You may have seen the following YouTube video doing the rounds. Maybe, like me, you have friends who posted it on facebook.
It's a "Spoken Word Poet" doing a rant against "religion". But he's a Christian. Get it? No, me neither...
When I see videos like this, I am not impressed by the show of humility and standing up against the big evil "religious" folk. I’ve seen this all before. The trouble is that Christians tend to define “religion” in a way that suits themselves. Since “religion” has a bad reputation these days – a large amount of which is due to evangelical Christians such as this young poet! – it is fashionable to join the anti-religion club and thus make oneself and one’s clan look more attractive.
There is something slightly devious and dishonest about this. It’s usually called “shifting the goalposts”: when somebody seeks to score an effective attack on your beliefs, you merely redefine certain words so that the criticism no longer “applies”.
By many, many common definitions of “religion”, Christianity – particularly evangelical Christian – fits absolutely. (Frankly, if modern evangelical Christianity is not a “religion”, then I don’t know what the word even means!)
Let’s try a few randomly-selected features of “religion” that I’m sure most people would agree are pretty standard, and see if they apply to Christianity. Belief in the supernatural? Check. Authority claimed via ancient scriptures? Check. Clearly delimited boundaries of who belongs to the group and who doesn’t? Check. Particular view of human nature that is asserted as more true than all others? Check. Idiosyncratic rules on various areas of life, particularly sex, based on ancient taboos, way behind the curve of the secular moral Zeitgeist? Check...
Sure, evangelicals might reject certain features common to religion that they don’t like. The classic one is “doing good things in order to please God”. Enter our Spoken Word Poet, who criticizes the usual “works righteousness” thing that is supposedly the opposite of the “undeserved grace” that evangelical Christians like to go on about.
Some of the poet’s lines are just ludicrous (I insert my own definitions as follows): “One [the Real Version of Christianity™] is the work of God, one [every religion other than my own] is a man made invention”. Of course he sees it this way, but doesn’t the adherent of every religion think that their religion came from God, whereas the heathens/unbelievers/fools “made up” their beliefs instead? To be sure, it’s logically possible that Christianity, as one of the many religions in the world, just happens to be the true one instituted by the creator God himself, but seeing as so many people are more than capable (on the Christians’ own view) to delude themselves in countless “wrong” religions, it certainly weakens the case considerably.
My biggest problem with the “Christianity is about grace and is not religion” thing is that it is ultimately extremely hostile to non-Christians. Why? Because it defines the “good works” of everybody else as worthless, futile, misguided, even demonic. Look at the artful theological logic: everyone is a sinner, therefore no good works count, but Christians are saved - and even this salvation is God’s choice and has nothing to do with their deserving it - and once “saved”, good works of Christians actually “count” and please God!
Imagine if an earthly father were to behave like this. He tells all of his children that they are worthless scum, incapable of doing anything that would please him or make him proud, but then he arbitrarily chooses one of his kids and says, “You, my little chosen one, are forgiven, don’t ask me why! From now on, the good things you do count, but not the rest of you runts!” What a twisted and cruel father!
What Christianity effectively tells people is that by merely being born, you are already in “sin”. Never mind actually doing anything truly evil; just by living your ordinary human life, making the most of your chance at existing in this world, experiencing ordinary pleasures and toils like anyone else, you are condemned. And if you go further and actually try to act selflessly and do good in the world, this is also not good enough for “God”.
This is putting everyone outside of Real Christianity into a double bind. Not only are Christians the only ones able to truly define right and wrong (because they have the Bible, the Holy Spirit, and they alone “know God” personally), but even if someone else does do something that they would deem to be good, it doesn’t “count” because it’s not motivated by “faith”. However, when Christians do something good - no matter how trivial - it pleases God because it is done by “grace”.
But to return to the poet, this argument is a very effective way to immunise Christianity against any criticism. When people point out various failings of Christianity and all the bigoted, hateful people Christianity frequently produces, they say, “it’s not a museum for good people, it’s a hospital for the broken”. But how long do they really stick to this apparent humility? Frankly, I think, just long enough to deflect criticism. Once that’s done, Christians go right back to being self righteous all over again. Only they know the truth. Only they get to define what is right and what is “sin”. Only they are uniquely predestined by God to be chosen to do good works for him.
So is Christianity really not about “doing good works in order to please God”? Surely, the whole point of Christianity is that once you are “saved”, your old sinful life is left behind? You are a new person? The Spirit of God lives in you? You have freedom from sin, the correct motivation for righteousness and the spiritual empowerment to do good works? You work tirelessly for the “crown of righteousness”? But, oh, whenever someone points out that you’re not doing much of this, suddenly you can’t be criticised because you’re just a “sinner who has been saved”?
I love how “One [Christianity] is the cure and one [religion] is the infection”. This is an interesting semantic game. Christianity is normally defined as the cure for the infection called sin. “Sin” is actually whatever Christians define to be bad. Hence Christianity entitles itself to define the infection and also provide the “only” cure. How convenient. But the poet makes it sound like religion is the infection! That’s clever. So religion is depicted as kind of symptom of the underlying problem called “sin”, a very Christian concept that not all religions necessarily focus on or even recognise. He obviously doesn’t want to define religion as, say, “worship of the creator called God”, “seeking after the ultimate transcendent truth ”, “following a spiritual path”, “a community of people with a similar relation to a sacred reality”, or any other way of defining religion that could easily overlap with Christian itself! No, sin is the only issue - because we say so - and these other “religions” aren’t doing a good job of dealing with it.
And Christianity’s unique solution is “faith” not “works”. I struggle to see how this is an improvement. At least with “works”, you know who you are supposed to please (God), presumably you know what he wants, you know what pleases him, and you can take some pride in getting it right. Sure, the Christians say that the problem is, nobody can do “enough”, that “all fall short of the glory of God”, but what is their answer? Not that God simply says, “Look, I know you can’t do it, and it’s not your fault, so I forgive you, ok?” Oh no! That would be too easy! (Though that’s what any decent person would do. We know that our fellow human beings aren’t perfect, so we don’t hold them to this ridiculous standard and we would be fools to hold ourselves to it.) Instead, this God, who created us himself, and is in charge of everything, actually blames us for not measuring up. Then he gets angry with us (disproportionately so, since he will punish finite sin with infinite torture in hell), but - how kind of him - he provides a way out by allowing his son to be brutally tortured and killed and if we “believe” we can escape his wrath. Charming.
And this belief is an odd thing. You have to believe in a particular interpretation of a particular set of rather fanciful stories (that don’t look particularly less fanciful than all the stories from the other “false” religions that God allowed to develop in this world). The key point of this story - the death and resurrection of Jesus - happened roughly 2,000 years ago (and counting), with zero independent evidence supporting that it actually happened at all. If God could wait through 13 billion years of history (or 100,000 years of “human” history) before hatching this plan of his, could he not have waited another 2,000 years and let it happen in an age of video cameras, global communication and scientific method so that it could be witnessed by a lot more people and thus established considerably more firmly as true? Seeing as it’s so important?
Besides, why make belief the criteria? If all this horrible human sacrifice stuff was really necessary to do the forgiving (and I still can’t really see why it should be), couldn’t he just do it somewhere and impute the forgiveness to us all, regardless of where we happen to live and what religious upbringing we happen to receive? Why hinge everything on having a “correct” belief, particularly one that is not intuitively obvious nor easy to arrive at by historical or scientific study or even pure logic? No, “belief” as a criterion for pleasing God seems to me much harder, and certainly much less fair, than what Christians like to call “religion”.
So despite what it's meant to look like, this poet is this is not demonstrating humility and taking a stand against bigotry. Quite the opposite. By ruling out, a priori, the validity of every other religious view, and claiming that your "cure" for the dubious (and harmful) concept of sin is the only possible solution, you are actually demonstrating the height of arrogance and bigotry. Precisely why religion, particularly your kind, is so despised.