You Can Keep That Old-time Religion
As a child, I grew up in a very small country church, where we sang — as they still do — all the “classics” of the faith. One of those songs was “Old Time Religion”. While the lyrics tended to vary from one singer to another, invariably the phrase “it’s good enough for me” was sung. These days, though, religion is under fire from all sides, including, shockingly, at least to me, from Christians. From Jefferson Bethke’s now famous “Why I hate religion but love Jesus” video, to lyrics in popular songs such “all religion ever made of me was just a sinner with a stone tied to my feet”, religion can’t catch a break. I hate to put too fine a point on it, but those people are just flat wrong.
Christians and skeptics alike will tell us why religion is wrong, though the Christian usually goes a step further saying that “Yes, religion is terrible, but Christianity isn’t a religion. It’s relationship.” I should know. I’ve uttered that same bland platitude in my early days. Here’s the rub, though: Christianity is a religion, and I’ll attempt to prove it to you with two simple points.
The first is a simple definition. Merriam-Webster defines religion as:
- the belief in a god or in a group of gods
- an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods
- an interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group
We as Christians certainly believe in a god, and we definitely have “an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god”. Simple semantics should carry the day here, but let’s move to point two: the Bible describes what we “do” (for lack of a better word) as religion. James 1:27 says this, “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” While there’s certainly more to living the Christian life, James describes this part of it as “pure and undefiled religion” without a hint of scorn or antipathy.
My guess is that most Christians, when they say “religion”, really mean legalism, or “strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code”, and they’d be right. Unlike Old Testament Jews, our righteousness before God does not hinge on maniacal adherence to a set of rules (though it didn’t really for them either, but that’s a topic for another day), but on our relationship with Jesus Christ. That does not, however, mean we have no rules. We still have the 10 Commandments, the Golden Rule, and a host of admonitions, exhortations, and urgings given to us from God through Biblical authors’
writings. We don’t follow them, though, because we have to, but because we want to (John 14:21, for example).
So, yes, there is a difference between the Christian religion and virtually all other contenders. However, when we express this through talking about “hating religion”, I think we’re merely feeding a predisposition a faith-averse world has already firmly established. We may go on to say “but I still love Jesus,” patting ourselves on the back for our clever a turn of phrase, but I doubt the world really cares. They hear “I hate religion”, think “Yeah, me too” then tune out. In trying to be hip and cute, we’re throwing out the “old-time religion” baby with the bath water, and putting up a wholly unnecessary linguistic wall, and that’s not good enough for me.