'Jesus > Religion': Living outside the Jesus subculture

Jefferson Bethke’s work contains sound evangelical theology wrapped in a pop-culture coat

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To the unaware, the title of this book may sound like a spiritual cop-out, written by one of those earnest 20-somethings from a “postmodern” mindset that rejects traditional Christian faith for something trendier, for lack of a better word. Trust me — nothing could be further from the truth.

If anything, this book contains, frankly, sound evangelical theology wrapped in a pop-culture coat, quite a feat in itself. Some years ago the question became “What would Jesus do?” Mr. Bethke answers that quite definitively here.

By Jefferson Bethke
Thomas Nelson ($16.99).

Mr. Beth­ke two years ago starred in a YouTube video reciting a poem, “Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus,” that had about 25 million hits. He doesn’t shy away from his failings ­— such as alcohol abuse and premarital sex — that are considered taboo in the evangelical subculture. Nor is his background — a broken home and a lesbian mother — typical. And that’s part of his point because his candor and humility are quite refreshing.

That’s what makes the book so effective. It’s much deeper than “Jesus is Just Alright,” but that’s where — or, more accurately, on whom — he puts the emphasis.

He does skewer much of that subculture for legalistic hypocrisy and what the late German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer would call “cheap grace.”

At one point Mr. Bethke refers to his transferring after his freshman year from a strict Church of the Nazarene college in San Diego to a public liberal-arts school in Portland, Ore., saying that he would have never gone to the first school if he had to do it over again. “I could no longer stand praying after baseball practice with thirty guys with crosses around their necks,” he lamented, “knowing that a few hours later they’d have a beer in one hand and a girl in another (myself included).”

Mr. Bethke steers clear of “culture war” issues, displaying a contempt for homophobia and daring to say that no one goes to hell for being gay because of what he sees has an overemphasis on homosexual conduct — which he agrees is morally wrong in itself.

He also writes, “There isn’t one verse in the Scripture that tells me to fight for my political party. Or fight to get prayer in public school. In fact, the times in history religion was persecuted and least governmentally sanctioned, it flourished most.” He also goes after the “prosperity gospel,” which assumes that obedience leads to material blessing.

The book has discussion questions at the end of each chapter, indicating a possible use in small groups or Sunday school classes.

Some of the metaphors Mr. Bethke uses are quite breathtaking. Consider this: “Genesis starts in a garden, but Revelation ends in a city. I find that so interesting since you can’t get from a garden to a city without cultivating and creating.”

In short, it’s amazing how well he explains two sides of God — inviting and demanding — that, to those who don’t call themselves Christians, it may come across as contradictory and paradoxical. Clearly, Mr. Bethke gets it because he has lived it.

Rick Nowlin: rnowlin@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3871.

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