, and sin boldly, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.”

© Copyright 2012, Marian the Seminarian


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