Friday, January 20, 2012

So You Think You Hate Religion But Love Jesus? Or: The Dangers of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism and Lukewarm Theology

Doctrines of faith seem foreign to teens, and when polled, most believe in a form of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism;

1.      God exists, created and ordered the world, and watches over human life on earth.

2.      God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.

3.      The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.

4.      God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.

5.      Good people go to heaven when they die.

MTD bears little resemblance to the historic Christian might be called American civic religion. (Quoting Dr. John Oberdeck from Eutychus Youth: Applied Theology for Youth Ministry)

There’s a video going around the web in which a young man, Jefferson Bethke, rhapsodizes about how he hates religion, but loves Jesus. It came to my attention when several of my former youth were passing it around Facebook, commenting on how moving they found it, so I watched it. I was deeply unsettled that youth I thought I knew well would fall prey to Bethke’s smooth patter. I almost don’t even know where to start with his clearly heartfelt mishmash of statements that are so contradictory and ill-informed that it requires a professional theologian to untangle and thoroughly address. However, as a Lutheran and an English major, a couple of things caught my attention right away.

The most significant and dangerous contradiction spoken by Bethke is that he “hates religion but loves Jesus”. In fact, Christianity, the believing in Jesus Christ as Saviour, is a religion. What is the definition of the word religion? According to the Oxford Dictionary, religion is:

Belief in or acknowledgement of some superhuman power or powers (esp. a god or gods) which is typically manifested in obedience, reverence, and worship; such a belief as part of a system defining a code of living, esp. as a means of achieving spiritual or material improvement. (

I am aware that the word religion has developed certain cultural context that is not reflected in the dictionary definition of religion; this is simply because the culture is using the wrong word, much like the espresso versus expresso debate; a misuse of language. I believe that religiosity is what Bethke is so passionately denouncing. Religiosity is “affected or excessive religiousness” ( and it is what St. James describes:

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless. (James 1:26 ESV courtesy of

St. James goes on to explain what religion is:

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (James 1:26-27 ESV

My religion is Christianity; to love my neighbour as myself because God first loved me (Luke 10:27 and 1 John 4:19) and to not conform to the world (Romans 12:2). My denomination is Lutheran; based in law and gospel doctrine, as laboriously and scripturally researched and taught by Martin Luther. I’m not a member of an emergent church movement that believes you can have a perfect life here on earth; be happy, healthy and wealthy by following the Prayer of Jabez, or following seven steps to success, or by being simply spiritual and letting doctrine fall by the wayside for fear of offending someone. I have come to be deeply, deeply thankful that I am part of a church body that does not ‘politically correctify’ the Bible in order to be more culturally relevant or seeker sensitive. These trends in Christian pop culture are dangerous and misleading.

There is no such thing as a perfect Christian; not me, not Bethke, not Luther. However, Christians with a firm foundation in scripture and a solid theological background recognize this trend of lukewarm theology for what it is. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is a dangerous and growing movement, rising from the lack of a firm theological underpinning in the larger Christian church. This lack of teaching develops young adults like Bethke who “hates religion” and who has fallen to a MTD-esque belief that he can be spiritual and in a relationship with Jesus without being part of a religious body. The Christian church is a religion; there is simply no escaping that basic fact no matter how Christian pop culture may try to spin it.

The most alarming thing about this video, aside from the flawed theology, is how quickly it spread. It has well over fifteen million views, and it seems as though people were so engaged by Bethke that they missed the crucial step of testing this video against scripture. It seems as though feelings invoked by spirituality have become more important than scriptural knowledge.

... solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. (Hebrews 5:14 ESV

For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. (2 Peter 1:5-7 ESV

Global Christian culture is on a dangerous path, and only a firm grounding in scripture and good theology will keep us, and our youth, from being misled by slick marketing and sketchy feel-good pseudo-doctrine.

Check out this video for another Lutheran view on Bethke's video:

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