There is a new video that has been floating around facebook and twitter this week. I have seen countless friends and colleagues approvingly posting and commenting on the video. Yet, I find myself troubled that we are sinking into the usual false and (fruitless) dichotomy between “spirituality” and “religion” or “Jesus by himself” and “religion.” I’ll admit that this guy can rap well, but I believe several of his arguments might be ill communication (Hey that’s like rap, right!?) I realize by using ill to mean “whack,” I leave myself open for the same criticism as Will Shortz.

It is unclear what this guy means by the “religion” that Jesus came to abolish. He doesn’t mean the Law, does he? Jesus didn’t come to abolish the Law. This is certain by Jesus’ own admission (Matt. 5.17). What does he mean by religion? Does he mean that all religion is in the realm of pretending? It’s just not clear to me.

It’s true that Jesus did receive opposition from religious people, but it doesn’t mean he didn’t practice his religion. He was a faithful Jewish man who participated in Synagogue and observed the holy days of his community. I don’t this guy is making that distinction. As a friend of mine points out: St. Augustine tells us that the word religion comes from the word “ligare” (“connection”/”ligament”). He points out that “Religion is being reconnected with or re-bound to God.” As the same friend says, through Jesus, we are “religioned” to God. And I would add we are “religioned” to each other through our baptism.

It doesn’t work to make Jesus a vigilante superhero out on his own in the name of individuals being saved. Jesus grew up as a part of a community, living into the practices of that community, and when he began his ministry he began to assemble a community around him made up of people who were both part of his community who were Jews, while extending the community to Gentiles. This rapper/poet has divorced Jesus from his community, to those people with whom he practiced his faith.

After making some comments about Christians not needing to be Republicans (no argument there, though I would add nor do they need to be Democrats), he goes on to send up of a volley of the usual indictments of “religion.” Starting wars. Building up infrastructures while people who go hungry. Casting out those people whom Jesus would likely want to be his bosom friends.

This is all true, but it doesn’t mean that people who are “spiritual” or who “just like Jesus” don’t do this either. Rather, he fails to understand the church as the place where sinners come to get sanctified. It should be no surprise that in a motely crew such as this that some trouble might be stirred up. Yet, that is our story. That is who we have been all along, and the good news is that God is always calling us back. But God doesn’t call us back on our own. God calls us back together so that we might experience reconciliation.

The rapper/poets’s next comment really gets my gander. He claims that God calls “religious” people “whores.” While it is true that God does accuse Israel of playing the whore, it isn’t clear that this is because they are “religious.” Rather, God is typically speaking about the worship of other gods or the failure of the Israel to care for the orphan and widow, the most vulnerable among them. On the first count, they are “religioning” themselves to other Gods (Hosea 9.1). On the second, they are failing to “religion” themselves to vulnerable persons (Amos 5.21). But they aren’t whores just because they are part of a worshiping community who follows the Law.

He accuses religious people of failing to fix their problems and masking them. I wasn’t aware that any of us were able to fix our problems on our own. This is why the church was created to be a community. We were created to live in a community of love and forgiveness, where the Holy Spirit and one another can help each other grow in love of God and neighbor. It may be very clever to say that religion is like spraying perfume on a casket, assuming that those who practice the same thing regularly are faking it.

I would argue instead that there are times when we all have trouble holding ourselves up, and it is at that very moment when we need our brothers and sisters the most. We need them to say the words of the creed for us when we can’t say them ourselves. Sometimes, it is all we can do to come and say the words, lay ourselves before God, and let his body and blood enter into us as he draws us into him over and over again.

He criticizes religion for being only “behavior modification.” I don’t think that this is entirely wrong, but I’m not clear about why it is a bad thing. If our beliefs and our actions are intimately tied together, then religion properly practiced finds us living out our faith practically. This seems to be what this guy wants, yet he is bashing it here. What is the “core” he speaks about? Is it just believing the right thing? If it is, he might want to check himself before he wrecks himself because he’s contradicting himself (See that was like Ice Cube).

Seriously. I wouldn't mess with Ice Cube.

He then claims “not to be judgin’,” but then of course he does just that with his “just sayin’.” You are “judgin’” rapper dude. You are doing the same thing that you accuse “religious” people of doing. You are creating insiders and outsiders based on your own set of criteria, rather than the Scripture and Tradition of the Church passed down from the apostles. If I can’t rap and I like the regularity of the liturgy for the changing of my life, I don’t fit your mold.

No real argument with him that the church should be a “hospital for the broken.” Yet, he seems to often equate “religion” with being part of the “church.” He confesses he is one of those who was fake in the church, and acted like a different person each week. Yet, is that part and parcel of being religious? I would argue that “spiritual” people like being spiritual because it doesn’t require them to make any concrete changes in their lives. It sounds like the rapper/poet has been “religioned” to God in a new way. Good for him. But I’m still not sure that means that Jesus doesn’t like religion or the church (which, I’m not sure how or if these equate for this guy). I just don’t think Jesus likes fakers. Nor does the rapper/poet. On this, we agree, but it sounds like we are defining religion differently.

He next returns to the age-old suggestion that before Jesus came, all those poor Jewish people just followed rules all the time and life was terrible for them. Then, Thank God, Jesus came and got rid of all the rules. Except, that as I said, Jesus didn’t come to do away with the Law, he came to fulfill it. He didn’t come to do away with the rules, he came to make it possible for us to follow them. It is nearly anti-Semitic to suggest that all those Jews were miserable rule-followers before Jesus. If that is true, then how does Psalm 119 exist? Over a hundred verses about the beauty of the gift that is God’s Law.

Further, Jesus didn’t get rid of the commands. He made them more demanding. Has this guy read the Sermon on the Mount? Yet, as John Wesley said, Jesus’ commands are covered promises. Whatever Jesus asks us to do, he provides grace sufficient for it to happen. But it is an historical and theological error to suggest that the Jewish faith was a dead faith full of empty rules. Jesus practices a Jewish faith. He did call out some of the practices that had gone awry, but he didn’t get rid of all of them.

The rapper/poet seems to equate “religion” with “hypocrisy.” It is true that Jesus didn’t stand for this. Rapper/poet guy says he loves the church, but it isn’t clear to me that he’s doing a lot to get people to come near the church and be the leaven within. It seems like he’s giving a lot of reasons for folks never even to come in (that rhymed, just saying.)

How is it that religion is a man-made invention? Are the practices of the church what the invention is? He says, “Religion says do,” “Jesus says, done.” It appears that we feel here the eschatological pinch between the “already,” and the “not yet.” Rather than the “either/or” of the rapper/poet, the reality is that we experience it as “both/and.” Jesus says both “do” and “done.” Jesus has won the victory, yet we are responsible for living as he commanded us to through his grace in the mean time. That’s what all those parables are for, like the parable of the talents, the wedding banquet, etc.

He also says religion makes us “slaves” while Jesus sets us “free.” I think Scripture would affirm that actually what happens is that we find out that we were serving the wrong master. That’s why Paul calls himself a slave to Jesus all the time. We aren’t freed to do whatever we want, we’re freed to do the right thing because we are serving him instead of false gods.

“Religion is man searching for God. Christianity is God searching for man.” First of all, what about women, dude? Second, this is a nice contrast, but what exactly does it mean? Where does it come from? It appears religion for this guy has something to do with works righteousness trying to get to God, whereas Christianity is salvation by grace. I’m not sure where his definitions come from, though I think I have heard it expressed this way before (references welcome). However, I don’t think that religion has to mean works righteousness. I prefer to think of grace drawing us in, so that we want to understand and seek after what we believe. St. Anselm called this “Faith seeking Understanding.”

I guess what it comes down to is that this guy did a pretty clever video with a decent rhyme. The only issue is that he falls into his own trap. He spends a lot of time talking about how bad a certain group of people are, the “religious” folk. The problem is that he’s bringing down the same judgment on them that he criticizes them for bringing on others. He also doesn’t seem to have a very good understanding of what religion actually means. Again, it seems to have something to do with works righteousness and hypocrisy, but that doesn’t have to be what religion means. It might just mean practicing what we preach, which rapper/poet guy is all about.

The Church is not perfect, but the Holy Spirit created it and upholds it. Jesus is often painted as a lone ranger destroying a dead Jewish faith, but that is not who he was. He was a faithful Jew, and God’s covenant with the Jews isn’t abolished either. Since this guy likes quoting Romans at the end of his video, he might want to consider flipping to chapter 11.

The last thing I can’t abide by is the smugness. People who hate on what they want to call “religion” always do it in a way that makes them seem better, more insightful, and more faithful that “religious” people. That’s self-righteousness, dude. “Not to be judgin’,” but I’m pretty sure you just rapped something about that being a problem.