It’s Time to Stop Treating “Religion” Like a Bad Word
Earlier this week, Relevant Magazine posted an article titled, “Entertainment, Modern Worship and What God Really Desires.” In it, author Jesse Carey praises contemporary church bands like Hillsong, Jesus Culture, Planetshakers, Desperation, and others. While he does acknowledge some issues with the trajectory of modern “worship,” he affirms its usefulness and encourages readers, “Just because something has elements associated with ‘entertainment,’ doesn’t disqualify it from being worshipful. Game fans have reported weeping in response to God’s mercy while playing a video game.”
While Carey’s particular article is not terribly egregious, it is symptomatic of an underlying attitude that has swept through the modern Church, particularly Evangelical Protestantism. This mindset can best be described as “anti-religion.” It’s not anti-Christian per se, but is characterized by phrases like “It’s a relationship, not a religion” and “I’m spiritual but not religious,” which have been used with increasing regularity.
This mindset has been accompanied by the popularizing of certain myths regarding what “religion” is, for example that Jesus was opposed to it because all religion is pharisaical, that it is legalistic, and that relationship and religion are somehow opposed.
Many people seem to believe Jesus was opposed to religion, but nothing is further from the truth. Those Christians who want to be anti-religion have a myopic view of salvation-history, ignoring the fact that God has consistently related to humanity through religion.
Before going further, it is important to define religion and how it is related to Christianity. Merriam-Webster defines it as, “an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or group group of gods.” When applied to the Christian faith, this entails theology which defines God, humanity, and articulates an understand of salvation-history as testified to by Christ, Scripture, and Church tradition. Christian ceremonies include the Sacraments (Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Healing, Reconciliation, Marriage, and Ordination). And the rules include things like liturgical structure in worship and regulations regarding morality.
The laws governing cultic worship in Leviticus are an apt example of God relating to people through religion, and find a parallel in the New Testament when Paul provides regulation for the Eucharist (1 Cor. 10-11). When “religion” gets negative attention in the Scripture, it generally occurs in attacks against hypocrisy. There are many instances of this in Old Testament prophetic literature. The prophets indicted the behavior of the Chosen People in regards to their empty religious practices. The Israelites were going through the motions of worship only to go out and oppress the poor and the needy. Isaiah 1:10-11, 13 illustrate this:
Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom; listen to the instruction of our God, you people of Gomorrah! “The multitude of your sacrifices–what are they to me?” says the Lord. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations–I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.”
The accusation is not against religion itself but against hypocrisy. Remember, Jesus said (Matt. 5:17), “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish them but fulfill them.” In fulfilling the Jewish traditions and law, he established the Sacraments and traditions of the Church. Jesus was not opposed to religion. It is more nuanced than that. He was opposed to religion only when the practitioner did not allow it to shape their lives.
A similar and equally pervasive error is that, somehow, the Pharisees are the embodiment of “religion” in the Gospels. Jesus spent much of his time correcting, debating, and arguing against the Pharisees. He even goes so far as to strongly condemn them (Matt. 23:27), “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.” Yet again, the problem is with their hypocrisy, not with the rituals in and of themselves.
A second characteristic of many in the “against religion” crowd is a strong opposition to legalism. When legalism is properly understood, it should be rejected. Unfortunately, many in the modern Church use it as a convenient label which gets applied in a laissez-faire manner. In some instances, the underlying message really being conveyed is that our outward actions do not matter.
James clearly advocated against this mentality by pronouncing faith and works to be inseparable. “Faith, by itself, if it is not accompanied by action,” he pronounces, “is dead” (James 2:17). Actions should not be done desperately to get God to love us. He already loves us. We love him in response and therefore perform actions pleasing to Him. Christians should strive to be very careful to avoid both legalism and moral laxity.
Indeed, outward actions can revive our inward faith. There are Sunday mornings when I would rather be a “bedside Baptist” instead of attending Mass. Yet, as I go through the outward actions of the liturgy: bowing at the processional cross, kneeling for confession, making the sign of the cross, receiving the Body and Blood of Christ, I cannot help but be drawn in. Liturgy is holistic. It engages the mind through sermon and symbolism but it also engages the hearts through actions and drama. God is always present, both in our internal thoughts and our external actions. It’s not possible to separate the outward and the inward.
Another errant presupposition deployed in these discussions is that Christianity is a relationship, not a religion. Obviously, Christianity emphasizes a very personal relationship between God and humanity. The Incarnation was God putting on flesh to identify with his Creation. The image conveyed by the crucifix, arguably Christianity’s most potent symbol, is a God of love stretching his arms out on the hard wood of the cross bidding all to come and share in his eternal life. In that respect, Christianity is about relationship.
Unfortunately, when the emphasis on relationship is improperly emphasized, it trades off with the reverential. When God becomes our “friend” or “boyfriend/girlfriend,” he fails to get treated with the awe he deserves. In many churches, he doesn’t get the same level of respect a politician or professor would because people assume he’s only interested in being “friends.”
While these are reasons the myths about religion which have infiltrated the Church are wrong, many may be wondering why religion is a good thing.
The first reason this understanding of Christianity should be preferred is that liturgy is a good thing. Every church has a liturgy but unfortunately, in many “contemporary churches,” it has become inherently anthropocentric. Congregants sit in seats in an auditorium akin to a movie theater. The praise bands put on shows most bands would be jealous of complete with a smoke machine and light show.The culmination of the service occurs when the pastor gives a talk closely resembling a motivational speech. If Communion is a part of the service at all, its significance is usually downplayed in an attempt to not look too Catholic.
Liturgy should be understood as the drama of salvation-history in which the people actively participate. It is not a time to be passively entertained. Liturgy should engage the mind, the body, and the heart. It has the power to significantly shape our spirituality and needs to be intentionally theocentric.
Secondly, this approach contextualizes the relational aspect of Christianity properly. The Lord invites us to his table. We are reminded that we are his children. Our Communion meal is a taste of what Heaven is like. But we’re also reminded, as we kneel for the prayer of confession, that he is our Lord. That he is holy. That sanctification is a continual, painful evolution as we learn to submit our will to his. It may not be as convenient as believing God is only interested in being our friend but it shouldn’t be easy. Christianity calls us to live a self-sacrificial lifestyle (Rom. 12:2) and a robust, catholic understanding and practice of the faith is necessary for that to happen.
To many Christians in our time, religion has become a bad word. It has become a way to demonize practices in line with the historic faith of Christianity and replace them with doctrinal and liturgical innovations. For the Church to remain faithful and empowered, it would be wiser for us to look backwards at what has come before rather than rush headlong into innovating the faith due to misconceptions about the nature of religion.