It has barely been a month since the release of my “Jesus>Religion” video, and man has it been one crazy, intense, overwhelming, and awesome month! Ever since the video came out it has been an absolute whirlwind, and never in a million years did I think I’d be jettisoned into this position so quickly! Because of the quickness of it all, it has been a very trying time for me and my walk with Jesus. I’ve had great days, but I’ve also had extremely depressing days. Some days I didn’t even know what to think. I do think though the dust has settled a little, and God has been working on my thoughts lately, and so I thought I’d share what’s been in my head since the day the video came out. I hope the post below encourages, clarifies, and edifies. My hope is for this post to bring light into my situation, and also bring unity to the body of Christ.
LESSON LEARNED – THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN TRUTH AND PRECISION
When everything started getting crazy I had a great discussion with an adjunct professor of theology at Reformed Seminary. He mentioned that too many times today people don’t know how to decipher between truth and precision. We want everything to be precise, which is nearly impossible in today’s society of sound bites, tweets, Facebook statuses, etc. I also was discussing this with one of my mentors (who is brilliant theologically, and studied at Dallas Theological Seminary), and he said it so succinctly I thought I’d share it here:
Art forms by nature are “fuzzy” expressions as you indicate, and that makes us nervous. Most people are wired such that they need concreteness, neatness, and completeness – i.e. precision. But precision does not necessarily require comprehensiveness. I think it is possible to talk about segments of systematic theology or even individual truths without dealing with the whole body of God’s truth. What we are inclined to, however, when talking about subsets of truth is a complete discussion of all the levels and nuances related to that particular truth. In other words, we want to look at it from every angle, dissect it, touch it, smell it, taste it, dialogue about it, and come to an absolute understanding of it. But art does not do that – intentionally! And neither did Jesus. He often taught in parables, the spoken word art form of His day. And in the parables, Jesus does not offer a complete, detailed, dissertation of some truth, but a truth concept at a high level. They were intended to draw people in, to entice them to meditation, to bid them to dig deeper.
To be honest, before the poem came out, I never gave this topic much thought! We get upset (myself included) at something for it not being “precise” when the question we should be asking is, is it true? Rather than getting mad at someone for not talking about the whole pie, we should lift up one slice and ask if it holds true as a slice by itself? That is my prayer with my video. I didn’t include a robust stanza on my ecclesiology, I didn’t talk about sanctification much, I didn’t talk about my views of baptism and the spiritual gifts, because in the medium of poetry I only have a few minutes to work with and I was hoping to address the one topic I set out to (juxtaposing the real Jesus with hypocrisy, self righteousness, and man made religion). Furthermore, I learned pretty quickly that not many people understand what the role of art is in the Church today. Too often art is marginalized for not being “precise” as mentioned above. Sometimes though it is marginalized for not being true, which then is completely warranted. Where this gets tricky though is art is supposed to, by definition, have wiggle room for personal interpretation. This is a lot of the reason I didn’t define “religion” in my poem. I wanted to leave that up to the viewer, but at the same time I wanted to write in a way where my definition was blatant and obvious. So the tough role of art is to provide a piece that is open to interpretation but has enough truth and hints in it to point to where you had hoped. Again, my mentor stated it so eloquently:
As I continued to reflect on the precision/truth tension, it occurred to me that the reason art is so effective as an enticer is because we are in fact inclined toward precision with respect to truth. So the artist tosses out something fuzzy and incomplete, and it becomes a starting point, the head of the trail because we have this bent toward wanting to understand fully. And then I thought, “how amazing that our Lord would use the very way He wired us to draw us to fuller truth.” Or as Paul would say, “oh the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!”
This brings me to some other thoughts, which are, who was I writing to?
REALITY/COMPLICATIONS OF THE INTERNET
I of course never in a million years thought I’d get 18,000,000 views on any video I ever released! With that comes a lot of complications, misrepresentations and miscommunication, but through it all I have had to return to the question of whom did I write it for, and was it reaching them the way I had hoped? When I sat down to write the poem, my audience was very clear. I was writing the poem purely for the people who shudder when they hear the word “religion”. I wrote it for the people who hear the word “religion” and they think “hates gays”. I wrote it for the people who hear the word “religion” and think you have to vote for a Republican or else you can’t be a Christian. I wrote it for the people who feel too dirty, too unclean, too messed up for Jesus or “religion.” Did I write it for theologians? No, I didn’t. Have I grown and accepted a lot of their feedback? Totally! I have been beyond blessed by people like Tullian Tchvidjian, Tim Keller, Mark Driscoll, Justin Holcomb, Justin Taylor, Kevin Deyoung and others who have graciously contacted me and poured into me, giving me both advice and awesome support. On top of that, it begs the question, who has authority over me? Scripturally speaking, bloggers and journalists don’t. Can I learn from their critique? You bet- but ultimately I don’t report to them. This is also something I hope people attempt to find out before writing critiques, slanderous articles, etc, and that is, is the person being written about submitting to some form of godly leadership and elders? That is the true question. This is a big issue, especially in the realm of art. Too many times artists play the “lone ranger” by submitting to no one except for themselves. I hope the people reading this and writing about me understand that with me this is not the case. I fully submit and am under the leadership of elders at my local church, who I have given full authority in my life to “pull the plug” on certain poems, lines, and actions. Furthermore I have made a commitment from here on out to submit my lyrics for future poems to my church elders. On top of that I also have older godly men and women outside of my local church who do the same thing but maybe come from a different theological stream. I have spent countless hours these last couple weeks meeting, praying, and gleaning from these leaders in my life. I’ve asked them questions such as “do you think I was wrong?” or “where can I grow?” So I hope whoever reads this understands and trusts the leaders God has put in my life to do their scriptural mandate of protecting and shepherding over my heart because they will give an account (Hebrews 13:17-18).
About the actual critique though, I’ll be honest, there were times after the poem came out that I just started to crumble. The pain of the critiques was too painful (which I talk about later). It was in those moments though I had to ask myself, was the poem doing what I intended it to do? What’s interesting is that many critiques said my video would be used by my generation as a license to hate the church (which I actually say I love in the video) but interestingly enough I only received about 2-5 emails from people who used it in this way. In those cases it gave me an opportunity to show them the beauty of the truth, and the magnificence of the Church. It reminded me of when Jesus preached in John 6 and fed 5,000 people. Some people took advantage of His miracle and only saw Him as a giver of their short-term needs. Did He withhold bread from them? No. Instead He clarified with them when they sought Him further. Later, He denied those seeking Him for short-term needs, saying that they only sought Him to get their “fill.” Some theologians/bloggers/writers condemned me for giving license to people to hate the church, yet with the response I have seen on the internet I have only found a few who actually taken it that way. What I continually had to turn back to was the question of, “was this poem doing what I felt God intended for it to do?” What humbled me, broke my heart, and brought me a deep sense of joy were emails that confirmed this. For example, one email read:
Hey Jefferson, I went back to church today It has been about 2yrs since I’ve walked through church doors. your poem; religion and the church…it opened my eyes. I didn’t go for so long because my trials left me with little-to-No faith and I felt ashamed for doubting God…but your poem helped me remember that the church is a place for the BROKEN!
Another email read:
I’ve been struggling so hard for years now with forgiving myself and accepting Jesus in my life. I kept telling myself that I wasn’t worthy of his love, that what I’d been through had tainted me. I’ve been beaten, raped, ridiculed, tried to kill myself over 10 times as a teen and been made to feel like I am absolutely nothing. My ex just got out of prison and while I was pregnant, he threatened to take my son by force. I’ve been barely hanging on trying to figure out how I’m going to make it from day to day with my son. I watched your video “why i hate religion, but love Jesus” and I cried my eyes out as I felt God’s hand on me that night. I’m giving myself to God and starting to finally realize that God can love me despite my past. I hope I haven’t wasted too much of your time, I just wanted to let you know your words helped make an impact on my life.
My question to Protestants, Catholics, and anyone who loves Jesus is – can we celebrate that? Can we celebrate God furthering His kingdom and His church? Can we celebrate the evidences of His grace, and Him pouring out His healing and redemption on lost and weary souls? It’s emails like the one above that continued to pour into my inbox by the hundreds, if not the thousands. Unbeknownst to me, God graciously used me in my weakness and my imperfection to reach and draw men and women to Himself. These emails are from the people whom I was writing to in the first place. My poem was for the people on the fringe. The people that no one else goes after. The people that Jesus invested in, and the ones whom the Pharisees grumbled about. My poem was for the thousands burned by the misuse of Jesus and the Bible. What has grieved me most of all about the whole ordeal is the amount of energy we spend on debating finer points of theology (and crucifying the ones who are attempting to feebly spread the message of Jesus) when people are entering hell by the thousands. Its like some are on the battlefield trying to rescue people from the enemy and there are others in the Pentagon debating whether or not the boots the soldiers are wearing are of optimal quality for fighting in the war. It’s trivial. People are dying, and we want to debate TULIP, eschatology, paedo-baptism, etc. It reminds me of a D.L. Moody quote where he said, “I like his way of doing evangelism better then your way of not doing it.” I mean sure maybe the people (and me) on the battlefield aren’t 100% correct, but people are being rescued by the hundreds from the domain of darkness, and we not only spend countless hours on blogs and articles debating how they are being rescued, but some of the debate is in such a mean-spirited and non-loving manner. Now, I understand critique has its place but we also have to ask certain questions before we throw out the “heretic” card so easily. Is the Cross being preached? Is Jesus being lifted high? Is grace being proclaimed? If the answer to these questions is yes, we need to tread softly. What ever happened to Christian unity, brotherhood, and graceful dialogue?
EXPERIENCE – THE TONGUE IS RESTLESS (JAMES 3), ESPECIALLY WHEN SPEAKING THROUGH A COMPUTER
I’m taking the risk of exposing myself here on the blogosphere and Internet, but I do want to also include that the last couple weeks have been some of the most difficult in my life. Have they been rewarding? Sure. Have they been exciting? Sure. Have I seen God pour out His grace? Definitely! But the tone, words, and down right vitriol from fellow brothers and sisters in the faith have crushed me. I’m a 22 year old dude who has only been out of college 6 months, and who has only been walking with Jesus for a few years. I am beyond thankful to the older godly men who chose to pick up the phone and find ways to contact me privately, before discussing me publicly. I personally had to stop reading and trying to follow the blogs because Jesus showed me pretty quickly it wasn’t healthy for my heart (whether praise or critique). The ones I did come across stung. Some hardly even dealt with my content, but wrote more about my character, my salvation (or lack thereof), my looks, my poetry, etc. Part of me was extremely hurt, while part of me started to really wonder how blog posts fit into the words of Jesus in Matthew 12:36. God will hold us accountable for what we speak, but we seem to forget that a lot of times when behind a computer screen in a room by ourselves. Part of me trembles when I think about the day I stand before the King of Kings and He asks me to give an account for every careless word I’ve ever spoke, facebooked, or tweeted.
WHERE IS MY IDENTITY?
All in all these past few weeks have been a quick lesson and reminder of where my identity is. Is my identity in my failures? Nope. Is it in my successes? Nope. Is it in how many views I get on YouTube? Definitely not. My identity is in the Cross of Jesus, and His resurrection. I’ve had to anchor myself in that truth every morning, because the voices of the world are incredibly powerful. Nothing can show me how unworthy I am more than the Cross of Christ already has, and nothing can show me how much I’m worth and treasured more than the Cross of Christ already has. His Cross is a double edged sword, and when anchored in it, it protects me from both the praise and critique of man in a dangerous enslaving way.
LESSON – LANGUAGE ISNT CLEAR CUT, AND COMMUNICATION IS MULTI-FACETED
A big issue too, that people raised, was with my definition and use of the word “religion.” To be honest I never thought in a million years that if controversy arose on the video, it’d be for that reason. Through this all I have realized that religion means a thousand different things to a thousand different people. To be honest I used the word without hesitation because in my Seattle context “religion” is synonymously with a man-made, legalistic system (exactly what I was rebelling against). When I realized not everyone used it in this manner I did some research and realized I’m not the first one to use “religion” in a bad light. People like Tim Keller and Mark Driscoll use religion synonymously with “moral effort attempting to appease God”, and people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer have used it negatively as well. Bonhoeffer, right before he died, hoped the future Germany would get to a place of “religionless” Christianity. On April 30, 1944 from a prison cell, Dietrich wrote:
We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore. Even those who honestly describe themselves as ‘religious’ do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different by ‘religious’. (Letters and Papers From Prison, pg 362).
Something I learned very quickly too is there is a vast difference between a street definition and a dictionary definition of a word. For example, the word “gay” in today’s society is going to mean something completely different than its actual dictionary definition. This is why, in scriptures, writings, and articles the author’s definition of “religion” has to be interpreted before understanding the whole piece. My prayer is that the ones who saw my video and were upset by my definition of the word “religion” could look past the semantics and to the heart of the message, and interpret the poem in light of the definition I have expounded on here.
Lastly, in regards to language used I also wanted to touch on my poem’s first line. I say, “What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion?” Now, a lot of people fired back quoting Matthew 5:17, which I say amen to! In hindsight I do think that was a poor choice of words, and want to apologize to anyone who was confused by that one line. Even though I wasn’t talking about the law, I was talking about self-righteousness, I still think that line was more confusing than it was clear. The beauty and great weight of Jesus, is that He came to fulfill the Law not abolish it. To know all the shadows and pictures in the Old Testament were simply a picture of Him is astounding. He is the ultimate fulfillment of the Old Testament. That fact is actually what led early Romans to consider the first Christians as atheists, because their “religion” was so upside down to them. They’d ask, “where is your temple?” to which the Christians would reply they didn’t have a building, and Jesus was their temple. So then they’d ask, “well who is your priest?” To which they’d reply we don’t have a priest on earth, because Jesus is our ultimate priest in Heaven. Finally they’d ask, “well who is your sacrifice?” to which the early Christians would respond that they no longer give or do sacrifices because Jesus’ sacrifice was once for all (King’s Cross, Tim Keller, pg.48). That, is what Jesus meant in Matthew 5:17, and that is a truth changes someone from dead, man-made religion, to a vibrant relationship with Jesus and His body.
CORE THOUGHT/BOTTOM LINE
Lastly, I am thankful for grace. I am thankful that the Cross of Jesus met me where I am. I’m thankful that I don’t have to perform for Him, but rather He has performed for me. That’s the grace that drew me in the first place, and its that grace I cling to daily. How could I not after all He has done for me? He is worthy of all my worship. He is worthy of all glory. I pray to God that through all of this I would grow and pursue Him more deeply, cherish Him more fervently, and love Him more fiercely. This has been a once in a lifetime opportunity and my hope is to steward it well, remaining faithful, and pointing to Him!