Friday, January 13, 2012

The Straw Man

I've been seen on various social networking feeds of people posting up a particular video being hailed as one of the best videos regarding Christianity in recent months (years?). As of this morning (Jan. 13, 2012), it has over 6.2 million hits since being uploaded three days ago, titled "Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus." It's quite a polished performance and aesthetically speaking, well made (in my view anyway). See the video here:

However, there's been some pushback of course on this issue, in a form of blog post (e.g. here) and in another spoken word (though not quite as "polished" as the former):

The problem here lies in the fact that to set up "religion" against "Jesus" is something of a straw man argument. What I mean to say is, its portrayal of "religion" sets up a false relationship between Jesus and "religion" in order to prove its case. Now, I don't think this video proposes anything new with regard to discussions on secularization, Christianity, religion, etc., but just poses the question in a clever way that is meant to help people understand what Christianity is about. The term "religionless Christianity," as far as I know, originates from Dietrich Bonhoeffer and it is something of a popular catchword among some folks, who trumpet this phrase as if it's their personal motto of Christianity. Bonhoeffer wondered the following:

"You would be surprised, and perhaps even worried, by my theological thoughts and the conclusions that they lead to: and this is where I miss you most of all, because I don’t know anyone else with whom I could so well discuss them to have my thinking clarified. What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today. The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over, and so is the time of inwardness and conscience – and that means the time of religion in general. We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious any more. 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.'
Our whole nineteen-hundred-year-old Christian preaching and theology rest on the ‘religious a priori’ of mankind. ‘Christianity’ has always been a form – perhaps the true form – of ‘religion’. But if one day it becomes clear that this a priori does not exist at all, but was a historically conditioned and transient form of human self-expression, and if therefore man becomes radically religionless – and I think that that is already more or less the case (else how is it, for example, that this war, in contrast to all previous ones, is not calling forth any ‘religious’ – what does that mean for ‘Christianity’? It means that the foundation is taken away from the whole of what has up to now been our ‘Christianity’, and that there remain only a few ‘last survivors of the age of chivalry’, or a few intellectually dishonest people, on whom we can descend as ‘religious’. Are they to be the chosen few? Is it on this dubious group of people that we are to pounce in fervour, pique, or indignation, in order to sell them our goods? Are we to fall upon a few unfortunate people in their hour of need and exercise a sort of religious compulsion on them? If we don’t want to do all that, if our final judgment must be that the western form of Christianity, too, was only a preliminary stage to a complete absence of religion, what kind of situation emerges for us, for the church? How can Christ become the Lord of the religionless as well? Are there religionless Christians? If religion is only a garment of Christianity – and even this garment has looked very different at times – then what is a religionless Christianity?

If I'm not mistaken, Bonhoeffer is writing this within the context of his own perception of the horrors of Nazi Germany that displayed the Church's callousness to the ordeals of the Jews, despite their Christian "religion" or "religiosity." Bonhoeffer is not advocating some type of Jesus vs. religion (i.e. if following the definition put forth by that popular video, "religion" is defined as something like = 'Following a set of do's and dont's a la the Jews'), and isn't this the same man who wrote Nachfolge (Discipleship)? This view of Judaism is overtly polemical and basically ignores what recent scholarship has revealed about its intricacies and diversities. Furthermore, in my view, Bonhoeffer's critique of "religion" seems to be a type of religion which is overly focused on the other-worldly, that does not translate to careful ethics and Christian discipleship on the ground in any given moment.
Additionally, the video does not seem to take seriously even the simplest commands found in the Scriptures and leaves me scratching my head on some of the following questions. What is the function of the OT for Christianity? What is the point of pursuing holiness? Should there even be a moral vision for the Christian community (to take a phrase out of one of my professors' books)? What is this video's implications for supersessionism? Granted the video is not some kind of systematic theology in spoken word form, it still falls far short of I think what the Scriptures portray as robust Christianity. I can understand its popularity (in the twenty some minutes to write this post, the video garnered an extra 500,000 some viewers!) and want to recognize its hope to explicate Christianity in a simple way, but also wished there was more depth in its rhetorical flourish and artistry.