Saturday, May 9, 2015

Reader Report: Jesus > Religion


"In Jesus > Religion, Bethke unpacks similar contrasts that he drew in the poem—highlighting the difference between teeth gritting and grace, law and love, performance and peace, despair and hope. With refreshing candor he delves into the motivation behind his message, beginning with the unvarnished tale of his own plunge from the pinnacle of a works-based, fake-smile existence that sapped his strength and led him down a path of destructive behavior.Bethke is quick to acknowledge that he’s not a pastor or theologian, but simply a regular, twenty-something who cried out for a life greater than the one for which he had settled. Along his journey, Bethke discovered the real Jesus, who beckoned him beyond the props of false religion."


Publishing Info

Here's the poem that put Jeff in the public view:

When we come into contact with any media, we all look at it through the lens of own own experiences, values and beliefs. So, when I read this book, I read it as a former Methodist, former atheist, and Mormon convert. After seeing Jefferson's viral video a couple years back, I was intrigued to come across his book in the library. I had seen the video as an atheist, and hadn't seen it or even thought about it since coming to Christ. 

In this book, there were a lot of things I agreed with, and a lot of things I didn't. Bethke said that "religion," in the way he uses it, refers to "what one must do, or behave like, in order to gain right standing with God." Throughout the book, Bethke emphasizes that it's not about what we do, it's about what Christ did for us. He talks a lot about grace, and how nothing we can do makes us worthy of heaven or God's love. A lot of things he said reminded me of Brad Wilcox's address, "His Grace is Sufficient." If you haven't read it, do so now. 

Because I'm looking at the world with my new Latter-Day Saint goggles, I read a lot of this and thought "Does this describe our church? How does his theology relate to His doctrine? Are we embodying the teachings of Christ? Am I embodying the teachings of Christ?" In one part of the book, Bethke talks about "fundamentalists," who add rules to the Bible and live according to their rigid set of rules. "They are slaves to their self-imposed morality and in turn become joyless and hypocritical." This made me think of a lot of cold Mormons and ex-Mormons we see online and in the media, and sometimes myself. Sometimes we get so caught up in the "do's" that we forget what He has already done. We think about commandments and laws so much that our faith in the Living God turns into a lifeless checklist, rather than seeing these guidelines as the gateway by which He rains blessings and joy upon our heads. When we focus on the commandments, we lose all joy. When we focus on our shortcomings and His perfection, we gain all joy. There is no way we will ever be good enough to earn heaven. Jesus Christ did that for us. We need to stop stressing about being "good enough" and start celebrating His righteousness, letting it inspire us to do good in His world for His children.

Bethke includes a section about obeying with joy, because it's a delight. He says, "There is no glory brought to God's name when people are doing something because it's an obligation, with no real enjoyment of their Creator. . . . Heaven isn't a place for people who are scared of hell; it's for people who love Jesus. The reason heaven is heavenly -- full of joy, life, and bliss -- is because we'll be with Jesus." His advice to do what is right because we love God reminded me of a talk entitled "Living the Gospel Joyful." This hit me because this is something I've been trying to work on, constantly, for months. One thing that's hard for me is coffee. I love coffee. However, drinking coffee is against the Word of Wisdom, or the Lord's law of health given to His people. I know that following the Lord's commands will bring blessings, spiritual and temporal, now and through eternity. Sometimes, however, I crave a cup of coffee. And sometimes I complain about it. Sometimes I complain to my roommate, who isn't a member of the Church, or even a Christian. What kind of image am I setting when I walk around complaining about how hard my faith is? Not a good one. That kind of grumbling and complaining won't make her want to come to Christ, and it doesn't really help me either. We are commanded to "live the gospel joyful!" Because the "good news" is a joyful thing. We obey because we love Christ!

Bethke warns against self-righteousness and pride: "When something bad happens to someone I don't like, I think, Yes! He finally got what he deserved. I forget that if I got what I deserve, I'd be in hell." So true. So true. "Thank you, Jesus, for grace." (Some great stuff on pride and humility: "Pride and the Priesthood," and "Beware of Pride")

One of my favorite parts of this book is when Bethke retells a few Old Testament hero stories - Jonah, Cain and Abel, and David and Goliath. Typically, we hear Old Testament stories and we're told about heroes, we're told we should be like these people. But. Every "hero" is just a broken person who opened himself to Christ's work. Moses was afraid of public speaking, King David committed adultery and then had the woman's husband to cover it up. My favorite of Bethke's retellings is of David and Goliath. Typically, we're told that we are to be like David - have faith, kill the giant (pornography, alcohol, drugs, lying, idleness, whatever it is). But sometimes, we can't kill our giants. Why is this? Because we're not supposed to be David. We are the people of Israel, who were "much afraid," and David is Jesus Christ. "Jesus is a better savior because while David killed Goliath -- a seemingly large and terrifying opponent -- Jesus killed sin -- a much more dangerous and terrifying opponent. He chopped off its head, so it no longer has power. We can be honest and transparent about our sins and failures because we aren't the ones fighting. Jesus fought for us. This is good news because it means we are free to be messed up. If we are Israel, then let's play the character well. Be honest about your weakness, be honest that you're scared, and be honest about the fact that it's Jesus who defeats the sins that trip you up. God cast us as Israel, not the hero." 

Bethke finishes his book by talking about the church. Church comes from the Greek "ekklesia," meaning a "people called out." Bethke says we're made for community (true, because we came from a community before this life, the huge family before we were here, and God put us in families here and organized the Church for more community!), and that a church is essential to the Christian life. He says our churches should include all, because a body isn't a body if it's all hands; a body isn't the Body of Christ if we're clones. Our churches shouldn't be made up of one kind of person; our churches need to include all, because Jesus included all when He was here, and still does that today. He said church is church "when the only thing that is bringing you diverse people into the same room is their love for Jesus. Not their jobs. Not their socioeconomic status. Not their races. But their mutual love for Jesus." and when I read that, I thought, "That's us. That is what we do!" When learning about the Church, I once read something about wards. Wards are divided geographically. You live in this place, you're in this ward. We are not divided by our jobs or our money or our race. We are all equal. In the hood or the mansions. Black or white. We are all His, and we worship together. We are one body working in His name.

Bethke talks about a lot of other good things - like addressing why bad things happen to us, our relation to sin, why so many Americans are repelled by Christianity today. 

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