Saturday, January 14, 2012

A Simplistic and False Dichotomy

Currently, there is a video that has gone viral. It hypes up the age-old maxim of "Religion is Bad, while Jesus is good." Made by a young online evangelist called Jeff Bethke, it contrasts and compare the traditional understanding of religion with the desired brand of Jesus faith. This is remarkably similar to the "I'm not religious, I'm spiritual" movement. According to the Christian Post, the video has generated more than 66000 comments on the Youtube page alone. As of today, it has surpassed the 10000 mark to reach 102,167 comments.

A) Some Online Responses

Many responses have been posted on social media like Facebook and on blogs. Bloggers like Elizabeth Esther highlights 8 erroneous claims in the video, calling it a 'thinly disguised anti-Catholicism.' Others like Morgan Guyton prefers to probe the reasons behind Bethke's rant. Unwittingly, Guyton too performs a dichotomy. Instead of religion-is-bad-and-jesus-is-good argument, Guyton elevates 'what-jesus-has-done' over 'what we believe.' My friend, Joshua calls the dichotomy as plain 'stupid'

Other notable responses include two postings by Kevin deYoung. The first is a disagreement that triggers a brief exchange of emails between Bethke and DeYoung. The second is a followup that is more reconciliatory. DeYoung labels several parts of the video that are 'unhelpful and misleading.' He takes pains to dissect the statements to point out the mixed bag of both helpful and unhelpful stuff splashed out unabasedly on the video. The crux of DeYoung's argument is that one should not try to hype up a religion-free 'Jesus' at the expense of downplaying religion. Otherwise there will not be much 'Jesus left.'

The underlying tone is that of a cautious handshake. While trying to correct each other, there is a tone of reserved self-control on both sides. Whether we call it humility or speaking the truth in love, in a social media era, it is important to recognize the limits of e-communications. A video can speak a thousand words. The clarifying emails and comments may contribute a few more words. It is the face to face conversations that build bridges much clearer and more lovingly.

B) A Simplistic Portrayal

Videos like this is to me an overly simplistic portrayal of faith. While it appeals initially as a rhetoric or a creative rant about doing something right in a culture that contains some things wrong, it fizzles out when we probe a little deeper.

Some of my friends at Regent call this video a simplistic portrayal of a false dichotomy. Simplistic because people do not understand the contexts behind the historical events of wars and culture of Jesus. False dichotomy because the Bible does not condemn but redeems religion. See how James talks about 'true religion.'

"If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." (James 1:26-27)

Will Jesus hate such a 'religion?' What if the position that is advocated by Bethke adopts the very religious flavour that they are arguing against? If I were to refer to 'Jesus-only-ism' as the anti-thesis of religion, we get all kinds of confusing flavours. Flavours like:

  • Hypocrisy: Can your version of 'loving Jesus' only-ism become a religion in itself?
  • Church: Can your version of Jesus only-ism become an institution too?
  • Tradition and Doctrine: Can your 'Jesus only-ism, and all things 'love' become a dogmatic statement in itself?
  • Religion: Are you debunking all religion just because of a few bad apples?
  • Love: What makes one think that Jesus only-ism is able to hold both truth and love at the same time?
C) We Need Both

The truth is, both traditional religion and Jesus only-ism needs each other to clarify, to convict, and to co-operate in the realm of truth and speaking the truth in love. The moment we do a dissection in such a simplistic way, we are effectively planting the seeds of our brand of belief into a dogma. We need each other. We need to utilize our strengths to help our communities. At the same time, we need to let others speak and encourage us in our weaknesses. False dichotomies are unhelpful, and often too simplistic for any good. 

May our Church and various Christian communities learn to accept one another's differences without the need to be dogmatic about our various positions. Who knows? How Christians treat one another on the social media stage is how the world at large is seeing how Christians love one another. We can love one another without having to compel ourselves to compromise our own stand. Likewise, we can speak the truth in love, trusting the Holy Spirit to help us to have the humility to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to let ourselves be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference.


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