Last week I received an excited e-mail from a former student who wanted to show me a YouTube clip entitled, “Why I hate religion, but love Jesus.” [Watch video below.] The video was produced by Jefferson Benthke, 22, a member of Mars Hill Church (Home of the macho hipster pastor Mark Driscoll). CNN recently announced that Benthke’s video had been viewed 15 million times in just over a week.
Benthke tells us that “Jesus hated religion.” But what does he mean by “religion?” Religion, he claims, is responsible for wars and yet distinct from the church or the teaching of Jesus. While fans embrace this sentiment of “Jesus, not religion” as a radical Christian message, it is actually a form of polemic as old as the Protestant Reformation.
Protestant culture has long employed vaguely defined categories to subordinate other people’s religion. Labels such as “superstition” and “cult” have long been used to exclude certain traditions from what the Scottish Common Sense philosophers called “true religion.” This cultural hierarchy is effective because it is hidden: if “true religion” is never defined, then only the cultural elites can determine who is practicing it.
What is new about Benthke’s poem is that the term “religion” has itself become a pejorative label. This is no doubt due to an increased suspicion of organized religion among the millennials. This is the same game as before but with each player raised a notch: “religion” is the new “superstition” while “true religion” has retreated into a category so abstract it has no name.
It may be that I have reached the age of 30, or it may be my Catholic sensibilities, but I much preferred the rebuttal of hip-hop artist and Catholic priest, Father Pontifex. “Why I Love Religion, And Love Jesus” begins by challenging Benthke’s use of “illogical terms and definitions.” Having long been accused of superstition and idol-worship by their Protestant opponents, Catholic priests like Father Pontifex may have a special insight into the rhetorical power of terms and definitions.