No, 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