Monday, January 23, 2012

Curiously Long Ramblings about a YouTube Video

It didn't take too long in 2012 for Christians in social media to find a topic that stirs them into a frenzy. And, no, this time it isn't Rob Bell. A young man named Jefferson Bethke wrote & performed a poem. It was artfully produced, uploaded to YouTube, and went viral:

I can't count the number of reactions I've seen or responses I've read. I asked my good friend, Matt Dabbs, to address it on his blog, and he did ( But then I began to see a host of responses. Written responses on blogs; video productions on YouTube. Pithy quotes on Twitter that either agreed with or shot down the ideas Bethke promoted. Reactions from Christians who loved it; reactions from Ministers who hated it. One minister even mimicked Bethke's delivery by writing & performing a poem of his own in praise of religion.

There were even reactions from atheists who, in the spirit of Richard Dawkins or Bill Maher, employed profanity & demagoguery in an effort to lampoon believers. One thing you can count on: if there is faith-related issue that inflames passions, neo-atheists will be right there in the center ring of the circus stoking the fire.<!-- mixed metaphor-->But I'm not interested in either praising or picking apart Bethke's video. And thus adding even more volume to the world wide echo chamber. I'm more interested in what our reactions say about us. Because I think it says a lot that's worth thinking about.

For one thing- isn't it strange how some of us write our thoughts down in our notebooks about this man's YouTube video and, one click later, the whole world has access to see what we think about him? This is a far cry from Priscilla & Aquila's model of correcting someone else's doctrine. Insofar as that is our model, praise to Kevin DeYoung for engaging Jeff one-on-one regarding his YouTube video. But it is strange that we write & critique other people on the internet. And the more well-known the subject (person) is, the more free it appears we are to write about them.

"The Social Network" touched briefly on this phenomenon:

Erica Albright: You called me a b---- on the Internet, Mark.
Mark Zuckerberg: That's why I wanted to talk to you.
Erica Albright: On the Internet.
Mark Zuckerberg: That's why I came over.
Erica Albright: Comparing women to farm animals.
Mark Zuckerberg: I didn't end up doing that.
Erica Albright: It didn't stop you from writing it. As if every thought that tumbles through your head was so clever it would be a crime for it not to be shared. The Internet's not written in pencil, Mark, it's written in ink. And you published that Erica Albright was a b----, right before you made some ignorant crack about my family's name, my bra size, and then rated women based on their hotness.

You write your snide bulls--t from a dark room because that's what the angry do nowadays.

At this point I should note a couple of things. First, I do not make this observation with the intention of openly criticizing my friends for writing blog entries about Jeff Bethke's video. That'd be ironic: me criticizing on a blog the fact that others criticized on their blogs. For the most part I'm pointing out how odd it is that this is socially acceptable nowadays. Second, I've written here on this blog about famous people in the past -- most notably (in my own mind) are blog entries about Jennifer Knapp. But even in one of those entries I wrote the following:

I want it to be well-attested here that what comes next comes from a place of love. And, in that sense, a complicated love. Because I've never actually met Jennifer Knapp personally. I don't know her, and she doesn't know me. Which makes it difficult to even address this issue.

I think we all would do well to acknowledge, at the least, the awkwardness of offering criticism on others that we don't know personally in a forum that any person can access. It's a simple act of humility that is imperative. Otherwise, it's difficult to move beyond the hubris of this whole blogging exercise.

Another thing I wonder about is our own motives. What moves & arouses our passions? What causes some to re-post a link to this video with an endorsement in all caps? What compels others to seek to temper that enthusiasm? Or to post several links on the subject, each with some rebuke as a preface?

I suspect both polls are passionately defensive for a reason: they have something to defend. I confess that what comes next is pure conjecture & speculation, but I think it's worth considering. What both sides are defending is likely an insecurity.

The sentiment that Jefferson Bethke spelled out in that video is not new & not unique; it has been expressed & experienced many times before. For the people who viewed it & exclaimed "YES!!" they had stumbled across a message and messenger that gave voice to their discomfort with contemporary expressions of faith. They've very likely tried Church or had it forced upon them. And despite the fact that they admire Jesus & the story he represents, they probably found His Church(es) disagreeable or had an even worse experience.

Maybe some of those folks aren't going to Church as regular anymore. Maybe some of those folks feel like square pegs trying to fit into the round holes that they hear from pulpits that they're supposed to fit into. Maybe they've stopped looking for answers in the buildings where our faith is expressed each Sunday. And maybe they feel guilty about that. If that's the case, Jefferson Bethke helped alleviate some of that guilt.

For the record: I'm not sure that's such a great thing. Perhaps some are drawn back to faith. But for others I suspect the video is an excuse to go on feeling resentful over a bad experience with religion. And maybe those folks still need a dose of godly sorrow.

And for the many ministers who viewed the video & balked I can imagine a number of reasons why. Mainly because I processed many of these sentiments myself. Maybe some of us are jealous: THIS guy is gaining notoriety (over 16 million views on YouTube at the time of this writing) while our message(s) haven't ever gained such a wide & respected hearing. Maybe some of us want to prove how much smarter we are than that guy. Or everyone else for that matter.

Maybe some of us feel threatened. Perhaps the reason we are involved in ministry is because we are the round pegs that always did fit pretty well in the round hole. And being in ministry we represent religion. We operate within it and help orchestrate it. So it stands to reason that we wouldn't take kindly to being painted with the broad brush with which Jefferson Bethke makes his strokes.

And let's be honest: maybe some of us are too critical. Whether by nature or by nurture (Seminary has a way of doing this to us...), we pick things apart. Does that mean that Bethke's video isn't an easy target? Surely not. There's a host of issues I have with it. But that doesn't mean we have to circle 'round like vultures until we pick him clean.

In fact, there's a strong case to be made that Bethke's message is quite Biblical. James wrote some challenging words to those who speak of the importance of religion but lack some of the basic characteristics that make religion worthwhile. The book of Hosea contains the famous words "I desire mercy, not sacrifice" -- a quotation that Jesus referenced at least twice (Matt. 9:13, 12:7).

Why can't we fixate on the strength of that message rather than diagramming the ways that Bethke imprecisely expressed X, Y, and Z? What moves us to offer corrections in this way?

What if, instead, we studied Bethke's video like a playbook? Obviously this guy connected with the deep aches of young people. Rather than carp over all the things we find troublesome, I wonder if we would be more wise to temper our own urgings to rebuke & incorporate what’s working into our own teaching.

I credit Jeff Bethke for getting us to talk about this. On one of his web sites, Jeff says his aim is "to offer posts that will be convicting, challenging, and cause you to deeply consider your faith." Judging by that I'd say that Jeff did exactly what he set out to do. To that end: job well done, Jeff.

Now- about those false dichotomies...

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