What does it mean when something on the internet goes “viral?” I don’t know the precise definition some might give, but I am quite sure that Jefferson Bethke’s “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” YouTube video should qualify. It was uploaded on January 10, 2012, and as of this posting seven days later, it had already received 13,786,876 hits and counting. I don’t know Bethke personally, but I love his passion, his conviction, and his eye-and-ear grabbing desire to take the Gospel and “break it down” for folks that would usually have no time or stomach for such matters. It was my oldest daughter that first introduced me to this gifted poet when she shared this video on sexuality with me that I later shared on our church’s UMYF (youth) Facebook page.

Since Bethke’s initial post, there have been all kinds of reactions: good, bad, and (as one would expect on the internet) – hostile. I want to lift up a few that I considered charitable and helpful for Christian conversation. It is obvious that many people resonate with the spirit of Bethke’s message even if they take issue with the letter, as Kevin DeYoung’s very lengthy and detailed theological response does here. And, as a United Methodist Protestant who is convinced that we live like children who have forgotten our mother, I also deeply appreciate this Catholic video response and this more lengthy written one. It is all too easy to bash things that smack of the “institutional church” or all things “religious” as I have previously posted. It is right to point out that phrases like “hating religion” and “loving Jesus” can quickly lead to an anti-institutional, anti-communal, and disembodied faith that trumps personal experience and spiritual individualism over the messy community we call Church and the religion such people practice called Christianity.

But for Bethke’s part – I think he gets that. In this interview with Ray Hollenbach, he readily admits that when he uses the word “religion” (in his Mars Hill Church context) it is synonymous with “legalism,” “self-righteousness,” or “hypocrisy.” And though it may be true enough that Bethke’s poetry has “a penchant for sloganeering instead of careful nuance” (DeYoung’s critique), and that he receives “immense popularity by making blanket statements stylistically” (Bad Catholic blog) – lets also not forget that it is that very “stylistic sloganeering” that is the reason he received over 13 million hits in 7 days and why so many others have something to talk, blog, and video post about. This is a relatively new Christian who is using his gifts and his passion to talk about his faith, and lets be honest – one of the reasons he is so popular is that few with his gifts use them for godly purposes.

For my part – I love Bethke – I love Jesus – and I also love religion – AND – I hate false expressions of it as much as everyone in all of the linked posts above. And oddly enough, I actually believe that all of us – if we could sit down in a room together would have no problem singing that old Christian spiritual with conviction:

Gimme dat ole time religion,

gimme dat ole time religion,

gimme dat ole time religion,

It’s good enough for me.

Makes me love everybody …

It was good for Paul and Silas …

It will do when I am dying …(“Ole-Time Religion,” in Songs of Zion, p. 89)