At some point – I know not when – religion became a dirty word. And this attitude doesn’t just come from critics outside the church. I’ve heard many Christians make this distinction as well: “It’s not about religion; it’s about relationship.” Or “I’m spiritual, but not religious” – religion often serving as a cipher for rituals, moral codes, spiritual disciplines, and the like.
A couple years ago, this attitude was brought to its clearest – or at least loudest – articulation by Jefferson Bethke in his spoken-word video “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus.” The video had 1.2 million hits within its first 24 hours online (that’s an average of 14 views per second); 11 million hits the first week; and has been viewed nearly 30 million times in the three years since it was uploaded. (That’s off-the-charts virality, especially for a piece of Christian pop culture.)
Maybe this disdain for religion is rooted in Jesus’s criticism of the religious leaders of his own Jewish context, and their fixation on outward forms of purity (see Matthew 23). Perhaps it goes back even further, all the way to Yahweh speaking to the people of Israel through the Old Testament prophets (see Amos 5:21-24), condemning the festivals and offerings of their worship because of their neglect of justice and righteousness. It seems our God has little tolerance for forms of religion that leave one unchanged on the inside.
But the Bible is not dismissive toward religion. Contrary to Bethke’s perspective, and those who share it, Matthew 5:17 depicts Jesus – himself a faithful practitioner of his own Jewish religion – telling us explicitly that he did not come to abolish religion (“the law and the prophets”), but to fulfill them. James 1:27 tells us that “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Apparently our outward acts of compassion and the inward orientation of our desires work together to form and per-form a religion that is acceptable to God.
Call me weird, but I confess, I love religion – moreover, I need religion. At the root of religion is ligare, “to tie; to bind.” It’s the same Latin root that gives us the word ligature, which as a saxophone player, I always associate with the thing that holds my reed to my mouthpiece. When it’s doing its job, it creates a tight seal, but still allows one end of the reed to vibrate freely when I blow through it to create all the sweet, sultry (or honking, screeching) sounds the sax is capable of making.
Religion binds and re-binds us together with narratives, texts, rituals, experiences, and by ordering our desires in a common direction. Some see this as a violation of freedom, but the self-centered individualism that says “I can do what I want! I’m in charge of my life!” is anything but freedom – it’s bondage to sin. By contrast, religion keeps me “tethered” – to God and to others – when it seems like everything around me is shifting. When it’s working properly, it holds us together but still leaves us free to vibrate and resonate and squeak out our tune, individually and collectively.
It’s also, however, worth noting the other common meaning of ligature. If you do a Google image search (actually, don’t) for ligature, you’ll be met with photos of a musical device, and photos of human bodies (mostly corpses) with bruising around the neck – “ligature marks” – from strangulation. Paradoxically, the very ties that bind, when abused, can also choke us to death. Perhaps this is why Jesus is so hard on beautifully whitewashed religion that inside is full of rot and dead men’s bones (Matt. 23:27). While true religion holds us together, like the ligaments that keep our skeleton intact, false religion has the potential to place us in bondage and strangle the life right out of us.
My prayer is that there would be less strangling, and more songs.
P.S. my favorite response to Bethke’s video is this piece by “Fr. Pontifex,” the stage name of Fr. Claude Burns, Catholic priest and rapper from Evansville, Indiana (how cool is that?): “Why I Love Religion, and Love Jesus.” Enjoy!