At least that’s how he put it in a 2012 viral video critiquing institutional expressions of faith; there’s no doubt that his video touched a cultural nerve. But what kind of religion-hater also talks about his love of Jesus, quotes the Bible like a preacher and wants to re-introduce a radical Christian faith to his seeker generation? On Faith editor Elizabeth Tenety talked with Jefferson Bethke, 24, who has a recently-published book out called “Jesus > Religion: Why He Is So Much Better Than Trying Harder, Doing More, and Being Good Enough.” This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tenety: How do you define ‘religion’ now and how do you think people of your generation define that word?
Bethke: Obviously it’s been almost two years since that video and certainly I sure have learned a lot about what that word means to different people. Me personally in the context I’m in Northwest Seattle, Portland area that word … the dictionary definition is just like institution. The dictionary definition is good and amen, I love it, and what religion really means.
My thing is I think that word especially in my context has come to really be more about the character and really about doing things for God and not all about these rules and legalism and hypocrisy.
What I try to do is I try to use that word against itself. I kind of turn it upside down and a lot of people don’t like that. That was one thing I learned through the video is that ‘religion’ does mean different things culturally and texturally, regionally so I try to be as gentle as possible and say hey, this is really what I mean. I’m not talking about the church, I’m not talking about institutions because those things are beautiful and needed and I don’t want to create this individualistic Christianity which I think sometimes ‘it’s not a religion it’s a relationship Christianity’ can do.
I think it just was a study for me and just a really humbling experience and man, you really got to define your terms, especially as an artist I have to define my terms, tell people what I mean but that’s what I’m coming at.
Tenety: So then what is this idea that you are proposing to your generation about Jesus?
Bethke: If you look at my generation now and it doesn’t seem like we’re really following Jesus, at least in the majority. I think what I’m trying to get across ultimately at a 3,000 foot level is that Jesus is different and makes [you question] what you thought you grew up with and the things you maybe disagree with in our modern evangelicalism in the 21st century.
Actually surprisingly enough are almost the same things that Jesus disagreed with in a lot of contexts. That’s kind of what I try to get at. I see a lot of parallels between 21st century evangelicalism and first century Pharisees. I see a lot of parallels in the sense of ‘man, we’re very similar to the people Jesus had a lot of problems with’ and so I try to just talk about that and that’s really what I want people to get across is like hey, ‘if you’re going to say no to Jesus at least be saying no to the real thing.’ That’s what I try to get across.
Tenety: Talk to me more about the parallels that you see from Jesus’s criticism of the religion of his day to many young people’s critique of religion today. What are the parallels there?
Bethke: When I read the New Testament the Pharisees seem to be the front runners in the sense of how often they get stage time in many conflicts with Jesus. Pharisees were highly, highly conservative; they had a high view of the Bible which was just the Old Testament at that time. They had a very low view of culture meaning that they think that you could ever actually be out there engaging all elements, all domains in life. They were very right but very wrong in how they interpreted Scripture if that makes sense.
What I mean by that is for example, when the woman caught in adultery gets brought into the temple which they crazily had to have been watching for – for them to catch her in the act which is kind of weird to think about. They also didn’t bring the guy they just brought the girl. When they bring the girl you see them quote the Old Testament, ‘doesn’t the law of Moses say this, this and this?’ so they’re using the Bible, they’re quoting the Bible to do something or to justify something that obviously Jesus disagrees with if you continue to read the story. They’re right, they’re using the Bible. So I think a lot of times 21st century modern evangelicals can say ‘well, I just believe the Bible’ and ‘well, I just preach the Bible’ and ‘well, that’s what the Bible says.’
It’s like well yeah, but are you really getting to the spirit of the law rather then the letter of the law? The Apostle Paul said ‘are you really interpreting it in a way that makes most of Jesus and really pushes people to him?’ so that’s kind of what I mean by that. If you look at all those parallels, very conservative, high view of the Bible, low view of culture again, can be very right but very wrong in how they interpret Scripture. I just really, really feel a lot of that in especially the evangelical American Christian circles.
Tenety: What do you want people to take away from your book?
Bethke: First, Jesus of the Scriptures is so much more beautiful, dynamic, scandalous, dangerous, different and amazing than what we’ve grown up with. Jesus of the Scriptures is so upside down so I think again modern evangelicals don’t get that.
What I mean by that is the way he communicated how power works, the way he communicated how service works, how money works is so counter-cultural, so upside down and that is what makes Jesus so beautiful.
I think that if the American church could get back to that, washing peoples feet, serving them, realizing that it’s not about lusting after power and political positions but it’s actually about loving your neighbor, serving, dying for others then man, that’s really what makes Jesus attractive and unleashes his grace on earth. Jesus is upside down in how he taught about the world and things of the world.
[I’d also want people to know that] brokenness and vulnerability on the path to Jesus are actually good things. I think my generation is really terrified of brokenness. We’re all very broken, I think we actually might be the most broken generation there is just because of statistics of divorce and dads not in the home, I think we’re just broken. I think we’re hurt, I think we’re broken, I think we’re fragmented because of that we try to hide and I think there’s a lot of beauty in brokenness.
There’s a lot of beauty in vulnerability and not just for vulnerability’s sake. The best way I can put it, you can’t know true love until you’re truly vulnerable because until you are truly exposed, meaning that person can actually see you for who you truly are without the mask, then they can’t truly love you. When you’re truly vulnerable and then they say ‘hey, I still want you, I still love you,’ that’s what Jesus said. He teaches ‘I love you, I know you, I want you,’ that is really … man, that’s just something that just absolutely explodes in our hearts when we really understand that. When we’re ultimately vulnerable, God still wants us, desires us and he won’t fire us.
We’re not employees, we’re children of God and I think that is my biggest thrust I want to get across to my generation because I think we are broken and I think we hide behind masks and Facebook and Instagram and these edited versions of ourselves that I think can be damaging and come back to haunt us.
Tenety: Is it fair to call you an evangelical Christian?
Bethke: I don’t know, I’m never really asked what I am so I don’t know. . . I just kind of love Jesus. Obviously from this conversation you can tell I have a lot of problems with the modern evangelicalism as well so I don’t know what I call myself.