why we need religion

By nature, I avoid the popular. Jamie and I have had endless discussions about whether or not there is value (or validity) to pop music–Rihanna, Chris Brown, Britney, you name it.

I usually say there’s none, or very little (similar perhaps to eating a stick of candy: pleasurable for a moment, but rotten in the long run), value to these endeavors.

I’m the same way with literature, theology, and every other human pastime that begets, alongside laudable efforts, “B-rate” efforts (and often whole industries devoted to producing B-rate efforts) at the same task.

So I’ve avoided all the popular theological and spiritual books of our generation for as long as I could. For example, it took me three years after it became a buzz to read Don Miller’s Blue Like Jazz. I still haven’t read Shane Claiborne’s Irresistable Revolution. (And, if I’m completely honest, I probably never will.)

Anyway, it’s taken me some time to read this guy Rob Bell, who wrote a book called Velvet Elvis. But I just started. And glad for it.

Bell is a pastor of a church in Grand Rapids called Mars Hill. I know, it can be tricky: Bell’s church shares the name with other Christian institutions, such as Mark Driscoll’s church and a graduate school of theology in Seattle, both unconnected to Bell and to each other. Needless to say–or is it?–“Mars Hill” is less conspicuous, although also less historical, than “Areopagus,” the Roman name for the Athenian forum Paul enters in Acts 17:22.

(Also needless to say–?–is that the presumed intention behind this nomenclature is to imply some sort of engagement with secular culture and philosophy, as [again, presumably] Paul did that day in Athens. Too bad none of them thought of naming their church or seminary “the Fuller’s Field”…)

Back to Rob Bell. He’s good. He’s not saying anything a beginner’s student of theology doesn’t know, but the point is he’s not saying it to students of theology. He’s saying it to the Church at large. And people are listening.

Now, as with any writer or any book, fanfare can obscure the problems therein. (Most often, fanfare obscures nuance. Nuance requires an advanced student of theology, and that’s where I want to fault Bell.) I want to point out one very minor problem that has caught my attention in the first chapter of this book. (I’m only on page 65..)

Bell joins the current evangelical “relationship not religion” battle cry on page 21, offering his own little twist:

Jesus at one point claimed to be ‘the way, the truth, and the life.’ Jesus was not making claims about one religion being better than all other religions… Jesus exposes us to reality at its rawest. So the way of Jesus is not about religion; it’s about reality.

True enough, given certain definitions for “religion.” But Bell also wants to affirm the basic importance–and the necessity–of the material culture of religion, such as texts and their transmission (called by philosophers of religion “tradition”).

Everybody follows somebody. All of us make decisions every day about what is important, how to treat people, and what to do with our lives. These decisions come from what we believe about every aspect of our existence. And we got our beliefs from somewhere. We have been formed, every one of us, by this complicated mix of people and places and things. Parents and teachers and artists and scientists and mentors–we are each taking all of these influences and living our lives according to which teachings we have made our own. (pp. 19-20)

Kudos to Bell for pointing this out. Kudos again for pointing it out again in conjunction with Scriptural interpretation (pp. 44-46). There is no such thing as a self-interpreting text, or an “objective” interpretation of a text, and the interpretations we learn of certain key texts in our church life are part of our church tradition–therefore, they are part of the wider concept “religion.”

And that’s one reason why religion is important. Religion means the material, communal transmission of concepts about God and the spiritual realm. This transmission could occur primarily through ritual (tribal religions) or confirmation classes (Catholicism) or Sunday School lessons (Protestantism). We need religion, because without it, we know nothing about God.

The phrase “faith of our fathers” comes to mind. I hate to hear people say “Oh I’m spiritual–I’m just not religious.” So where did you get your ideas about what it means to be “spiritual”? Buddha? Nietzsche? Both founders of a “religion”! It seems better to me to be aware of the fact that we are practicing the faith of our fathers. This way we can critique and reform our faith with humility and respect, instead of blindly convincing ourselves we are onto something totally new or radical–when in fact, “there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccles. 1:9).

A second reason that religion is beneficial is that it grants accountability.

Religion means structure. I’ve heard of so many churches that have become “cultish” or idolize the personality of their pastor. And these churches are usually of the non-denominational variety, where there exists virtually no denominational hierarchy or identity to which an individual church may be held accountable. They are simply “Gospel-believing” (which is supposed to be self-explanatory?).

Paul described the Church as a “body” (1 Cor. 12:27-28). What could be more physical? More material? More structural? Religion fleshes out this structure, even if the Spirit gives it life.

Finally, we might dream of the whole world engaging in intensely intellectual, dynamic mind-games and exercising thoroughly independent and creative wills, but the fact is that most of the world lives very narrow, confined lives. Peasants in rural Peru don’t need to be encouraged to “stretch the springs of doctrine”–they need very practical rules for daily living, just the kind Bell so eloquently reminded us Jesus gave the Galilean peasantry in the first century.

So religion is first-order practice of the way of Jesus. Theology is second-order reflection on religion. Not everyone needs to do the latter.

I’m still trying to figure out if I need to.



6 responses to “why we need religion

  1. scott, very well put. it amazes me how scared the majority seem to be of religion. i think we are scared to offend and be wrong. i am taking a spirituality and social work class and we are not allowed to discuss religion at all. my professor is wonderful and we are reading some great texts but it is truly ridiculous not to touch on religion.

  2. Scott, I have two separate responses that came to mind.

    1) I can’t stand it when people ask “are you religious?” when you know they really mean “are you Christian?” I find it is their way of trying to remove Christ from the notion of religion so as not to offend. Or maybe worse(?), assuming that Christianity equals religion. Is a “belief” or “faith” the same as “religion” – or is “belief” or “faith” independent of religion altogether?

    2) Where is Scripture that points toward the organized assembly of Christians listening to an ordained minister speak on the Gospel? This comes to mind especially since attending ECV. It just got me thinking how when you’re little, “church” means the service, the sermon, communion, etc. How much of the “church”, the body of believers, have we constructed ourselves? If we strip away the constructs, material transmissions, what are we left with? Is it just Jesus?

    sorry for all the questions. thanks for the brain food.

  3. Someone gave me a copy of Velvet Elvis a few years ago and I eagerly started reading it, but stopped about half way through (I can’t remember why). I remember feeling targeted as a young wanna be hipster looking around Christianity but not wanting to encounter Christ himself.

    And I think that Rob Bell might work as a great entry point for that type of person who has heard a lot of sour things about Christianity and needs a new approach. However, I’ve seen a lot of people build their faith just around Rob Bell instead of around Jesus (likely due to our strong inclination toward idolatry). I can’t even tell you how many times NOOMA videos are shown instead of opening the Bible to read what Jesus says (and often the Scripture that Bell uses is taken out of context). I suppose I support Rob Bell’s perspective on the radical nature of the Gospel, that is the transformation, hope, etc. that it brings, but every so often I find hiccups in Bell’s basic theology. But then again, no one has perfect theology and whoever is not against us is for us.

    Below is a Christianity Today interview with Bell. Most intriguing was the question about how he would “present the Gospel on Twitter.” First, what a strange question to ask. Second, his response seems to do a lot of talking around God without actually mentioning him, which I find a little concerning.


  4. where the crap are you? i hate not being able to pick up the phone and call. i love your new pic. keep it forever. skype me now damnit

  5. Holy NZ sandfly.

    Thanks to everyone for responding to this post. I didn’t think it would get such a response—let alone a favorable one.

    To Jen:

    You are entirely right. Our culture is more comfortable talking about “spirituality” than about “religion.” But Bell’s (potentially) great point is that one doesn’t come without the other. My sister, for example, follows Hare Krishna—among other pseudo-Eastern spiritualities—which is really just a Westernization of Hinduism. It’s Hinduism for a post-mythological intellect. (Because we all know Hinduism has as much mythology as any other ancient religion, but that’s unpalatable for these American would-be converts, so let’s just cut it out and talk simply of the “spirituality” of Hinduism…)

    Maybe our culture does avoid talking about religion because they don’t want to be wrong—and “religion” is the field of true and false, right and wrong, doctrine and heresy, whereas “spirituality” is where anything goes. In reality, “religion” has just as much ambiguity truth and falsehood, doctrine and heresy (try talking to someone about the Trinity; ) as there (supposedly) is in “spirituality.” Conversely, everyone will admit that there are good and bad, healthy and unhealthy “spiritualities” one can practice.

    What texts are you reading for your class? I’m sure they would be fascinating to the rest of us, too.

    To Ginny:

    1) I think you’re right that people are trying to detach Christ from religion—mainly because of their own competing convictions that “Jesus was a good person” and that “organized religion is evil,” but also because we as Christians have corroborated this detachment with (as I said in the post) our “relationship NOT religion” battle cry.

    I do believe religion can come separated from faith and belief, but not the other way around. I think the typical picture of the high priest going through the motions and
    sacrificing the animals according to the standard ritual but not really engaging the LORD is abhorrent as a stereotype. In other words, in theory this type of “religion without faith” can happen. It doesn’t usually (why be up there sacrificing if you didn’t actually believe it would work?), but it could. On the other hand, anytime you’re talking about faith in something, chances are that someone else (or something else: Sunday School? the Bible?) told you about it. And that someone or something (the “material transmission”) is part of religion.

    2) The Bible doesn’t give us clearly outlined structures and paradigms to follow to “make church work” because most of the writers (of the Epistles, at least) assumed the congregations they were writing to had the basic idea right. So they either give recommendations for minor adjustments (women, wear hats; everyone, eat Communion in this fashion instead of that one) or don’t address it at all. What our task is is to read the Bible and apply what we can tell was important to Jesus and his early followers to our present situation. So if a “seeker-friendly” service is your answer to this task, then so be it; if the weekly celebration of Word and Sacrament, with hymns and bells and all the works is your answer, fine. But make sure your answer actually performs the task…

    The “church” is first and foremost the body of believers, gathered together to worship their Lord. So no, it is not the service, the communion, the peace, etc. BUT don’t think that “materially constructing” the church is so bad, either. Remember that the Spirit—while being immaterial—nevertheless operates materially in this age to accomplish the works of God. Stripping away the material constructs will not leave you with “just Jesus.” This is the hard lesson of modern Evangelicalism, which misinterpreted Luther and Calvin on this point. There is no such thing as “just Jesus”; we always bring our baggage to bear on pictures of Jesus. The best we can hope for is to subject our pictures of Jesus to scrutiny with the Word and with other believers (in other words, discussion, study, prayer—i.e. theology!).

    To Liz:

    I knew I was friends with you for a reason. Your thoughts are brilliant. I especially like your bold belief (bold because I shy away from it often..) that “whoever is not against us is for us.” Jesus said that. We should believe it.

    Does that mean we should stop apologizing for the way our parents do church? Stop criticizing Benny Hen and Joel Osteen and all the other greedy televangelists and mega-church pastors?

    I don’t know. But I don’t think so. I think we should still be critical, discerning, and wary of false gospels. But—at the same time—we should confront these figures not as missionaries from a foreign religion but as Christians. In other words, our only way to actually criticize them is to say: “Hey, that’s not Christian. And if you purport to be Christian and to be preaching the Christian gospel, you must cease!”

    In other words, we need to be bolder about believing that there can be good Christians and bad Christians—but that they’re both Christians. Pastoring a mega-church doesn’t make you not a Christian. It just (might) make you a bad Christian. So Joel Osteen is most surely “for us” (ha! us, the true disciples of Jesus…), but he needs to be corrected—put on the right path.

    Does that sound like what Jesus was saying? Hmm…

    I also like what you said about certain writers may serve a certain purpose in reaching a certain demographic of the Church or of society. I think we expect the Gospel to be universally attractive in a single form—“all things to all people,” but not in a variety of instantiations, rather in one mould, one message… one book.

    I met a Christian Kiwi at the hostel I’m staying at in Raglan who held the same aversion to Rob Bell as me, but who recognized his role in the Kingdom. She was convinced that she needed to swallow her pride, give his books to those she knows would accept his version of the Gospel, and pray for his ministry.

    That’s incredible!

    I haven’t read the CT article, but I will when I have more time at the internets. But Twitter is weird. I don’t get it. Some of my kids (of all people!) asked me before I left if I had a Twitter account.

    I said no.

  6. i’m reading.
    Barks, C. (trans.) (2004). The Essential Rumi.

    Mairs, N (1996). Waist-High in the World.

    Poitier, S. (2000). The Measure of a Man.

    Rumi and Poitier are both great so far. they make me want God more and who can go wrong with that?

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