Is Religion Bad?

shabbat candlesNo, I am not asking a question about the history of religion (like the New Atheists who ask if religion has been more harm than good historically).

I am asking a simpler question: is the word religion something we should avoid? Does it denote something bad?

I am no fan of the frequently offered and mindlessly repeated slogans found in many Christian writings, especially among the contemporary writers and leaders. I want to challenge what has become a new mantra with so many: we need to get away from religion. People don’t need religion. What people want is anti-religion. People need Jesus, not religion.

I will likely do a review soon of ReJesus: A Wild Messiah for a Missional Church by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch. The book has enough good about it for me to say it is worth reading. But it is disappointing in other ways. How many times do we need to hear, “Jesus is wild, not tame”? And we need to get past that to answering the question: what did Yeshua’s life and message look like and what would it look like in our context? The authors don’t do enough of the latter (in fact, the book is sadly lacking in examining the life and message of Jesus, surprisingly since it is called ReJesus).

But I was especially disappointed to find these otherwise intelligent writers jumping on the anti-religion bandwagon on pages 68 and 69:

In order to get to the nub of the problem, let’s reverse the way of looking at the process of ReJesus: let us think what happens when you take Jesus out of the experience of Christianity. To see this consider the following equation:

Christianity minus Christ equals religion.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? Some statements have an immediate ring of truth about them, and for many Christians this is one of them.

No, it does not have an immediate ring of truth about it.

There are plenty of good references to the word religion in the New Testament:
–Paul speaks of deeds of kindness as the true work of religion (1 Tim. 2:10).
–Paul says the mystery of our religion is great (1 Tim. 3:16).
–Paul warns of those who miss out on the power of religion (2 Tim. 3:5).
–James tells us the religion that is pure and undefiled helps widows and orphans (James 1:26).

People who say things like “we need less religion and more relationship” do have a point. But they make it badly and it leads them astray.

It is the same thing as the many statements in the prophets denouncing the sacrifices and the temple worship. It is so easy for ignorant Christians to jump on these many passages and say, “The Old Testament religion was temporary and sub-par.”

Well, the prophets say the same thing about prayer. Is prayer outdated? Isaiah says God is tired of the sounds of the Israelites prayers.

The naïve statements about throwing out religion for a liberating and non-institutional (and therefore mythical) kind of new experience with God are empty air. What these people could be saying is that going through the motions of religious life is nothing without the key ingredients of repentance, faith, obedience, love, and grace. They also could be saying that some traditions are confining and not conducive to the joy of knowing God.

But here is why statements attacking religion infuriate me:

(1) The Jesus that Frost and Hirsch are allegedly studying attended synagogue regularly and said his liturgical prayers (Shema, Kaddish, Amidah) and kept ceremonies like Passover, investing them with meaning. The gospels are clear about this.

(2) Being disorganized is not a virtue. Neither does it help people find God.

(3) People need to talk about renewal in their traditions of religion, which sometimes means restarting and getting rid of old structures. But attacking religion will not help anyone. People need habits, rituals, and ceremonies. God created quite a few of them himself and left it to us to create more. Try reading the Bible with a view for the rituals and ceremonies God ordained. You might be surprised. God is not on this worship-when-you-feel-like-it-in-your-pajamas bandwagon.

(4) Some people desire to create the least troublesome form of religion possible (a rock concert and a teaching is all the religion most people want from their big-box churches). This is not engagement with the depths of God’s truth. It is laziness. Those who settle for this as their sole engagement with God would be better off staying home and reading their Bible for an hour a week.

(5) The anti-religion statements give people the idea we don’t need theologians, scholars, rituals, ceremonies, organizations, and so on. I have news for anyone who thinks this way: if it had not been for the religious institutions you criticize, you would know nothing about the Bible and God because scholars and theologians have preserved information passed down to today which is indispensable. And without rituals and organizations, there would be no communities and without communities you wouldn’t likely know about God or Messiah.

Frost and Hirsch don’t even believe their own rhetoric. They go on later in the book examining what needs to be done to form institutions, keep them on track, and keep a prophetic, passionate center.

Note: While Frost and Hirsch do have a valuable contribution, another recent book denouncing religion supposedly in the name of Messiah is far worse: Naked Gospel by Andrew Farley. If your are interested, find my review on amazon.com

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Bible, Christian, Judaism, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Is Religion Bad?

  1. I consider the idea of (religion = bad, relationship = good) to be a corollary of objectivity. That is—particularly in the Enlightenment—(biased = bad, objective = good) which seems to be the root of the error. Of course, nobody can go through life being fully objective, nor can one avoid ritual, and religion cannot be done independently of ritual. Spirituality outside of tangible, physical experiences is neither Jewish nor Christian. We are created beings inhabiting a created world. Pretending we can transcend that reality is an affront to the Creator who deemed the creation good.

  2. judahgabriel says:

    Hey Derek.

    I like the new blog layout.

    Regarding tradition, and on a related note, yesterday when we spoke on the phone regarding Daniel’s congregation, I realized I didn’t articulate well. I have a hard time articulating on the phone.

    When it comes to tradition and religion and organization, I respect it and totally understand it. It’s just sometimes all that religion and organization and tradition can be stifling, especially when it comes to worship. Sometimes, worship from the heart doesn’t fit into religion with its schedules and organization.

  3. Daniel says:

    Good points Derek,

    It frustrates me as well to hear the endless: “relation not religion”, as in the end this ‘relation’ is just as much religion.

    Blessings,

    Daniel

  4. warland52 says:

    External observances without accompanying interiorization lessens the spiritual consequence of the ritual. But just throwing away “ritual” , “religion”, “externals” robs us of the externals that can provide gateways into the very interior /heart spirituality that we are seeking.

    For example, as a Roman Catholic, the Eucharist, if I have the proper disposition, is a spiritual encounter with Christ of the highest degree. Of course, if I just mindlessly wander up there…then I won’t fully receive the encounter with Christ that is poised and ready…My other point is that if we just stopped celebrating the Eucharist then this particular trigger for such an encounter would be lost (and much more would be lost from a Catholic point of view but I am trying to be more universal in this comment).

    Todd

  5. judahgabriel says:

    Believers in Yeshua have a tendancy to throw off religion more than adherents of other faiths. They look at Yeshua’s disputes with the Pharisees and think, “There, you see? Jesus threw off these burdensome traditions of the Pharisess. And he rebuked them as ‘clean on the outside, ugly on the inside’ to boot. We should do the same, and throw off religion and burdensome traditions.”

  6. josephmcole says:

    I admit that I haven’t been around to read the blog in a while. Busy writing and the like, so I have taken a reading break of sorts. Imagine my happy surprise when I looked at my blogroll this morning and found this post!

    You couldn’t have said it better, Rabbi Derek. Thank you for validating what I and thousands of other clergy do every day–preserving the faith through scholarly study and enlightening ceremony. I find religion to be a compass, guiding us to the revelations for which we so desperately pray. Through the Feasts of the Lord, the Sacraments and the Sabbath we encounter the eternal truths of God.

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