Month: January 2012

Two Lectures Available Online

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Two of my lectures from the recent Meeting the World series are now fully online, courtesy of Ancient Faith Radio:

    Meeting the World: Taking the Gospel Into Our Times and Our Places: Part 1, Part 2

    A Peculiar People: Orthodox Christian Identity in a Hostile World: Part 1, Part 2

Three more will be available in the next several weeks, each broken into two parts. All the pieces in this series are about how Orthodox Christians can engage the surrounding culture.

Religion, Rules and Reality

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The Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost
One of the unfortunate aspects of Internet converse that I’ve noticed during my nearly twenty years online is that often interlocutors write as though they assume that what they see in front of them is in fact the only thing that a poster has ever written on a subject. I think this comes of living in a sound-byte world, in which it is proposed to us that one’s entire message must now be encapsulated into a single datum that is the only chance a writer will have to reach his audience. Such a proposition is of course a marketing proposition, and it relies on and indeed perpetuates the formation of an entirely ahistorical and limited attention.

The evidence for this phenomenon is plentiful and pluriform online, so I will not bore you with examples. But perhaps you will remember this problem the next time someone posts something along these lines: “But you NEVER SAID ______ !” Yes, it is possible you never did say ______, but it is also just as likely that ______ was the subject of your doctoral dissertation, best-selling book, appearance on the evening news, official testimony before Congress, etc. But of course that wasn’t checked. ______ was not mentioned in this specific publication and therefore represents an egregious oversight on your part and is evidence that you in fact believe the opposite of ______.

Everything must now be a Summa, but it also must be a Summa of Sensitivity and Spectacle (not to mention, Speed), lest you lose your audience through soporific specificity. As someone with a daily experience of being steeped in iconography, I can of course appreciate the inner human longing at play here, but of course the true icon is not one that presents the viewer with the sum total of its subject, but rather with an introduction to it and an encounter with it.

I wrote those three paragraphs to give you those that follow.

In my oddly controversial post from last Thursday, I was excoriated by a number of commenters—both those whose comments were published and those whose moderation did not permit to see the light of day—who asserted to me again and again (and again, really, ad nauseam) that the Christian is saved by Jesus, not by rules and religion, that Jesus came to save us from rules and religion. And every time anyone countered that assertion, it was simply made again, as though it were some sort of battle cry that is self-evidently true and doctrinally menacing to all who hear it.

Yet, somehow, the vast swathe of Christian history and even the great sweep of currently living Christians manage along with spiritual lives that would suspiciously appear to be about “rules” and “religion.” Apparently, only the very small minority of Christians who hold to pop-Evangelicalism actually have a “personal relationship with Christ,” and even if some of them will allow that there are “personal relationship” Christians within all those rule-ridden religions, it is in spite of (not because of) all that pomp and circumstantial stuff.

But to those of us who live somewhere within or even near what history shows us is traditional Christianity (with all those bishops, sacraments, incense, and so on) hear such claims as utter nonsense. I have never yet met anyone who believes and practices such things who actually believes that he really has no access to God, that he must go “through” some clergyman, that his faith isn’t at all personal, that merely following rules and going through magical ritual motions will guarantee that heaven everlasting is his eternal reward.

Yes, they may say, perhaps rule-ridden religion is not the official teaching of such churches, perhaps they may teach that it is grace that saves the believer, but we know better. We know that they really just skip over certain obviously damning Bible verses that instantly refute their whole way of life. We know that they’re not really serious when they say they believe in grace, salvation through faith, and so on.

And to that, I say: Well, so long as you’re going to tell me what I believe, you may as well come up with something rather more colorful and interesting. (After all, my objections won’t count.) We’re probably also sacrificing chickens late on Wednesday nights and bow down before fish-headed gods and make dark deals with the Illuminati. It’s all quite obvious, you know.

But, if perhaps, you may be willing to listen for a moment, rather than instantly assume that every refutation of pop-Evangelicalism necessarily constitutes an endorsement of Pharisaism, then perhaps you will find something other than what you assumed and expected. You may well be confused, I grant you, because us “religious” types turn out not actually to be what your lot has been railing against for some centuries.

That said, at least as far as Orthodox Christians are concerned (I cannot speak for “religion”), we are saved by grace through faith. There is no act, not even the act of faith, not even praying the “Sinner’s Prayer” with utmost sincerity, that can save us. Only God saves. Only God transforms. Only God heals. And He also does not owe us that healing, no matter what we do. We cannot obligate Him in any way nor do anything that will compel Him to grant salvation. Salvation is indeed a free gift. It cannot be earned or bought, not even by saying the right words in a formulaic prayer or having a conversion experience.

That said, why is it that we Orthodox seem to have so many “rules,” so much “religion”? Well, here’s the thing: For us, salvation is not merely about getting to go to the Good Place rather than the Bad Place when we die, preceded by trying to be moral and making sure to recruit more people for the Moral Recruiters Going to Heaven Club.

And let’s be honest here: That’s what pop-Evangelicalism boils down to—going to heaven and getting more people on board. You of course ought to be moral along the way, and if you are obviously and constantly immoral, perhaps you never really were on board, but since even morality is a “good work,” we know it doesn’t actually have anything to do with getting that free ticket to the Good Place.

So, why do the Orthodox have so much stuff to do? Why are we surrounded by structure, customs, complex worship, strange vestments, otherworldly music, and even crazy people who dress all in black and go off in the forests and deserts and seem to just pray and work all the time? What’s with all the stuff?

At its heart is this basic affirmation: God became man. That means that God became matter, that He became part of His creation. In becoming part of His creation, He made it possible for us to touch the previously untouchable, to see the previously invisible, to access the previously inaccessible. God became matter, and boy-howdy, does that matter. But how does that add up to so much physicality (and that’s what all the “stuff” really is and why it bothers you) in Christian life?

You may never really have noticed this, but there is a lot of stuff-related stuff going on in the Bible: A dead man comes back to life when he falls on the bones of the Prophet Elisha. The people of Israel are healed of snake-bite when they look to a bronze image of a serpent. God directly commands an incredibly complex, expensive and image-filled context for worship. Jesus uses mud to heal a blind man’s eyes. And why is it that pretty much every time the Bible gives us a peek into heaven, we keep seeing an altar, incense, and all that “religious” stuff? We could go on. But of course the biggest piece of matter of all is the matter that was (and is!) Jesus.

But Jesus came to save us from all that, you might say. All of that “stuff” was not His original plan, you might say—and someone did actually say that to me, as though God was somehow taken by surprise when mankind fell and needed to come up with an improvised Plan B. Or, in the word of Jefferson Bethke the New Theologian, Jesus came to “abolish religion.” Yet, what Jesus actually said was that He came to fulfill what had come before, not to destroy it. Yet somehow you want me to believe that fulfill actually means destroy.

What if instead of dealing with mankind in one way for thousands of years and then abruptly changing His mind and doing something entirely different, God was actually gradually opening up His revelation like a flower until it came to full blossom in Christ? What if the Law, the prophets, and even all of the “stuff” were not just a temporary band-aid to be ripped off when the real deal came along, but actually constitute hints and foreshadowings that are fully revealed in Christ? What if a grossly bifurcated history of God’s dealing with mankind actually makes no sense in the light of Christian history?

What if God is actually totally consistent through the whole Bible and even in the nineteen centuries after it?

No, you don’t see it that way, you say. And why can’t you see it that way? It’s probably because you have latched onto the obsessions of an ex-Augustinian monk with the abuses of late-medieval Roman Catholicism and given them legs and turned them into a whole theology that is anti-stuff and therefore horrified at “rules” and “religion.” It is probably also due to your ignorance (and here, I really do not blame you, but now that you’ve been informed, you really should look it up) of Christian history, that details a faith community that lived the Christian life in intense fulness, including an exceptionally detailed interaction with physical matter and all that that entails, with all the bishops and sacraments and incense and so on.

For you, all of that material “stuff” gets between me and God, but that makes no sense to me, because God chose to use matter—He became matter!—in order to connect to man! These things aren’t gateways that shut the door to God. This materiality is actually the very pathway to experience of the divine.

But what if the Apostles actually did succeed in their mission? What if they really formed communities that really worshiped Christ the right way? Isn’t it reasonable to expect that believers getting together for worship in a decent, orderly fashion will look an awful lot like they have “rules” and “religion”? And isn’t it reasonable to expect that people who take Jesus seriously when He said that we have to eat His flesh and drink His blood to have life in us will behave in an exceptionally reverent manner when they do so? Don’t you think a few “rules” might be in order when approaching the King of Kings in such a way that we don’t get sick or die by doing so unworthily?

The reality is that when people live in communities together, they develop rituals and customs that connect them together and define their identities, even in things as simple as a handshake (which accomplishes nothing yet somehow says quite a lot). And the Church is not just any human community. It is the very Body of Christ, constituted and blessed by Christ Himself to be the very pillar and ground of the truth, which is why not just any self-chosen group of believers can lay claim to that identity. There can be only one Church, because there is only one Christ, Who has only one Bride. The Lord is not a polygamist, and He is not betrothed to a woman with multiple personality disorder, either.

Why is it so bizarre to think that the basic elements of culture could actually be Christianized? Why is it that you want so much of life to remain secular, with all of the “stuff” in my life utterly untouched by holiness, by the actual presence of God within physical matter?

You see, that’s what the problem is here. Human life is very much shaped by materiality, by ritual, by custom, by traditional wisdom and ways of doing things. When you say that Jesus wants us not to have “rules” and “religion,” what I hear you saying is that you want most of my life to remain outside of my spiritual life. But I want it to be inside, not outside. And all of this “stuff” is how we do that.

I don’t harbor the delusion that those things save me. They don’t. But they are part of my cooperation with Christ to “press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me,” to “work out [my] salvation with fear and trembling.”

Salvation is not something that God does to me. It is something that He offers me, but that I must receive truly willingly. And the last time I checked, because I am still a sinner, my will was not yet fully aligned with His. That’s why we have received the tradition of the Apostles. And I will continue to obey the words of the Apostle, when he says that we are to hold fast to the traditions that he and the other Apostles taught, whether it was by word of mouth or by written letters.

Does this mean that we Orthodox are enslaved somehow, that we are weighted down with rules? That is no more the case than that an athlete is restrained by the training and diet and exercise he must undertake in order to run his race. We are of course free not to run the race, and we are free not to train. But if we are going to train, it’s going to take some doing.

Does that mean we live in terror from day to day, without an absolute epistemological certainty that we will be going to the Good Place after death? Not at all. You see (and note well here the irony), faith in Christ is a relationship, not an absolute, immovable status. As with any relationship of love, either lover can walk out and end it. Christ won’t, of course, but we humans can and do. But the more we are faithful, when we endure to the end, then we are healed (which is also the literal meaning of the Greek sozo usually translated as “save”).

God calls us to become partakers of the divine nature, to become perfect people, to the fulness of the stature of Christ, not to “get saved” and then just try to be moral and be sure to recruit more people for the Moral Recruiters Going to Heaven Club while we wait to die.

The Orthodox Christian faith offers the possibility for the healing of the human soul, the transfiguration of the human person, mystical communion with the divine right now, and it’s all accomplished by actual, physical contact with the awesome God of the universe, Who is alone worthy of worship. We just won’t settle for less. What Christ offers is far too magnificent.

Updates and Two New O&H Reviews

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Two new weblog reviews of Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy have been posted recently. You can read them here:

Also, for those who don’t regularly follow my posts on Facebook and Google+, you may be interested to know that I am currently at work on a new book (title to be announced later) on introducing Orthodox Christianity to the unchurched and also the folks we might call the ex-churched.

There are also new podcasts being posted at Ancient Faith Radio‘s Roads from Emmaus site. They’re from the Meeting the World series of talks I did here in Emmaus. I just completed this series of five lectures, and AFR will be rolling them out in two parts each over the next several weeks.

Why I Love (True) Religion, Epilogue

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The Smoking Gun

After well over 300 comments posted, and probably close to 200 ad hominem rants and attempts to get me to convert back to the Evangelicalism from whence I came deleted without being published, I’ve decided to close comments for my previous post, “Why I Love (True) Religion Because I Love Jesus.”

I thank those who had something new and useful to contribute—even those who came with criticism for my post—but it’s become clear that we’ve pretty much exhausted nearly every permutation of “But don’t you know Jesus came to save us from rules and religion?!” and “You big meanie!” and “You are clearly a terrible person who is leading others into spiritual destruction!” and of course lots of “How dare you be so judgmental?!”

I appreciate the several dozen of you who, discovering I did not publish your particular comment, invited me to debates and discussions via email. I’m afraid I have neither the energy nor inclination for that, and I have a general policy of not undertaking lengthy theological discussions via email except with my parishioners. Besides that, there is nothing that didn’t make it through here which I would likely be interested in engaging over email, either.

I’ve also decided to close comments because this curiously popular post has come right at the start of house blessing season for me (when I visit about 100 homes belonging to my parishioners in just a few weeks), and I honestly have enough other work to do that it’s just become a little much. I say this with absolutely no temerity or irony: I honestly had absolutely no idea that this post would get the level of attention it has. I am fully aware (and always expected) that my weblog is a small-time operation of interest perhaps only to a few dozen people, so it took me quite by surprise that suddenly I was getting deluged with comments, more than 150 per day.

Just for a sense of scale here, my previously most-commented post ever got a total of 17 comments, while the previous post received about 500 attempts to comment. My previously most popular post got a bit over 800 hits in the space of two years (another one has now surpassed it and come close to 1000). But the post in question has (as of this posting) gotten over 34,000 hits in the space of a little over three days. More than 40% of all the hits my weblog has ever gotten since I began it almost three years ago have come since this past Thursday afternoon.

I really cannot figure out why (no, really), and I keep telling my wife that over the past few days. I don’t regard it as even remotely my best piece of writing (not that I am any very great writer), certainly not dozens of times better than anything else on this weblog. But I suppose one never knows which tsunamis one will find oneself in the middle of. And of course my little piece of commentary is not remotely as popular as the video it critiqued, which has now received well over 12 million views on YouTube. No doubt the gentleman in question is at the beginning of a successful career (though, perhaps appropriately enough, he’s also disabled comments on his video).

I welcome the several dozen of you who chose to subscribe to this weblog over the past few days, as well as those with whom I have connected on Facebook and Google+. I hope you enjoy whatever comes next. And I must say that some of you on Facebook particularly amused me by joining the brand new Prophet Elijah Institute for Ecumenical Understanding (whose watchwords are I Kings 18:27).

If any of you are interested in the more detailed critiques I’ve written of Evangelical theology (rather than the fairly short responses I wrote to the video), I recommend the “Comparative Theology” category (be sure to click “Older Entries” for, well, older entries) on this weblog. You are also welcome to listen to the Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy podcast (I have a good many other podcasts, too). And of course I would be remiss if I didn’t also suggest my book of the same name.

And some of you out there are no doubt now wholly convinced I am a mercenary. I’ll be sure to invite you to my 8000 sq. ft. cabin on Martha’s Vineyard right after I get out of this rental house. (And why am I driving a Prius?!)

Why I Love (True) Religion Because I Love Jesus

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The above video by Jefferson Bethke has been making the rounds lately via various bits of social media. A few people have sent it to me to ask what I think. This touches on a lot of themes that I’ve written on before, and while it doesn’t particularly make any new theological claims—it’s really just a sort of standard, monergistic, anti-ecclesial, sentimentalist Evangelical Protestantism—for whatever reason (perhaps the emotionally moving music in the background), it seems to be getting some attention.

Anyway, the Bethke text is below in italics, and my responses are in standard typeface. (Update: I’ve updated the quoted text verbatim with his official transcription, which is more accurate than the one I found earlier via Google.)

What if I told you, Jesus came to abolish religion?

Well, I’d ask what exactly you mean by “religion.” After all, that word, which you use as if it were some monolithic institution or set of behaviors or philosophy, can refer to everything from exactly what you’re doing in this video to when Jesus went up to Jerusalem for the Passover to the human sacrifice of the Thuggee cult in India to the fivefold kneeling in prayer of the Muslim. There really is no such thing as “religion” in any sense that it could be criticized with any detail. There are religions, but there isn’t “religion,” not really.

No doubt you just mean Jesus came to abolish bad religions. But you didn’t say that.

What’s worst about this, though, is that religion is actually a rather great word, once you look inside it. It’s from Latin, and (at least in its etymological parts) it literally (and yes, I mean literally literally) means “reconnection” (re + ligio). Is that what you mean Jesus came to abolish? I had gotten the impression that reconnection was actually the purpose of His coming.

Of course you probably didn’t mean that. But you should find out what the words you use mean before you use them, even if you’re not going to dive into etymology and plan merely to use common dictionary definitions.

What if I told you, getting you to vote republican, really wasn’t his mission?

He didn’t seem to have much to say about voting in general, actually. I’ve met Democrats who insist to me that a true Christian can only vote Democrat, mapping Jesus’ commands to love with compassion onto a progressivist social agenda. I’m not really sure who you’re responding to here, but I don’t think there’s really any significant movement of Christians who actually believe that “vot[ing] Republican really [was] his mission.” (Do you?)

Because republican doesn’t automatically mean Christian,
And just because you call some people blind, doesn’t automatically give you vision.

Well, the irony here is that you later write “Religion makes you blind.” Where’s your vision coming from? You question the authority of the “you” who “call[s] some people blind,” but you haven’t established your own. You yourself call some people blind later on (“Religion” makes you that way, it seems), but from what source comes your vision?

(But it definitely seems you have a problem with Republicans.)

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

I have to assume that you’re just ignorant here. Any real examination of the realities of military history will reveal that religion is almost never the actual impetus for armed conflict. Indeed, even the “Wars of Religion” in Europe frequently saw alliances between various factions who had different religious allegiances, often acting as co-belligerents against co-religionists. (For more on this, I highly recommend David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, which is a very badly titled book about doing an honest examination of the evidence of the history of Christianity, especially in the West. It’s a good book, and it’s a slam-dunk against the old urban legends about “religion” being anti-science, starting wars, pursuing witch-hunts, etc.)

Of course, you put that in the present tense, so I have to ask: Can you name even one currently ongoing war that is started by religion?

Also, I know you don’t mean to suggest this, but one could also ask why, if atheism is so great, explicitly atheist regimes succeeded in slaughtering more people (both in terms of sheer numbers and in terms of thoroughness) in the 20th century than in the entire rest of human history combined. (This point is not really about atheism, of course, but rather to point out the error in using a body count as a measure of a philosophy.)

Why does it build huge churches, but fails to feed the poor?

Did you know that the largest charity in the US is Lutheran? Did you know that Americans are the most charitable country on earth? Did you know that people who attend religious services regularly are the most likely to be charitable givers?

Did you know that “religion” essentially invented the ideas of feeding the poor, building free hospitals, and has spent untold amounts of money sending people to the ends of the earth precisely to care for the suffering?

Ever hear of Mother Teresa? Rumor has it she belonged to a big ol’ religion.

Tells single moms God doesn’t love them if they’ve ever been divorced
Yet God in the Old Testament actually calls the religious people whores

Again, which “religion” is this? Divorce is a sin, yes, but God loves all sinners. As for your claim about the Old Testament, I’ll have to see a citation. (Was this the “religion” that God Himself instituted via Abraham and Moses?)

Religion preaches grace, but another thing they practice,
Tend to ridicule Gods people, they did it to John the Baptist,

Again, the moving target of “religion” can be pinned with any malefaction, I suppose.

Did you know John the Baptist used to baptize people as part of a Jewish tradition of a ritual washing for the repentance of sins? That sounds suspiciously like “religion” to me.

Cant fix their problems, so they try to mask it,
Not realizing that’s just like sprayin perfume on a casket
Because the problem with religion is that it never gets to the core,
It’s just behavior modification, like a long list of chores.
Let’s dress up the outside, make things look nice and neat,
Its funny that’s what they do to mummies, while the corpse rots underneath,

Okay, I get what you’re referring to here, and of course it’s the whitewashed tombs that Christ uses to characterize the scribes and Pharisees of His day. But even while He has such strong words for them, He doesn’t “abolish” their position. Instead, He actually says “whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do.” His problem with them is their hypocrisy, not their “religion.”

Your basic error here is that you’ve identified hypocrisy with “religion,” but Jesus Himself actually criticized the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees while explicitly endorsing their religion, which is kind of a problem for your whole thesis.

Now I ain’t judging…

Really?

…I’m just saying be careful of putting on a fake look,
Because there’s a problem if people only know that you’re a Christian by that little section on your facebook

Hey, I agree.

In every other aspect of life you know that logics unworthy

I honestly have no idea what this means.

(Update: Someone sent me a better transcription for this line (I Googled for the one I originally used; I didn’t transcribe it myself), but my comment above was based on an earlier version I found which read In every other aspect of life you know that logics are worthy.

I must admit now that I’m a little disappointed he didn’t actually write “that logics are worthy,” because logics has a certain droll quality to it. He meant logic’s, of course, though his official transcript left out that apostrophe.

His meaning is clearer in his official version, though I do wish he’d’ve used an apostrophe.)

Its like saying you play for the lakers just because you bought a jersey

Again, I agree. Hypocrisy is bad.

But I guess you like the Lakers.

But see I played this game too; no one seemed to be on to me,
I was acting like church kid, while addicted to pornography.
I’d go to church on Sunday, but on saturday getting faded,
Acting as if I was simply created to have sex and get wasted.
Spend my whole life putting on this façade of neatness,

You know what? This is the predicament of almost every Christian I’ve ever known. Perhaps their sins aren’t pornography (though that is unfortunately becoming frighteningly common), drugs (which is what I assume “getting faded” means) and sex and getting wasted (wait… that’s drugs twice!), but every single Christian is a sinner, and indeed just about every member of every religion would probably admit that he fails to live up to his religion’s moral code in some manner or other.

The problem lies not in the sin but rather in hypocrisy (which is claiming to believe something you actually don’t, not merely failing to live up to your beliefs), in pretense.

You say below that the church is a “hospital for the broken,” but you seem to believe that the broken are all just a bunch of fakes who have built a “façade of neatness.”

But now that I know Jesus, I boast in my weakness.
If grace is water, then the church should be an ocean,
Cuz its not a museum for good people, it’s a hospital for the broken

I absolutely agree. And that’s what the true Christian religion actually is. The fact that you’ve apparently been a hypocrite and that you probably have been burned or offended by hypocrites doesn’t mean that there really is actually no true religion.

I no longer have to hide my failures I don’t have to hide my sin,
Because my salvation doesn’t depend on me, it depends on him.

Actually, it depends on you, too. If you don’t cooperate, then it won’t do anything for you at all.

because when I was Gods enemy and certainly not a fan,
God looked down on me and said, “I want that man!”
Which is so different from religious people, and why Jesus called em fools

There you go again. Jesus never said any such thing. Indeed, He seemed especially intent on establishing His Church, which is an actual community, a body—in your words, a “hospital for the broken” (that image comes from “religion,” by the way).

Don’t you see hes so much better than just following some rules?

Who actually claims that religion is about “just following some rules”? Yes, there are “rules” in the sense that there are moral standards and traditional ways of doing things, but that’s because, if you’re going to have a functioning hospital for the broken, there will need to be ways of keeping the peaceful atmosphere, passing on the wisdom of the Great Physician, and also in informing the patients what kinds of behavior will help in their healing and what kinds are going to make them sicker.

Now let me clarify, I love the church, I love the bible, and I believe in sin

These are all things that “religion” has revealed, I’m afraid.

But my question, is if Jesus were here today, would your church let Him in?

Well, since you asked about my church… He comes to my church every day, and He actually is present on my altar at least once a week, and we not only let Him into the church, but we let Him into our actual bodies.

Remember He was called a drunkard and a glutton by “religious men”
The Son of God not supported self-righteousness, not now, not then.

But He was also called “my Lord and my God,” and “the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world” and “Savior” by “religious men.” He came precisely to give righteousness to those who would participate in it. Being “religious” does not make someone “self-righteous.”

Now back to the topic, one thing I think is vital to mention,
How Jesus and religion are on opposite spectrums,
One is the work of God one is a man made invention,
One is the cure and one is the infection.

Actually, I thought sin was the infection. When Adam and Eve infected the whole human race with what they did, was their error the founding of “religion”? I seem to have missed that part.

Because Religion says do, Jesus says done.
Religion says slave, Jesus says son,

There’s a whole lot of “do” from the mouths of Jesus and His chosen Apostles in the New Testament. As for the “done,” yes, His work is done, but even the Apostle Paul had the impression that he needed to keep working on “laying hold” of what Jesus had done for him.

Religion puts you in shackles but Jesus sets you free.
Religion makes you blind, but Jesus lets you see.
This is what makes religion and Jesus two different clans,

Well, like someone said, “just because you call some people blind, doesn’t automatically give you vision..” It seems to me that you’ve conflated sin with “religion” and hypocrisy. They’re really not the same thing. Religion is many things, while hypocrisy is a particular type of sin. The bondage and blindness that Jesus and His Apostles preached about are slavery to sin and the blindness of hypocrisy, not “religion.”

Religion is man searching for God, but Christianity is God searching for man.
Which is why salvation is freely mine, forgiveness is my own,
Not based on my efforts, but Christ’s obedience alone.

“Religion” is a lot of different things. I agree that it is God Who has come to reconnect (religio) with man, but He also created man to have a longing for God. What you’re revealing here actually has a technical theological name, and it’s the heresy of monergism, the idea that the whole of salvation is exclusively the act of God. You’re right that salvation isn’t based on your merits, but you’re wrong that Christianity isn’t about man searching for God. It’s both about God Who has come to be with man (“searching” seems to suggest that He doesn’t know where man is) and about man’s response to his desire for the divine.

Because he took the crown of thorns, and blood that dripped down his face
He took what we all deserved, that’s why we call it grace.

That’s not why we call it “grace.” Grace (in Greek, charis) actually refers to a “gift,” not to the substitutionary atonement theory of the crucifixion.

While being murdered he yelled “father forgive them, they know not what they do”,

I missed the part where it said He “yelled.”

Because when he was dangling on that cross, he was thinking of you
He paid for all your sin, and then buried it in the tomb,

Sure, though the “murdered” and “dangling” language strongly suggest to me that He was somehow helpless. But He wasn’t.

Which is why im kneeling at the cross now saying come on there’s room

Really? You know what they call it when people pray together in front of a theological image like a cross, right? I’ll give you a clue: It starts with an R and ends with -eligion.

So know I hate religion, in fact I literally resent it,
Because when Jesus cried It is finished, I believe He meant it.

Hatred and resentment (and I really mean this, too) are very dangerous places from which to build a theology. I also believe that Jesus meant it when He said “It is finished” (literally, “the purpose is fulfilled” or “it is consummated,” depending on whether you’re reading Greek or Latin), but there’s absolutely no indication anywhere in His words, the words of His Apostles, or the words of those who received the Apostles’ teaching (the Church) that what was “finished” is “religion.”

…on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:18).

If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion is useless. Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world. (James 1:26-27)

It’s worth noting that I touched on some of these same themes in this March 2011 post: “Spiritual But Not Religious” and the Path to God.

It’s probably even more worth noting that Fr. John Romanides wrote extensively on what he calls “The Cure of the Neurobiological Sickness of Religion,” and perhaps that’s what Bethke is attempting to get at, but his use of religion is so irresponsibly vague that I honestly don’t think there’s any real comparison between Bethke’s poem and what Romanides is addressing.

Update: For some reason unbeknownst to me, this post is getting a lot more attention than most of my posts do, and I know that there are a lot of folks who are not members of the Orthodox Church who are visiting.

To all of my non-Orthodox visitors, welcome! This site is written by a priest/presbyter/pastor of the Orthodox Christian Church, the oldest of all Christian churches, to which all Christians can ultimately trace their roots. Want to know more? Start here.

Update: Here are some other critiques of this, representing various traditions, which you might also find interesting:

Feel free to comment with others, if you find them.

Update: Because of the now thousands of hits that this post has quite unexpectedly received, it should be noted that I will not be publishing any more comments whose contents could be summarized as “How dare you criticize this nice young man, you big meanie!” or “Poetry which is rife with theological words and theological statements should not be treated as having anything to do with theology!” or “Everyone has his own interpretation, and how dare you put a different one forward than this nice young man!” (On that last point especially, the phrase you’re searching for is sola scriptura, and we Orthodox types don’t believe in it one bit. We’re also not relativists, so, yes, I do think that some theology is just plain wrong.)

Carry on.

Update: I suppose I should also mention that I’m not going to be publishing the many (more) comments whose purpose seems to be to convince me of Evangelical Protestant theology (especially soteriology, i.e., the theology of salvation). That is the theology I was raised with, so I am indeed familiar with it, and I explicitly left it behind in becoming an Orthodox Christian.

If you’re interested in my more detailed critique of that theology (which this post doesn’t include), I strongly recommend checking out my book Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy or the podcast of the same name (which has much of the same material, though a bit less).

Final Update: I’ve decided to close comments on this post. Details are here.

See also this post on why, curiously enough, I am not in fact arguing that one is saved by “rules” and “religion,” etc.

bethke