Every once in a while, a video unexpectedly becomes an internet sensation, garnering attention all over the place and spreading like wildfire through the virtual world. Just this past week, a phenomenon of this type has emerged in the form of a slickly produced video of a twenty-something-year-old man in a leather jacket half rapping, half speaking a poem about Jesus and religion—more specifically how the former came to abolish the latter. Incredibly, this five-minute video (without much musical or visual enhancement) featuring a single person offering a not very sophisticated argument, as of today has garnered upward of 12 million views! A student of mine at the seminary first clued me in to the video, but then, through the Word on Fire website and Facebook page, I was flooded with requests to comment on it. So here goes.
What the young man in the video is presenting is a simplistic and radical form of evangelicalism whose intellectual roots are in the thought of Martin Luther. Luther famously held that justification (or salvation) takes place through grace alone accepted in faith, and not from good works of any kind. To rely on liturgy or sacraments or moral effort for salvation, Luther thought, amounted to a pathetic “works righteousness,” which he sharply contrasted to the “alien righteousness” that comes, not from us, but from Christ. This basic theological perspective led Luther (at least in some texts) to demonize many elements of ecclesial life as distractions from the grace offered through Jesus, and this is why we find, even to this day in many evangelical Protestant churches, a muting of the liturgical, the sacramental, the institutional, etc. These things constitute the “religion” that many evangelicals are against. And what the young man in the video learned from his evangelical teachers is that Jesus himself stood against these same “religious” distractions in his own day—which is why the Lord criticized the Pharisees for their fussy legalism and why he promised to tear down the Temple in Jerusalem.
Now Luther’s theological theory had enormous implications culturally and politically as well. The freedom that Luther declared from church law and institution soon morphed in the minds of many into a call for freedom from what were taken to be repressive political laws, traditions and institutions. One of Luther’s earliest and most provocative texts was titled The Freedom of a Christian, and it is no accident whatsoever that “freedom” became the most powerful and explosive word in the modern political lexicon. Indeed, our own country, which proudly bears the title “the land of the free,” was born in a great act of revolutionary anti-institutionalism—which goes a long way toward explaining why this young man’s video is getting such great play in America.
Well what does a Catholic make of all of this? Not much, as it turns out. In his theology of justification by grace alone, Luther conveniently overlooked a plethora of biblical texts, including many from St. Paul, whom he claimed as his principle inspiration. In the parable of the sheep and goats from Matthew 25, it is clear that salvation is dependent, not primarily on faith, but on the quality of our love, especially toward those who are weakest and poorest. The same Paul who spoke of justification through faith also said, “If I have faith enough to move the mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” And the same Paul who experienced the risen Jesus in an intensely personal moment of conversion also spoke eloquently and often of becoming a member of Jesus’ “mystical body,” which is the church. In short, the Bible drives a wedge neither between faith and love nor between individual salvation and ecclesial belonging. Further, the same Jesus who railed against the hypocritical legalism of the Pharisees also said, “I have come not to abolish the law but to fulfill it.” And the same Jesus who threatened to tear down the Temple in Jerusalem also promised “in three days to rebuild it.” The point is this: Jesus certainly criticized—even bitterly so—the corruptions in the institutional religion of his time, but he by no means called for its wholesale dismantling. He was, in point of fact, a loyal, observant, law-abiding Jew. What he affected was a transfiguration of the best of that classical Israelite religion—Temple, law, priesthood, sacrifice, covenant, etc.—into the institutions, sacraments, practices and structures of his Mystical Body, the Church.
If the young rapper in the video is against the corruptions of institutional religion up and down the ages, then he’s got an ally in me. Finding them is like shooting fish in a barrel and criticizing them is as easy as being against rotten eggs. But if he is advocating an individualist spirituality that ignores the thousands of ties that bind believers to one another through sacrament, practice and institutional belonging, and if he’s calling for a theology that divorces Jesus from his Body, the Church, then he’s got an opponent in me. Lots of New Age devotees today want spirituality without religion, and lots of evangelicals want Jesus without religion. Both end up with abstractions. But the one thing Jesus is not is an abstraction. Rather, he is a spiritual power who makes himself available precisely in the dense institutional particularity of his mystical body across space and time. Jesus didn’t come to abolish religion, he came to fulfill it.