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‘Jesus (still) hates religion’: An interview with YouTube sensation Jefferson Bethke

YouTube sensation Jefferson Bethke answers his critics and explains why he still hates religion.
YouTube sensation Jefferson Bethke answers his critics and explains why he still hates religion.

YouTube sensation Jefferson Bethke answers his critics and explains why he still hates religion.

Yes, he’s from Tacoma, Washington. Yes, he played baseball in college. Yes, he loves Frosted Flakes. But, if you’re like over 25 million other YouTube viewers, you probably know Jefferson Bethke from his viral video, “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus.” Bethke’s new book, Jesus > Religion: Why He is So Much Better Than Trying Harder, Doing More and Being Good Enough explores some of the themes from the 2012 sensation. Here, we talk about religion, his critics, and why he still thinks Jesus hates religion.

JM: Jeff, your spoken word YouTube video has had over 25 million views.  Why do you think it resonated with so many?

JB: That’s a great question. I still am not entirely sure. But if I had to speculate I think it resonated because I think there’s this constantly growing chasm in the 21st century western evangelicalism and this vibrant, beautiful, revolutionary, new creation oriented world Jesus launched at the resurrection you see more predominantly in the scriptures. Even though it seems like a caricature, reading YouTube comments on many religious oriented videos, would show that many people’s Christianity doesn’t go much farther than “don’t get tattoos, don’t drink beer, and never swear or curse.” I think my generation has constantly felt this almost awkward vibe when reading the New Testament and then looking up into the landscape of modern evangelicalism and saying, “really? This is the same thing?”

JM: Not every Youtube sensation can or should write a book like you have. Can you say something about the thinkers who have influenced you and why people should listen to what you have to say?

JB: Amen to that first sentence! And to be honest I thought that same thing about myself at first. But when I dug around in my own heart, passions, and desires, I realized the reason I did poetry in the first place was because I love to teach. In school, I studied politics and government and my plan was to be a lawyer, and then that evolved into becoming a high school social studies teacher. So I love to teach and think analytically (I’m left handed, which makes me a little corky as well). I think poetry is an outflow of that, rather than my main passion. In fact, I don’t know how much longer I’ll do spoken word, as I don’t think it’s necessarily my gift or passion. Writing seems more up my alley.

Some of the thinkers who’ve shaped my faith pretty significantly have been Tim Keller, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, NT Wright, A.W. Tozer, Charles Spurgeon, C.S. Lewis, Ann Voskamp, Francine Rivers, Watchman Nee, Francis Schaeffer, Beth Moore, and Andrew Murray. I really owe each of them for particular seasons of life, struggles, joys and events. Their writings have all given me a unique perspective about Jesus and His message that I hadn’t seen before and that had a profound impact on this book.

JM: How do you see today’s 20-somethings taking a new approach to faith? Has there been a cultural shift among this demographic in your opinion?

Book cover courtesy of Thomas Nelson

Book cover courtesy of Thomas Nelson

JB: Well, I think if you study church history you definitely see each generation having to figure it out on their own. It seems to be the way God has weaved mystery into depths of Christian faith. It’s every generation’s job to figure out what it means to follow Jesus in that particular context and culture. If you simply adopt your parent’s methodology and don’t wrestle it out yourself, it almost self destructs. So yes, I’d definitely say there is a shift.

There’s issues our parents raved about that we might not seem to be making much of a big deal of, and then there are some things that might have not been championed by our parents that we are taking a keen interest in. When I look out at the landscape of my peers, I see a lot of desire for authenticity. I think because of systemic injustices like fatherlessness being more prevalent in our generation than ever before, we’re keenly aware of fakery and deceit. We can tell if someone is authentic or the real deal pretty quickly.

Also, with the wide spread nature of technology, news, and the internet, it’s impossible for my generation to turn a blind eye to the suffering of the world (both in our back yards and abroad). It’s too much in our face to not care, which is why you see the idea of justice and setting the world to right, and joining God in his redemptive mission, as another key component of the 20-somethings faith.

The one thing that does scare me though is our complacency about community. I see a lot of 20-somethings, myself included, who are okay with living in isolation. We substitute Facebook, Twitter, and email for real face-to-face interaction. We forget the importance of sharing meals together, which has been a deep sacred rhythm in the Christian faith since the beginning, and serving one another. So I pray that we’d come to grips with the depth and need for community. For life on life existences. For reflecting the image of God when we gather as the people of God—loving, serving, giving to one another. That’s a thing our parents did well. We need to realize that our faith is built on their shoulders, and we need to learn from them.

JM: Can you say something about how faith-messages are communicated today?  How has rise of social media impacted conversations about faith?

JB: Technology is a double-edged sword. I think social media, and YouTube specifically, has really forced the Church to cultivate and reclaim it’s creativity. We have the Creator as our Dad, so we should have the uttermost creativity. Social media has a very harsh “weeding out” aspect. If it’s dry and unengaging, then no one will listen or engage with it. But the other side is that we continually are reducing the size of our messages to fit shrinking attention spans. I know for me, social media is great but I also have to just completely shut down sometimes because it prevents me from doing simple things like quieting down, reading, studying the scriptures and journaling for more than 30 seconds. Social media has transformed the Bible from a beautiful narrative, written over thousands of years, by different authors, ranging from poetry to historical narrative, to 140 characters or less.

JM: You contrast “moralistic man-made religion” and a “divinely-designed relationship of grace.” What are the signs of a moralistic man-made religion?

JB: One thing I’d say first is what they are not. Moralistic man-made religion is not the same as discipline, church attendence, rhythms, and routine. There’s this weird sphere, especially among my age group, where if something requires grace-driven discipline then someone cries “legalism.” That’s simply not true. I mean Hebrews goes as far to say that Jesus learned obedience through suffering. But, signs of true man-made religion would be pride, power grabbing (usually through violence—physically or of the heart), and making yourself the center of the story rather than Jesus. Jesus didn’t seem to get so upset with the Pharisees over their basic theology or Torah interpretation. But he got pretty upset over them for how they applied it or added to it–the reflection they were giving of who God is and what God is like.

JM: Some criticized your video saying it was theologically inaccurate and filled with false dichotomies. How do you respond?

JB: The initial craze and critique of the video taught me so many things. I’m so thankful for it and how much it taught me, shaped me, and made me think about things I wouldn’t otherwise consider. And if I can be honest, when I read most of the critiques, I couldn’t help but say, “Amen!” I think technology has completely flattened any sense of geographical or regional contextualization. The word “religion” might mean something different to someone in Seattle than it does someone in Nashville. Or Bangkok for that matter. So for me, when someone comes up to me and says they hate religion, I want to first know what they mean by “religion.” That pretty much gives away their trajectory.

In my context, there is a good group of people that use the word to describe moral behaviors that place you in right standing with God. And if that’s the case, well that seems pretty upside-down of what Jesus came to preach. His gospel is about Him doing something we couldn’t. But, all-in-all my critics taught me that language is multi-faceted, it can mean different things to different people, and before I critique someone I first like to ask, “What do you mean by that?” before I start pushing further.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.


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  • Great interview! I love how Jonathan formed his questions in a way that they represent exactly what we readers want to deliver. I got my copy yesterday and have not stopped reading the book ever since. I even won the first day of the Photo Contest that I was not even aware of. The book completely challenged my paradigm about “Christianity” – how I have lived my life in the past years and what I am going to do with it from now on. I love how Jefferson always poured his heart out, both in this interview and through all his writings, in challenging me and many out there to consider whether we have been loving Jesus as an idea or as a person.

  • The video trailer for Bethke’s new book reminds me of this video with Brian McLaren called “Toward the Other”. It’s from a bit of different context, connected with his book Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road, and I know many evangelicals are not comfortable with McLaren’s views on some issues. However, it is very telling how we are taught from the beginning to know who we are against and we form a strong mindset of hostility towards those people – whether Christian vs Christian or Christian vs non-Christian. I’m ready for something better. We are headed that way.

  • I like a lot of what Bethke is putting forward, which I think is absolutely necessary to rewaken the Church and inspire it to be more Christ-like in every way possible.

    But… I still have to shake my head at the lack of knowledge Bethke (and many Christians today) actually has for Church history. Go back and actually read early Church history and you can’t help but notice how CATHOLIC it is. Yet Bethke and so many others think Jesus never wanted a Church, didn’t choose Peter to be the leader of it, never instituted the Eucharist, etc.

    Again, I like the energy and the simple call to believe and live the Gospel which Bethke pushes forward, but his complete disregard for actual Church history and lack of depth in regards to theology (other than 2013, American, pop-theology) continue to be weak spots in his evangelical work.

    Time to dig a bit deeper:

  • Hey Greg,

    Thanks for your comments. Have you read the book? Sorry for confusing you, but I’m *for* the church. I have an entire chapter in the book on the need for the church, and it’s beauty as Christ’s bride. I just think we were having a mix up of what “religion” means. Blessings!

  • It could be that Bethke has a different interpretation. The bible, no matter what anyone tells you, is a giant poetry book expressing a cross section of viewpoints from throughout history on the nature of God. So to say that just because he has a differing view may come from a greater understanding than yours, maybe not. To say definitively that it is a lack of understanding is ignorance is in itself ignorance. Religion is just an opinion on the spiritual world not the definitive answer some hope for.

  • I like the kid, especially his take on this “isolated” generation that makes connecting with them a challenge and the down side of social media that reduces God’s grand story of redemption to a shortened face-book post or the like. Also, the list of authors he reads impresses me – not the candy stuff in most bookstores, but real depth and powerhouses of the faith from history. More power to ya!

  • Ugh, puke. I have no interest in Jeeeeezis. I like religion. Religion is about ritual, ceremony, mysticism and aesthetic experience. I worship Church, Church is my god–the means go getting this experience. F*ck you Evangelicals and your Jeeeeeezis. I love religion and have no interest in your Jeeeeezis. I detest you and will do everything I can to to destroy, trash and humiliate you stinking Evangelicals. I hate you. You have destroyed religion.

  • I agree with Jeff. When I was younger than he was I became disillusioned with CHURCH and conflated church with Christ. It took me 15 years to even look at The Bible again and a few more years to come to the same conclusions as Jeff. I especially agree with his answer to this “What are the signs of a moralistic man-made religion?” and his thoughts on suffering and listening to people who say they hate religion.

    I don’t physically attend a church, but I do listen to Rick Warren every week. I think he has similar thoughts as Jeff and is a true servant of Christ. Those are hard to find.

    My mission in life has been transformed from living for myself to living like Christ. That means a lot of things. It is hard, but incredibly and eternally rewarding. I am still trying to figure it out and I am nearly 50!

  • I think I need a self edit – CHURCH being the members of that church and the corrupt men that ran it, dwelled in it and did things in the name of Christ under the cover of the church that were not at all Christ like. That is very damaging for kids to see.

    Church – community of christians can be a very powerful thing. In a building, in a home, out helping others as a group…

  • Jeff, you don’t mention Robert Farrar Capon as one of your influences. If you haven’t read any of his books, take a look, starting with The Romance of the Word and his book about the parables. I think you’ll see the same contrast between Jesus and “religion” there, and a lot of wonderful theology of grace.

  • Jefferson mentions, in this interview that his definition of “religion” is based from his context. My question is, shouldn’t our definition of religion (ultimately) come from the scriptures? This question, along with many other questions has provoked me to disagree strongly, with Jefferson’s book. Because, scriptures does not affirm that “Jesus is greater than religion”. Any further questions or comments, email me: [email protected] | Or, follow me on Twitter: @MrAveryBrown , we can discuss it on there too.

  • “Jesus didn’t seem to get so upset with the Pharisees over their basic theology or Torah interpretation. But he got pretty upset over them for how they applied it or added to it–the reflection they were giving of who God is and what God is like. -”

    But. Isn’t that what YOU are doing when you claim that Jesus “hates religion?”

    Perhaps I see religion differently than you. What is the religion of Christianity? It’s a simple answer for me, all those who are followers of Christ. So, I can’t really hate the Christian religion, or I’d hate all Christ followers.

    I would really like to know what it is you are actually railing against… religion, or hypocrisy, or sin in the church, or what? I feel that, watching the video, and even reading this article, that I’m still a little lost as to why Christ hates his followers. lol