Sunday, June 29, 2014

On Following Jesus

I recently rediscovered a popular YouTube video that first made the rounds a few years ago but gets kicked up again every now and then when someone shares it anew via the TwitFace. If you’re not one of the 27 million (!) and counting who have watched this video, here it is:

It’s titled “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” and is an unremarkable spoken word piece about how Jesus and religion are entirely separate entities, and, generally, Jesus is good, while religion is bad. If my only intention were to respond to the video, this would be by far the shortest blog entry I’ll ever write, because the whole thing is, bluntly stated, a thoughtless, incoherent fit of theologically vacuous solipsism. The ideas expressed in this video are so stupid that I think even Christians should find it offensive. I don’t have the patience to point out everything that’s absurd about this, so I’ll limit my reactions to the most egregiously ignorant parts, starting with the very first line:

“What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion?”

Well, I’d tell you to support this outrageous claim with at least one compelling reason why I should believe you, when Jesus himself said “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.” (Matthew 5:17) Jesus lived and died as a devout Jew and preached that his followers should uphold the Torah of Moses. Not until Paul’s epistles do we get this idea that Jesus came to abolish the laws of the Old Testament: “But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster.” (Galatians 3:23-6) Paul, incidentally, never met Jesus.

“If religion is so great, why has it started so many wars?”

Not all religions start wars. That phenomenon seems to be limited to monotheisms, and the answer to the question is simple – because God says to do so.

Tells single moms God doesn’t love them if they’ve ever been divorced.”

Oh, how embarrassing for you… actually the Old Testament gives guidelines for when divorce is acceptable (Deuteronomy 24:1-2); it’s Jesus who says Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery.” (Mark 10:11, Luke 16:18)

“In every other aspect of life you know that logic’s unworthy;
It’s like saying you play for the Lakers just because you bought a jersey.”

This is the “no true Scotsman” fallacy, which every group of Christians commits when talking about any other group of Christians. “Oh, they’re not real Christians. If they were, they’d do X and believe Y, like we at our church do.” There are as many ideas of what constitutes a real Christian as there are Christians.

“…Cuz it’s not a museum for good people, it’s a hospital for the broken.”

The entire idea of the inherently sinful nature of human beings and consequent need for salvation is a dogmatic Christian belief. This is the sort of thing that defines a religion. You can’t tirade against religion and yet somehow magically retain the doctrine of salvation through Christ.

“…Which is so different from religious people, and why Jesus called ‘em fools;
Don’t you see he’s so much better than just following some rules?”

Citation needed for Jesus calling religious people fools. Was he preaching in the temple when he did that? You know, to all those religious people following him around? Secondly, Jesus very explicitly told his followers to FOLLOW THE GODDAMN RULES. I’ve already mentioned the passage in Matthew. See also ALL OF THE REST OF THE GOSPELS. CHRIST.
“Now let me clarify, I love the church, I love the Bible, and I believe in sin.”

…wat? You love the church, love the Bible, believe in sin, but …you hate religion. What in the actual fuck are you on about? Is this a joke? If you’re keeping the church, and the Bible, and the major doctrinal teachings of the faith, what exactly do you hate? What’s the stuff Jesus is apparently better than? What the hell is “religion” if not the church, the Bible, and the major dogmatic beliefs?

“Jesus and religion are on opposite spectrums.”

On opposite spectrums of what? Do you mean different spectrums? Which spectrum is Jesus on, and which religion? What does this statement even mean?

“Religion is man searching for God, but Christianity is God searching for man.”

So not only is Jesus different from (and better than) religion, but now Christianity is too? Do you actually think you can get away with this sneaky implication that Christianity is not a religion? Like, for seriously?

“So know I hate religion, I literally resent it;”

At no point have you even come close to establishing exactly what you think “religion” is, so I have no idea what it is that you hate. You literally resent it? As opposed to… figuratively? metaphorically?

“Because when Jesus cried “it is finished,” I believe he meant it.”

I assume the reference here is to John 19:30, Jesus’ final words before his death. This profound utterance only occurs in John’s gospel; in Mark and Matthew he says nothing more than “My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34, Matthew 27:46) I’ll also point out that John was written much later than Matthew, which is copied from Mark, half of which is disputed as inauthentic, sooooo… yeah Jesus probably didn’t say that. But by all means, cherry-pick your way to the lazy-ass theology you want other people to take seriously.

The Bigger Picture

My intentions are not simply to tear apart this ignorant rube for his disjointed ramblings and laughable attempt at promoting an untenable worldview. The fact that this video has gained such massive popularity attests to the reality that many, many people identify with this idea. Unfortunately for those who would embrace this pro-Jesus, anti-religion version of the Christian faith, espousing this view tellingly reveals at least one thing: the creator of this video and the people sympathetic to its message are profoundly ignorant about Christianity, the church, and Jesus. This is the more salient issue I’d like to address.

Now, before we go too much farther, let’s establish some basic facts in which to ground our epistemology (basically, how we can know shit) about Jesus. Hopefully everyone will agree with these rather uncontroversial claims:
  • The life, deeds, and sayings of Jesus are matters of fact, not of opinion. He either did and said certain shit, or he didn’t, and there’s an objective answer – whatever you believe about Jesus is either true or false. He’s not whoever you want him to be, not different for everyone.
  • The only way to know anything at all about Jesus is to read the New Testament. Even though it’s a historically useless hodgepodge of church-approved propaganda, it’s literally the only source in existence which even purports to give any factual information about the life, character, and deeds of Jesus. If you believe something about Jesus for which there is no textual support in the Bible, you’ve simply made some shit up and have no legitimate reason whatsoever to believe it.
I’m not even a Christian, and still it irritates me to discover the completely fabricated faith that so many Christians proudly endorse and loudly proclaim. This popular notion that Jesus was a forward-thinking, benevolent, anti-establishment guru is simply a fallacy, a caricature of the figure of Jesus as depicted in the Bible. Of course everyone gravitates toward the sublimely moral teachings and messages of good-will toward thy neighbor and turning the other cheek and not being judgmental. What about some of those less flowery things that Jesus also said? Where are the bumper stickers for these gems?
  • “Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on… Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.” (Matthew 6:31, 34; Luke 12:22)
  • “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.” (Matthew 10:34-5; Luke 12:51)
  • “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)
Jesus was an observant Jew and failed messianic prophet. His followers all genuinely believed (including Paul, our most authentic source) that they were moments away from the end of the world and would be enjoying eternity with God in the immediate future. Since two millennia have passed now with no sign of Jesus’ return, Christians downplay the fact that much of what Jesus said makes no sense unless the physical world is about to end. We all understand that it’s generally a bad idea to live our lives as if the Rapture will happen tomorrow, and yet this central theme of Jesus’ message is entirely, and rightly, ignored.

Yes, some prominent ideas in the teachings of Jesus are admirable. But nearly every single religion and philosophy in the world embraces basic moral precepts like do unto others; Jesus was neither the first nor the only person to suggest that we be nice to each other. To deny the complete character of Jesus as reported in the very same source as the oft-repeated beatitudes and sermon on the mount reveals either ignorance or dishonesty, neither of which is an acceptable basis for a worldview, religious or secular.

Can Jesus and Religion Be Separated?

The short answer is no. The long answer is no, of course not, why would you say something so stupid? I can perhaps understand the desire to take the (idealized, edited) figure of Jesus and remove him from his milieu of organized religion, and all the intolerance, bigotry, and hypocrisy that comes along with it, because he should be above that sort of thing. The problem is that there’s absolutely no theologically coherent way to do that. Why? Why can’t you keep your homeboy Jesus and tell the Pope to go fuck himself?

Well, because there’s no such thing as Jesus outside of the church, outside of religion. The only reason we know anything about him at all, as we agreed earlier, is because members of the early Christian church wrote the New Testament, our only available source of information about him. Jesus himself didn’t write anything, nor did any of his apostles. Nor, in fact, did anyone who even saw the historical Jesus write anything about him. (The book of James, reluctantly crammed into the back of the NT, is a possible exception and a discussion for another time.) Paul, whose version of Christianity won out over that of his rivals Peter and James, is the single most influential writer about Jesus, and Paul didn’t become a follower of the movement until 20 years after Jesus died. The writers of the gospels all came later, in some cases much later, and are just following Paul and/or copying each other. Yet, this is the reality: this is all we have, and the only reason we have it is because the early church collected, edited, reorganized, and passed these writings down through the ages. If it weren’t for the organized religion that eventually grew out the Jesus movement, there would be no Jesus. We would scarcely have any idea that he even existed (and still, actually, it’s possible that he didn’t.) You can’t dump the religion without dumping Jesus out along with it.

A Lazy Theology

It might seem a bit ridiculous that someone like me, an unapologetic non-believer, would actually bother distinguishing between more and less respectable forms of Christianity. Generally my problem is not with the particular beliefs that a person holds as much as the means by which he has acquired them. There is an abyssal difference between a Christian who has thoughtfully and diligently plunged repeatedly into the depths of scripture, historicity, and textual criticism and a Christian who believes in Jesus because his mother used to read him bedtime stories from a children’s bible. Only one of those people holds a belief not worthy of immediate and unrestrained derision.

The massive irony of people who want to follow Jesus but don’t want to follow the rituals and strict rules of the church is that they’re doing precisely the opposite of what they claim. If your idea of Jesus doesn’t come from reading scripture; if your idea of Jesus is somehow different from the Jesus of the Bible; if you have a radically different idea of who Jesus was that just so happens to conform to everything you think is good and important, you’re not following Jesus. You already have a set of values you’ve acquired by some other means, and you’re simply looking for divine justification for what you already think. You make Jesus into whatever you need him to be in order to continue to live your life however you’d like and still sleep soundly at night, knowing that your immortal soul is safe. Think homosexuality is a sin? I'm sure Jesus agrees. Changed your mind about that? I'm sure Jesus is totally cool with that, too. You’re not following Jesus; Jesus is following you.