I’m hoping this is an OK place for me to say that I’m bugged by one of the so-called truisms that our evangelical subculture has come to take for granted: that you can “love Jesus” and “hate religion.”

When I was doing high school ministry we used Fritz Ridenour’s Bible study on Romans: How to Be a Christian without Being Religious. I knew what that “without” was about, but it always made me queasy. I knew we were trying to communicate that Christianity was not about rules, or about dressing up and pretending to be good. Being a Christian was about receiving a gift from God, and experiencing a relationship with Jesus based on grace.

Still the “without being religious” part has never sat quite right. I always thought that once you went that direction, you’d have a hard time making some countervailing points – for instance, that there are theological “compasses” (the creeds, for example) and a community without which you were going to flounder and eventually drown.

I’ve tried to find solace in the fact that the most respectable and responsible of Christian voices have championed the same mantra, in one form or another, from Tim Keller (“In religion we earn our forgiveness with our repentance, but in the gospel we just receive it”) to Alexander Schmemann (“Religion is needed where there is a wall of separation between God and man. But Christ who is both God and man has broken down the wall between man and God. He has inaugurated a new life, not a new religion”).

Is JESUS > RELIGION?

More recently, Jefferson Bethke’s viral rap, I Love Jesus But Hate Religion has gotten me thinking again.

I wonder if the anti-religious posturing is counter-productive.

James champions the language of religion: “Pure and undefiled religion … is to visit orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (Jas 1:27 NAS95).

Paul champions the language of religion (at this point, the NEB is truer to Paul than the translations most of us are used to): “And great beyond question is the mystery of our religion: ‘He who was manifested in the body, vindicated, in the spirit, seen by angels; who was proclaimed among the nations, believed in throughout the world, glorified in high heaven’” (1 Tim 3:16 NEB).

C. S. Lewis defends Christianity, not by denying that it is a religion, but by asserting its claims to be “a fighting religion” … “a religion you could not have guessed” (Mere Christianity).

Has our anti-religiosity apologetic given us some unfortunate serendipitous results? I think that most people who champion “Jesus but not religion” mean something like the following:

A relationship, not a religion. My question is: what kind of relationship? and with whom? How many, in quest of “their best life ever” have pimped Jesus and made him simply the means to their own ends? Is a religionless relationship one in which Jesus becomes chaplain to my personal religion of self?

Spontaneous, not structured. Then again: if the Christian life is all improvisation… Well, all I know to do is compare the situation with the samurai sword martial art I pursue. It’s embarrassing to look at the macho freestylers who cut stuff on YouTube. They are artless rubes. They are dangerous to themselves and others. In a legit dojo you learn a whole way of being – a way that begins with self-control. The learned way is beautiful and artful as well as effective. Christianity is supposed to be an intentional way of being in community – in a word, a religious life. The alternative is a narcissistic using of Jesus that produces artless, self-absorbed rubes.

The weight of glory

Comfortable, not disquieting or demanding. I’d like to think the casual ethos we’ve created is a statement that Jesus Christ stands against human pride. I fear instead it’s become a slothful resistance to Jesus’ insistence that he intends to meddle, to make us over, transform us into bearers of what Paul calls the “weight of glory.” Give me Annie Dillard’s church:

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions… Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?…we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews (from Teaching a Stone to Talk).

If ever there was an “either/or” when there needs to be a “both/and”! Luther’s emphasis is true: Grace consoles the guilty sinner by offering Christ’s obedience in our place (that’s Eph 2:8-9). Calvin’s emphasis is true: Grace transforms the guilty sinner by building Christ’s life into us – He who is God’s grace and who has come “to teach us … to live soberly, justly, and, (well, to translate more carefully) religiously” (Titus 2:11,12; see also Eph 2:10; Rom 8:29; 12:1-2).

So, holy and gracious Father, give me love for Jesus, and with him “training for the practice of religion,” for “the benefits of religion are without limit, since it holds promise not only for this life but for the life to come” (1 Tim 4:8 NEB). Amen

For conversation: What are the connotations of “religion” to you? What are the disadvantages and advantages of thinking of the Christian life and faith as a religious life and faith? Feel free to post here, or email me directly at webmaster@reggiekidd.com.