In Response to “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus”

A couple of weeks ago, this guy named Jefferson Bethke posted a video to his Youtube channel called “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus.” It opened a firestorm. Bethke had previously gone viral with a spoken word piece called “Sexual Healing” advocating abstinence. A good looking 20-something guy pushing abstinence? The social media world swooned.

But then his follow-up came in the “Why I Hate…” video. Initially, it was just as popular, but then people began to challenge it. There was backlash. Why was Bethke so mad at the church? The church did wonderful things. Atheists got in on the madness. If Christ came to abolish religion, then what exactly do you call Christianity? It was a very complicated thing.

Typically, I don’t like writing about controversial things unless I feel like I can be very honest and open about it. But a friend of mine asked for a post about it, and I thought it might be good to do so. So, before we go any further, let’s take a moment to watch the video.

I only have two things to say about this video.

This video is poetry, not philosophic theology. Poetry and prose serve different purposes. Poetry is about emotion. Its words are meant to incite, to make the audience happy or sad or in love. And in doing so, poetry takes all of these seemingly non-truths and illuminates a truth that is normally difficult to articulate. In this case, the truth is that sometimes people forget that Jesus and His love are at the center of Christian spirituality, not religiosity or the church. That’s true. And people need to be aware of that truth. Sometimes Catholics and Baptists and Methodists and the Orthodox fight over who is right and who is doing the best job of showing God’s love. And the answer, when they are arguing, is none of them. God’s love is about peace and grace and about people working together and loving each other. That’s what this video is (mostly) about.

It was not meant to be a philosophic treatise. It was not meant to be an argument to be picked apart by theologians and atheists. Typically, things that rhyme or have rhythm aren’t supposed to be full arguments. Rhyme and rhythm limit the number of words you have to work with. Why would anyone trying to make a full-proof argument use these techniques?

It’s easy to criticize something. It’s much harder to support something. Yeah, the Church is imperfect and God is perfect, but that’s not really an original thought. The Church is made up of people. And people need God. But that doesn’t mean we should destroy the Church. The Church is important. God loves it. He talks about it a lot.

There are a lot of people who are fed up with the Church who call for the dissolution of it, and quite honestly, that’s annoying. Because what then? Who would organize community service on a large scale? Who would raise large sums of money for third-world countries to get clean water? Who would provide stable after-school groups for a large portion of our nation’s youth? People come together and organize because sometimes it is easier for them to do so. I think sometimes we forget that. We wrongly think that if everyone just left us alone, we would be happier. I don’t think that’s true, and the Church is one of those organizations that keeps us as part of a community.

I would love to start listening to people and reading writers who worked on making the Church better. How can we work within systems to make them better? I think that’s where the most radical change comes. How would the Civil Rights Movement have been different if African Americans had all emigrated to Libya?

Both sides are right. The critics and the supporters are both correct. This video is both true and mistakenly inflammatory.

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Friday Favorite: Writing to God

Every Friday, I post a Friday Favorite. These are my most popular past posts. I share them because I like them, you like them, and perhaps you haven’t had the time to read all my past posts. Enjoy and feel free to comment!

I think I started to get semi-serious about writing right around the time that I started to get semi-serious about girls. If you’ve ever gotten semi-serious about girls, you know it’s a complicated matter. It motivates you to do things like dress better, play sports, and pretend that you have to shave. The problem with getting semi-serious about girls, though, is that you very rarely finish anything. You write a little bit, then cry a little bit, write a little bit more, talk to a girl, cry some more, write, sleep, dream about girls, pretend to shave…. and nothing ever gets done. And it’s just a hassle.

I tell you all of this because what I really want to say is that I started to get semi-serious about writing because I wanted people to like me. I thought if I wrote my moody pre-teenage feelings poetically enough on my Xanga people would say “Ooh, he’s moody and poetic” and then they would immediately associate me with other moody and poetic people like Johnny Depp and John Mayer.

Moody and Poetic Teenage Writing

Some moody and poetic teenage writing.

Over the years, writing and I have had a bit of a rocky relationship. He helped me get a girlfriend in high school. And then I didn’t talk to him for a while. But then he selflessly got me into college, and I started hanging out with him again. Then he made me into a hipster, and I couldn’t forgive him for a while. The thing is, though, that I’ve never really been fair to writing. I’ve been using him for ulterior motives even before I knew what that word meant.

One night, when writing and I were on the outs, I went on a run because I was feeling kind of alone, and when you are feeling alone and you and writing are on the outs, there isn’t much else to do but to run. And while I was running, I was kind of talking to God because God is easy to talk to when there aren’t people around and the night is dark and you are in a golf course. While I was running and being with God, I realized that writing should be a little bit like talking to God. When you talk to God, it’s kind of hard to be selfish. Being selfish with God is a bit like meeting the president and asking him why they served cold food at your school that morning. It’s just not something you do. Instead, when you are talking to God, you start to realize all of the things you care about and all the people you care about. That’s a really beautiful thing, and it dawned on me that night while running and talking to God, that writing should be beautiful in that way.

So I’m making a commitment. Writing should be like talking to God.

The title of this site is “Spencer Writes,” but it’s only that because it’s cute and catchy. What I really want it to say is “Spencer Writes About People He Loves” because there really isn’t anything else worth writing about.

My Fisher King Wound

There is a Chinese story about fish. It begins with fish overhearing two fishermen talking about water. The fish decides to quest in order to find this mysterious substance. After many years he comes back to his fish friends who ask him if he found it. And he says “Yes, but you wouldn’t believe what I found.”

I found a version of this story in a book called He by the psychologist Robert Johnson. Johnson is a Jungian psychologist and his book is all about how the myth of the Holy Grail can be used to explain male psychology. He theorizes that every man is like the Fisher King. The Fisher King, according to Arthurian legend, suffers from a wound that cannot be healed except by drinking from the Grail. He is unable to drink from it, though. In such a condition, he must wait for an “idiot fool” to come and ask the question that will save him – “Whom does the Grail serve?” For Johnson, every man has a Fisher King wound. We all have something that is broken that we are seeking to fix.

I know that I have a Fisher King wound. Mine is a sense of inadequacy. I seek others’ approval. I want to feel loved and needed. And because I cling to this wound so hard, I make it impossible for others to love and need me.

A lot of traditions have a name for this wound. Christianity has the concept of original sin or of sin, more generally. Most of my struggles with sin come out of this wound, I think. For example, I struggle with pride because I think if I put on enough of a confident show, people will like me better.

I am often convinced that if I just searched harder for love, happiness, or God that I will find what I seek. But there is no searching. The fish does not need to search for water. He is in water. The answer comes when we approach it from the perspective of the idiot fool. If we ask, more than likely, we will see that the answer has been before us all along. We do not need to search for love/happiness/God; we are in it.

You Have Roots, Too

I’ve been reading through Exodus. It’s a pretty epic story. I’ve always liked Moses. I loved the animated movie The Prince of Egypt as a kid. And I would plead with my parents to let me stay up to watch The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston when it would be on television near Passover. (IMDB says that Heston was not only Moses in that movie, he was also the voice of God. What a man.)

What’s not to like about Moses’s story? It’s got everything you could want. An evil king. A strong male lead. Magic. A chase scene. A few fight scenes. Blood. A burning bush. And snakes. That’s pretty cool.

Moses was not like this.

Except Moses was nothing like Charlton Heston. He was a man who had been raised as royalty who one day found out he was actually a slave. And that did not create a sense of justice in him. It scared him. He fled Egypt because he was scared. And then when God talked to him in the burning bush, Moses was scared again.

He argued with God. He said, “I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue” (Exodus 4:10). Moses was not a natural born leader. He wasn’t witty. He wasn’t popular at cocktail parties. He didn’t always have the right thing to say.

But God reassured him and told him that He would use Moses’s brother Aaron as a mouthpiece. And then Moses and Aaron go to Pharaoh and demand that the Israelites be let  go. And he says no and forces the Israelites to make bricks without straw. Moses and Aaron are defeated.

The people of Israel turn on Moses and Aaron. And Moses calls out to God “O Lord, why have you done evil to this people? Why did you ever send me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has done evil to this people, and you have not delivered your people at all” (Exodus 5:22-3).

Then, two things happen. First, God gives Moses and Aaron a pep talk. I’m pretty sure all sports movies are modeled after the book of Exodus. Underdogs train hard. Underdogs are unsuccessful at first. Coach gives an amazing monologue type speech. Cue musical montage to a classic rock song featuring the Egyptians falling prey to the plagues.

Second, the author of Exodus (probably Moses?) stops narration to give a genealogy of Moses and Aaron. At first, it feels like really bad story-telling. It disrupts the flow of narrative; it doesn’t feel entirely relevant; and it’s hard to read.

I started thinking about it, though. Who has genealogies? Kings. Royalty. Important people. No one cares about a slave’s genealogy. Slaves hardly have names.

I think, often, I’m a little bit like Moses, pre-success. I’m angry that God has asked me to do something that doesn’t make immediate sense to me. I think that people are more important than me. I rarely stop to ponder my own identity, my own name, my own genealogy. And so I start thinking of myself as a bit player in someone else’s life.

There are no bit players. In God’s story, we all deserve genealogies.

Turning the Other Cheek Turns Emotions Into Justice

I’ve always kind of struggled with the concept of turning the other cheek and all that.

Our God is one of justice, right?

The Lord works righteousness
And justice for all the oppressed (Psalm 103:6)

So why then are we not allowed to help with that whole justice thing?

A lot of people try to explain this away by saying that we don’t really know what justice is – that only God can judge. I don’t know about that. I know that rape, murder, and slavery are wrong. That’s a judgment. I think I am capable of judging. And we forget that turning the other cheek has to do with someone slapping you. Slapping is pretty wrong, I think. I know that I don’t like it when someone slaps me.

I’m in a Psychology of Gender class this quarter. In that class, we are learning about pro-feminist men right now. Pro-feminist men are men who actively support feminist women to push gender equality. I think pro-feminist men are pretty awesome. Feminist women are pretty awesome, too. It takes a lot of courage to stand up against oppression. But I’ve been thinking a lot about pro-feminist men. I’ve been thinking about how they don’t really have a lot to gain from gender equality. Men are on top. In fact, a lot of men fear that gender equality would mean loss of status for themselves. Pro-feminist men have to believe that gender equality is intrinsically more important than having a wife who stays at home or who is submissive.

There are studies out there that show that the shackles of oppression begin to fall off when members of the oppressor group begin to speak out for the oppressed. Sexism is most successfully combated when men correct their friends when they make a sexist joke or when men refuse to take a job that they have obtained based on sexist hiring practices.

Like most things Jesus taught, the turn the other cheek policy shows a keen insight into human nature. It’s easy to be angry when you have been attacked. It’s easy to clamor for justice, then. But mostly, that’s just emotion. When a friend makes fun of me, I am not mad because my friend has violated the intrinsically moral rule that making fun of people is wrong. I am mad because I was the subject of the ridicule. And if I say anything, it is easy for my friends to say that I am making a mountain out of a molehill. But what if I never got mad when people made fun of me? What if, instead, I made fun of myself?

Then, when someone was making fun of another friend, I could say something. Because people would say “Hey, Spencer is usually so chill about joking around. We must really be out of line if he’s not okay with this joke.”

That’s what turning the other cheek does. It creates a world in which people know that your emotions are not tied to your sense of justice.

God is Gestaltian

There’s a psychological school, theory, or effect (depending on who you talk to) known as Gestalt psychology. Gestalt is a German term meaning “essence or shape of an entity’s complete form.” Pretty heavy stuff.

The basic Gestalt effect is best summarized by the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. There are a lot of different pictures and optical illusions that demonstrate the Gestalt effect. But here’s a relatively good one:

Instead of just seeing three Pacmen and three acute angles when looking at this picture, most people see a white triangle overlapping a black-outlined triangle and three black circles. That’s good ol’ Gestalt working hard.

The Gestalt effect, as a concept that was talked about, originated in the late 19th century. Until then, most people thought that if you studied a thing’s parts, you were studying that thing.

To the modern mind, ingrained with Gestaltian thinking, the idea that people didn’t consider the Gestalt effect seems absurd. I was pondering this absurdity when I remembered the words of Jesus in Matthew 18:20:

 For where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them.

And there it is. The truth of the Gestalt effect right there in the Bible. One person plus one person does not equal two people. It equals two people and God and a dynamic relationship.

Breaking Statistics

I have a confession to make. I tend to put a lot of stock in statistics. I think it started in high school when I started applying to colleges. I had never really thought much about statistics before. They had never come up before. But college admissions statistics hit hard.

Some of the places I applied had admission numbers lower than 10%. That felt almost impossible. And then when you factored in the fact that those schools are trying to get a balanced entering class from all over the nation, those numbers decrease. And I bought it. I bought every decimal point and every fraction.

Because here’s the thing about statistics: once you start believing them (even for a second), you start seeing yourself in the other part of the statistic. In my case, I began to see myself in the 90% that didn’t get into the universities I wanted. This was because there are a lot of really talented, awesome, intelligent people out there. And it seemed ludicrous to suggest that I could ever be in the top 10% of them. And maybe because of that line of thinking, or, more likely, because the world sometimes does the whole statistic thing the way you expect it to, I didn’t get in to any of those statistically-challenging universities.

And so now I put a lot of stock in statistics.

My friend was talking to me the other day about this problem he had with something that Jesus once said. It comes in Matthew 22:14. He says, “For many are invited but few are chosen.” I understand that there is a whole discussion we can have here, depending on our individual theologies, about what this verse means. A lot of people have interpreted it a lot of different ways. But when I was explaining to my friend why I didn’t find this verse problematic, I realized something. This verse is about statistics.

Statistics are about how things are or have been. They don’t control the future. And so when Jesus says that many are invited but few are chosen, maybe he’s not saying that he’s picked those people already. Maybe he’s just saying that it’s tough. It’s tough to apply to prestigious colleges. It’s tough to graduate from high school if you are kid growing up in the inner city. It’s tough to follow God. And that’s all that we should believe of the statistics. Because knowing something is tough motivates us. But trying to divide the world into 10% and 90% gets complicated and stupid.