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What keeps me Catholic? Spiritual and religious

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March 1, 2012

By Michael Daley

By the time you read this it may have become just another pop culture phenomenon with its 15 minutes of fame long passed.

But right now, Jefferson Bethke’s You Tube video “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” has gone viral to the tune of over 18 million views.


I first became aware of the video, like many things hip and current, through my students. Three of them emailed it to me at almost the exact same time. Their message was encouraging and urgent: You gotta see it. One of them prefaced his invite with these words: “Thought you would find this interesting, Mr. Daley…not sure if you will agree or not, but I believe it raises some genuine themes.”


To begin with, it’s a video made for today’s youth. The medium is the internet. The quality is professional. The person is attractive. And the underlying message is one that resonates with many young (and old) people today — “I’m spiritual, but not religious.”


Bethke begins his video with the striking image of JESUS>RELIGION followed by the words, “What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion.” He then continues with a rhythmic litany of things he and others associate with religion: blindness, war-mongering, hypocrisy, materialism, superstition and legalism.


All the while, however, Bethke refers to both God and Jesus in the most glowing and affirming ways. He is energized, enthusiastic and passionate about his faith life. I think many young people seeing the video pick up on this and are attracted by it. Furthermore, they take Bethke seriously when he asks: “But if Jesus came to your church would they actually let Him in? See, remember, He was called a glutton and drunkard by religious men. But the son of God never supports self-righteousness, not now, not then.”


I can almost hear the chorus of “Amens” and see the heads nodding in agreement.
I strongly believe that young people want challenge and commitment in their life. And, yes, many have found that in the person of Jesus. Yet, they are deeply suspicious of institutions. Can we blame them? Whether economic, political, educational or religious, they have lived through a number of scandalous betrayals of trust.


Interestingly, over the years, I have graded papers of my high school students who, when they spell confirmation, write “conformation.” For many of them, the Catholic Church appears as one institution among others that supports the same old and tired status quo. In the process, Jesus becomes an agent of those in power rather than the crucified Messiah who sought to change peoples’ hearts and the world through His Gospel of love and justice (Mark 12:28-34).


On the whole, Bethke’s video illustrates well the various moods young people have toward organized religion — apathy, frustration, anger, confusion. But if one really listens, what Bethke’s truly desires from religion is connection, engagement and meaning, not only with the person of Jesus, but with an authentic and integral faith community. Ultimately, we, as Catholics, know that you can’t have one without the other.


Yes, I agree his argument is one-sided and simplistic. He appears to suggest an either/or world (Jesus or religion) where Catholicism’s experience reflects a both/and understanding (Jesus and religion). As a result, it’s very easy for me to dismiss him as an uneducated but well-meaning person. But I won’t and can’t.


The reason why is because I see countless people who have a deep love for Jesus combined with great discomfort about and alienation from religion. What keeps me Catholic, though, is the hopeful conviction that our religious tradition can harness this spiritual passion and together with like-minded souls transform the world.


Daley is a freelance writer and teacher at St. Xavier High School.

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