Jesus>Religion [Book Review]

Christianity in America has an image problem.

Unfortunately, when many people hear the word “Christian,” they often envision one of three types of person: 1) an angry legalist who holds signs, burns Qur’ans, and gives you a list of things you can and can’t do to be a “good Christian” [ie the Westboro cult] 2) a person who claims to be a Christian (or wears a cross around their neck) for the benefits, but who’s life is no different than any ordinary person who doesn’t follow Jesus [ie celebrities/artists/athletes] 3) an individual who’s theology is so watered-down that it sounds more like the phrases at the bottom of motivational posters than anything Jesus would say [ie Joel Osteen]. In our culture, it is these so-called “Christians” that get the loudest voice in the media because they are easy to refute/mock (for example, Joel Osteen makes the rounds on the talk and news shows, but you rarely see a true Christian intellectual like Al Mohler). As a result, those that are truly following Jesus must overcome these false perceptions as they seek to fulfill their mission: to make disciples of all nations through the power of the gospel.

Enter Jefferson Bethke. You may remember him from this: The above poem went viral and became a major topic of discussion on social media sites as well as in the blogosphere (including one of my blog posts). When a video goes viral it’s usually for one of three reasons: 1) it’s dumb, ridiculous, and makes us laugh 2) it inspires awe in the viewer 3) it strikes a chord with many in a society. Jefferson’s video falls into that third category. It brought out something that many Americans felt was important and wanted to discuss: Some have been hurt by false moralistic or legalistic religion. Others think the church is broken and beyond repair. Still others genuinely want to pursue Jesus Christ with everything they have.

I’ll admit: I had mixed feelings about the video when it came out. As Kevin DeYoung put it, “There is so much helpful in this poem mixed with so much unhelpful.” However, it is evident that Jefferson has matured a lot since posting the initial video (thanks to the discipleship of Christian leaders and his humility). In order to flesh out his views on Jesus, Christianity, and religion, Jefferson has written the book Jesus>Religion (which launches today). The book uses the contrast between Jesus and religion to accomplish the dual goal of addressing false perceptions of Christianity while presenting a true picture of what followers of Jesus look like.  Before we go too far, let’s define some terms. When Jefferson speaks about religion, he means “what one must do, or behave like, in order to fain right standing with God” (pg. 27)–in other words, depending on our own works to be on God’s “good side.” Of course, Christianity itself is a religion, but in the sense that it is “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe” (pg. 27). What distinguishes real Christianity is that it “centers on Jesus’ righteousness–what he has done and how good he is” as opposed to other religions that “center on people’s righteousness–what we do and how good we are” (pg. 28). The possible confusion stemming from the way Bethke defines religion is why I would have preferred for Chapter 2 to be Chapter 1 instead (for more on the negative definition of “religion,” see DeYoung’s article).

Throughout the rest of the Jesus>Religion, Jefferson contrasts Jesus (aka true Christianity) with religion (aka self-righteousness/hypocrisy). Jesus>Religion begins with Jefferson’s life story in which he, like many Americans, was a “Christian by default.” He went to church, did good things, and didn’t do bad things. As Bethke puts it, “I thought if I did enough Christian things, it would bring peace to my life. It didn’t work. I realized I was following… a fake version of the real [Jesus]” (pg. 8). He goes on to say: “[Christians] have lost the real Jesus–or at least exchanged him for a newer, safer, sanitized, ineffectual one….We claim Jesus is our homeboy, but sometimes we look more like the [hypocritical, self-righteous] people Jesus railed against….We’re often judgmental, hypocritical, and legalistic while claiming to follow a Jesus who is forgiving, authentic, and loving” (pg. 9) and “Are we really getting it? Have we made stuff more important than Jesus? How come American Christianity is so different from the Bible’s vibrant, uncontrollable, and unpredictable Christianity? The reason we aren’t fulfilled or satisfied by our version of Christianity is because it isn’t Christianity” (pg. 12).

With that as the premise, the rest of the book goes on to call out false teachings that have seeped into American Christianity, distorting the saving message of the true transforming gospel into a religion closer to what sociologist Christian Smith calls “Moral Therapeutic Deism.” Bethke discusses the three false Christian stereotypes mentioned above (what he calls “fundies, fakes, and other so-called Christians”) and refutes the false doctrines of works-based salvation, the health/wealth/prosperity movement, abuse of Christian liberty, materialism, idolatry, and easy believism.

Throughout Jesus>Religion, Jefferson does a great job of pointing the reader to a true picture of who Jesus by referring to biblical texts (unfortunately he does close the book with The Message’s version of Matthew 11:25-30, which totally butchers the meaning of that text, but that is the only contextual misstep I noticed in the book). In Chapter 5, Bethke gives three Old Testament examples of how we can find Jesus throughout the story of the Bible. Often we forget that all of the Bible, even the Old Testament points to the coming of Jesus to live a perfect life, satisfy the wrath of God on our behalf through His death, and rising again to conquer sin and death and secure the eternal inheritance of believers.

One of my favorite parts of the book was his short exposition of the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Chapter 3. Jefferson talks about the way both sons are representative of those in need of Jesus: the younger son is in open rebellion to his father and living a sinful lifestyle, but repents and returns to his father who in turn celebrates with his son. The older son isn’t a “bad person” per se, but is so proud of and focused on his own good works that he is disappointed that his father has mercy on the younger brother and hasn’t rewarded him for all the good things he’s done. Bethke says: “[Like the father,] God gives grace to the younger and the older. No one is past redemption. No one is past grace. All God wants is for both the religious and the rebellious to come into the party [of eternal life with Him” (pg. 56).

In the book, Jefferson profiles a Jesus that requires men and women to repent of their sinful, idolatrous, and self-righteous and to pursue Him as their Lord and Savior who gradually molds His children into His image through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. In the book, Christians and non-Christians alike are challenged to rethink their perception of Jesus by studying the Bible and how it presents Him.

In the final chapter, Jefferson encourages readers to not forsake the church: “Come to Jesus, and then come to his body. Trying to live without community is like trying to live without oxygen. We weren’t created to do it” (pg. 195). Though there is no such thing as a “perfect church,” the author stresses the importance of regularly gathering with other Christians to glorify the name of Jesus through preaching and music, encourage each other in our mission, practice the ordinances, and keep each other accountable. This is an important ending clarification for a book with a title like Jesus>Religion that would seemingly discourage participation in organized Christian religion (without first defining what the author means by “religion”). Jefferson realizes the importance of the church in the life of a believer and stresses involvement in it for the long-term spiritual growth of Christians.

All in all, Jesus>Religion is a helpful book for anyone interested in Christianity. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never set foot inside a church or were practically born in the sanctuary, you will be challenged by this book to examine Jesus more deeply and pursue Him more passionately. The book also includes discussion questions at the end of each chapter that you can think about yourself or talk about with others. So, if you’re looking for a book that will help you talk with your classmates, coworkers, friends, or family about what it truly means to follow Jesus instead of a list of rules, then Jesus>Religion will be a valuable resource for you. Check it out on Amazon.

Lawson’s Rating: III out of V

What are your thoughts on religion and Christianity in America today? Share them in the comments below.

-Lawson Learn It. Love It. Live It. __________________________________________________________________________

Notable Quotes from Jesus>Religion

Chapter 1

  • “I thought if I did enough Christian things, it would bring peace to my life. It didn’t work…. I realized I was following… a fake version of the real [Jesus].” (8)
  • “We’ve lost the real Jesus–or at least exchanged him for a newer, safer, sanitized, ineffectual one….We claim Jesus is our homeboy, but sometimes we look more like the people Jesus railed against….We’re often judgmental, hypocritical, and legalistic while claiming to follow a Jesus who is forgiving, authentic, and loving.” (9)
  • “The Jesus of the Bible is a radical man with a radical message, changing people’s lives in a radical way. In the Scriptures, Jesus isn’t safe.” (10)
  • “Are we really getting it? Have we made stuff more important than Jesus? How come American Christianity is so different from the Bible’s vibrant, uncontrollable, and unpredictable Christianity? The reason we aren’t fulfilled or satisfied by our version of Christianity is because it isn’t Christianity.” (12)

Chapter 2

  • “My generation is the most fatherless and insecure generation that’s ever lived, and we are willing to sacrifice everything if we just can be told we are loved. If only we knew just how loved we really are.“(25)

Chapter 3

  • “That is the essence of fundamentalism– living by the rules to stay out of trouble rather than seeing the rules as tools to bring us into intimacy and joy. We exchange relationship with God for a bunch of church games. We give an appearance of something that doesn’t actually save, and even takes more work.” (43)
  • “I think the more focused Christians are on external behavior, the greater the possibility they are trying to make up for what they lack in their hearts. When we have no real transforming power of Jesus in our hearts, we hold up a list of external behaviors…the law to the heart.” (45)
  • “If you care more about flaunting your Christian freedom than promoting Christian unity, you’re probably not free. You are actually a slave to your so-called freedom. True freedom is being able to give up all your rights for another out of love.” (53)

Chapter 4

  • “The biggest difference between religious people and gospel-loving people is that religious people see certain people as enemies, when Jesus-followers see sin as the enemy.” (63)
  • “The issue isn’t whether someone is good or bad, but whether he is repentant or unrepentant.” (70)

Chapter 5

  • “The problem we have with Jesus isn’t that he gives life and grace freely, but that we have to admit our need for it. It’s hard to convince people Jesus is a great savior when they don’t think they need saving.” (76)
  • “[With religion,] outside reputation is more important than personal transformation.” (78)
  • “A grace economy is backward to most of us– those who think they qualify, don’t; and those who admit they don’t qualify, do.” (79)
  • “The paradox of the Scripture is that is calls us way more sinful than we think we are, and it calls us way more loved than we think we are.” (90)

Chapter 6

  • “The most dangerous thing about the human heart is that we want to reverse the roles by making God the responder and us the initiators. We make ourselves into God, and we make God a beggar….But the Bible is exactly the opposite.” (98)
  • “By our nature we all pursue and desire everything outside of God. We all have elevated the gifts above the Giver. We all have taken the creation over the Creator. Most of the things we elevate aren’t inherently evil. In fact, they are good. But our distortions of those things are evil.” (99)
  • “We short-circuit whenever we pursue the benefits and not the essence because it’s God’s way of getting our attention and showing us he’s the true satisfaction. God wants us to pursue him first.” (102)
  • “Having joy in God not because of circumstances but despite circumstances is what makes God look great.” (106)

Chapter 7

  • “As Christians, God doesn’t promise us an easy life, but he does promise to be with us in whatever we go through. He will never leave us or forsake us.” (120)

Chapter 8

  • “When we become Christians, we begin to follow Jesus, but the moments when he completely obliterates our self-righteousness and gives us a potent dose of real, transforming grace is when following him becomes deeply special.” (132)
  • “Real grace loves us right where we are, but it loves us too much to keep us there….We know we’ve accepted God’s transforming grace if we begin to look different.” (153)

Chapter 9

  • “Our lives on earth aren’t just placeholders until we go to heaven. We are to create, cultivate, and redeem while we’re here.” (156)
  • “Christianity will spread quickly when there are disciples of Jesus living in every domain of society–service, politics, music, art, business, etc–bringing glory to him and pursuing the greatest joy possible.” (166)

Chapter 10

  • “Come to Jesus, and then come to his body. Trying to live without community is like trying to live without oxygen. We weren’t created to do it.” (195)
  • “Broken people living life together is a beautiful picture.” (196)

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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About Lawson Hembree
Lawson is an entrepreneur, ministry leader, and outdoors enthusiast who also enjoys blogging about business, ideas, and theology. Want to continue the discussion or write a guest post? Let's Connect!

8 Responses to Jesus>Religion [Book Review]

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  2. Bethke is a leading proponent of “easy” Christianity and easy-Believism. His protestations that the church is too “moralistic” falls completely flatand is not at all borne out by today’s cash-obsessed, faith-only, antinomian, law-less christendom. It is a complete straw man argument that needs to be robustly debunked, as does today’s lost, morally backward church – which is great at telling people to stop having sex and not use cuss words, but not at all great at obeying Jesus, who calls us to Good and Righteous Works (without succumbing to either hypocrisy or pride.)

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