by Most Reverend Charles Jason Gordon
See the Expanded Study Guide at the end of this article for additional Reflection Questions and Exercises.
On January 10, 2012, Jefferson Bethke uploaded his “Spoken Word” on YouTube: “Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus.” It went viral. As of the writing of this article, it has received over twenty-one million hits. If you have not seen it, I recommend you do so before reading this article (youtube.com/watch?v=1IAhDGYlpqY).
A video goes viral because it sparks something in the unconscious. There are cultural clues imbedded in this video that resonate deeply with the generation that Bethke belongs to and now represents.
It is important for catechists to realize how different generations imbed and interpret cultural clues. This enables us to engage in creative discourse (conversation) with what is being communicated and by whom. For example, Bethke is of Generation Y (born between 1980 and 2000), often referred to as Millennials. People of this generation are confident, reflect high expectations, and are not afraid to question societal norms or authority. They are the true online natives and have integrated technology into their everyday lives. Technology forms a major part of their entertainment and socializing. They are somewhat conventional but still powerful.
Generation Y differs from the Traditionalist Generation (born between 1925 and 1945), the Baby Boomer Generation (born between 1946 and 1964), and Generation X (born between 1965 and 1979). Each has a particular perspective on the meaning of life and their roles and contributions for living full lives. It is imperative for us as catechists to come to terms with these differences if we are to interpret the spoken word that communicates an imbedded message.
This video, I believe, is the statement of a generation trying to grapple with the fundamentals of Christianity and coming down on the side of encountering Jesus as essential. This is not only in America; this video also went viral in Barbados, St. Vincent, and Trinidad. I am reading the text the way Carl Jung would read a dream—not literally but for the breaking forth of the unconscious into conscious life.
As we celebrate the Year of Faith, let us position the Church to engage not only the older generations but the emerging generations that are asking different questions and have different expectations.
The BIG Idea from Bethke
Bethke says that Jesus hates religion because religion is filled with hypocrisy; because religion does not get to the core, it does not deal with my moral shortcoming; because religion is a museum for good people not a hospital for the broken; because religion is not a conduit for grace.
So, Bethke says, Jesus and religion are opposite clans.
In this video there are straight shots at institutional religion. The sentiments are now far more mainstream than we would like to believe. In the latest Pew Research Poll, 20% of Americans are saying that they are spiritual not religious. Big religion is not where this generation is finding their spiritual home. They are looking for a more direct encounter with Jesus as a way of expressing their souls.
In his second stanza, Bethke says:
“They can’t fix their problems and so they just mask it,
not realizing religion’s like spraying perfume on a casket.
See, the problem with religion is it never gets to the core.
It’s just behavior modification, like a long list of chores,
like let’s dress up the outside, make it look nice and neat.
But it’s funny that’s what they used to do to mummies
while the corpse rots underneath.”
In the New Testament, Jesus is in conflict with certain social groups. His condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees, for example, is legendary. The condemnation is because of hypocrisy (see Luke 11:37-54). Jesus even warns his disciples to “be careful of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matthew 16:6). The disciples do not understand, they have no sight, they have no perception (see Matthew 16:9).
If Jesus is against something, it is not religion; it is hypocrisy. The encounter with Jesus is only real if it leads to a confrontation of hypocrisy in ourselves first—and then in the Church. Many in the Traditionalist and the Baby Boomer generations seem to have become complacent and accommodating to hypocrisy—living by the rules of the market economy during the week and by another set of rules on Sunday.
But Generation Y is not so complacent and accommodating. In fact, some in this generation have a great intolerance. This is apt for the developmental stage. But in this generation, it is also a hallmark. If there is to be any renewal, we need Generation Y at all levels of Church. We need their energy, their idealism, their insight, their commitment to serve the planet and humanity, and their desire to encounter Christ. They will help us grow a healthy intolerance for hypocrisy in ourselves and in our Church.
Behind this criticism of religion, there is the collective—and yes, unconscious—aspiration that Bethke’s video contains. Here center stage is a desire for encountering Jesus. It is not behavior modification but getting to the core and dealing with our weakness. It is finding the path that St. Paul found, where he would boast of his weakness (see 2 Corinthians 12:1-10). It is coming to the place where the hypocrisy is no longer a parallel existence to the religious identity—living one thing on Saturday night and another on Sunday morning. It is not simply following the rules; rather, it is a deep, abiding encounter with the One who offers us grace.
The yearning here is for grace. “If grace is water, the Church should be an ocean,” says Bethke. Not grace just in the encounter with Christ, but grace in the encounter with his Church as well.
Let us define grace as God’s unmerited gift or favor. The yearning is that anyone coming to church would encounter grace in abundance through the people, the ministers, the priest, and those in leadership. This is not an unrealistic expectation. It is the central challenge. If the Church is not an ocean of grace for those in need of mercy, then we have failed to be mature disciples of Christ. We have failed to understand Christ. What is worse, we have failed to keep the dangerous memory of Christ alive—which was his command to us (see Luke 22:19).
Many of us of the Baby Boomer Generation and the Traditionalist Generation may have no idea what it is like to grow up in and be deeply immersed in and influenced by a visual culture. In the post-sexual-revolution era, young people experience pornography and sex—seen through the lens of the dominant culture—as recreational sport on their phones and computers. If we do not understand the spiritual impact of these very important differences between the years of our own youth and what the youth of today experience, we will not be able to lead this generation to an encounter with Christ through their weaknesses.
This is about grace and human weakness. We come to this only through an understanding of our own weaknesses and the unmerited gifts that God has given us in calling us sons and daughters. This is what St. Paul refers to when speaking of the thorn in his side (see 2 Corinthians 12:7-10). This is the existential truth of the human condition.
Encountering Jesus: Biblical Witness
Christianity stands or falls based upon the encounter with the Risen Lord. The New Testament gives us several paths to understand this encounter. Many of the accounts have a common pattern: A person is present but not recognized; there is something (a Christological key) that unlocks the blindness; those present recognize Christ and then reflect upon their experience.
For example, Mary of Magdala presumes Jesus to be the gardener until he calls her by name. Then her eyes are opened and she encounters Christ (see John 20:11-18). Thomas refuses to believe until he is invited to put his hand into the wounds of Christ (see John 20:24-31). The disciples walking to Emmaus recognize the stranger who accompanies them only in the breaking of the bread (see Luke 24:13-35). Peter recognizes Jesus in the abundance of the catch and is then commissioned to feed Jesus’ lambs and sheep and to follow him (see John 21:1-19).
Without these encounters and Christological keys, the early Church would not have left the safety of the upper room to venture fearlessly into discipleship, proclaiming Jesus as the Risen Lord. They saw Jesus but they did not recognize him until their eyes were opened. I dare say the Christians of today may also be encountering Christ without recognizing him, thus living by the rule and the law and not by the grace of the Resurrection and Pentecost.
A true encounter with Christ will lead to deep conversion: sustaining prayer, forgiveness of ourselves and others, and gratitude to God and others for the rich blessings we have received without merit. Ultimately, an encounter with Christ will lead to hospitality—to welcoming all as brothers and sisters regardless of race, class, gender, or creed. This welcome will have a special place for the poor and marginalized (see Bishop Jason Gordon, “Life of Grace” Pastoral Letter, 2011).
Hearing ourselves called by name, touching the wound of Christ, entering into the Eucharist, and responding to our commission are the spiritual paths that the Evangelists left for us to encounter the Risen Christ. These paths are not for those living only in Apostolic Times. Rather, they are for Christians of all times. They are supposed to be the foundation of our Christianity. Without the encounter of Jesus, the New Testament Church would have remained disempowered and afraid of the hostile environment. It is their encounter with the Resurrected Christ, followed by the Pentecost experience, that transforms the early Church. Yet, many of us today believe that we can be Catholic without encountering Christ. We are fast approaching what Fr. Karl Rahner, SJ, predicted when he proposed that Christianity of the future will be mystical or not at all.
If Generation Y is seeking an authentic encounter with Christ, then our parishes and catechetical programs need to be rethought. I offer two pastoral initiatives that could make a difference.
First, we need to find ways for the liturgy to be a sacred space for encountering Christ. We have become accustomed to the Mass. The familiarity sometimes has meant that we do not do the work and preparation necessary to ensure the Mass is the premier place for the encounter with Christ.
The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy states: “To accomplish so great a work, Christ is always present in his Church, especially in its liturgical celebrations. He is present in the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of his minister, ‘the same one now offering, through the ministry of priests, who formerly offered himself on the cross,’ but especially under the Eucharistic species” (n. 7). The article concludes: “From this it follows that every liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the priest and of his Body, the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others. No other action of the Church can match its claim to efficacy, nor equal the degree of it.” Yet, many Catholics do not experience the manifold presence of Christ in their Sunday liturgy. The priest and everyone in liturgical ministry need to work together so that the liturgy becomes an expression of God’s grace and the privileged place of encounter.
The second initiative of this generational challenge is to the whole enterprise of catechesis. Catechists need to listen to the intergenerational discourse. We need our catechetical programs to be rooted in a genuine encounter with Jesus.
For example, the mystical tradition and traditional forms of prayer are integral to catechesis of all ages, especially to the young. Our young people need to encounter Christ as part of their journey of discipleship and to be initiated into the mysteries and rich inner life where prayer and silence are everyday experiences. When that encounter is reached through a life of prayer, listening, and discernment, only then will our youth give themselves fearlessly to Christ. Pope Benedict XVI proposes that faith is not only for living faithfully with Christ; it is also the foundation for interpreting humanity and human living.
Faith and Charity
Pope Benedict XVI has reaffirmed what Pope Paul VI said, that integral human development is the vocation of the Church (see Caritas en veritate, n. 16ff). For Pope Paul VI, the highest levels of development require “faith—God’s gift to men of good will—and our loving unity in Christ” (Populorum progressio, n. 21). Yet, our catechetical programs very often do not address the real developmental needs of our children
We need to address human, spiritual, moral, and physical developmental needs. This includes giving children a love of and commitment to the development of others, especially the poor. A true encounter with Christ leads to authentic development of the whole person. We cannot expect anything less, nor can we offer anything less to this generation.
Benedict XVI concludes his apostolic letter on the Year of Faith by stating: “Faith without charity bears no fruit, while charity without faith would be a sentiment constantly at the mercy of doubt. Faith and charity each require the other in such a way that each allows the other to set out along its respective path” (n. 14).
Monsignor Jason Charles Gordon was ordained Bishop of Bridgetown (Barbados) and Kingstown (St. Vincent and the Grenadines) in September 2011. He was ordained a priest in 1991 and has been involved in the Church through the Living Water Community. Before becoming a priest in 1991, at the age of 32, he was engaged in several projects, teaching skills to socially displaced youngsters. In the late 1980s and early 1990s he studied at the Catholic University of Louvain (Belgium) where he earned his BA and Masters in Theology. He completed his PhD in London. He is the new Communications Chairperson for the Antilles Episcopal Conference.
Expanded Study Guide
The pastoral recommendations for the Year of Faith composed by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith state the aim of the Year of Faith: “…to understand more profoundly that the foundation of Christian faith is the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”
Bishop Gordon has served many years ministering with youth in the Caribbean. His charism for being attuned to how social media is impacting Generation Y’s approach to religion and spirituality is reflected in his article. Thus, Bishop Gordon is able to communicate effectively in the digital age. Grounding his article on a currently popular YouTube video, he invites us to critically reflect on the ideas and attitudes of young people in their search for encountering Jesus.
1. What is my experience with those who are identified as Generation Y? What are the challenges and opportunities I face in ministering to them?
2. How do I feel about the YouTube video “Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus?” How do I understand Bethke’s video? What feelings or thoughts emerge within me? What am I comfortable with? What challenges my own perspective here?
3. What does Bishop Gordon say about hypocrisy? What is my attitude or disposition about it as I strive to live and express my faith life?
4. How do I understand the meaning of grace? What insights do I glean from this article that invite a deeper appreciation for grace in my life?
5. How and where do I recognize Jesus? Have I experienced moments of blindness and moments of recognition of Jesus? (Identify.) What impact have these moments had in my life?
6. What does Bishop Gordon mean when he refers to living by the grace of the Resurrection and Pentecost experience?
7. Have I had a radical conversion to Jesus? How has my conversion influenced my everyday life?
8. How might I/we alter my/our parish catechetical programs to nurture a more authentic initial encounter with Jesus for my/our students?
9. What is my experience of liturgy (the Mass)? Does it enhance my relationship with Jesus? If so, how? If not, why?
10. What are two pastoral approaches Bishop Gordon identifies that could be considered helpful for nurturing a deeper encounter with Jesus in my life?
11. What is the invitation of Benedict XVI introduced by Bishop Gordon to further enhance my encounter with Jesus? What do I plan to do about it?
1. Design a lesson plan around Jefferson Bethke’s YouTube video with the middle-school or high- school youth groups in your parish. Have students reflect on Bethke’s video and discuss if and how their experience connects with Bethke’s. How might students find an alternative response to the video that could animate a positive approach to religion today?
2. In his apostolic letter on the Year of Faith (Door of Faith, Porta Fidei), Pope Benedict XVI writes: “Today there is a need for stronger ecclesial commitment to new evangelization in order to rediscover the joy of believing and the enthusiasm for communicating the faith” (n. 7). What new specific approach would make a difference in your parish or catechetical classroom? Design a catechetical plan of action. Share your plan with other catechists in the parish. Implement it during the Year of Faith.
3. Have students compose a letter, create a PowerPoint, or develop a panel presentation to demonstrate how they would introduce who Jesus is to someone who is interested in discovering the person of Jesus. Use the Gospel of Mark as the primary source.
Catechism of the Catholic Church. Washington, DC: USCCB Publishing, 1994 (usccb.org).
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: Recommendations for the Year of Faith (vatican.va).
Disciples Called to Witness: The New Evangelization. Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis. Washington, DC: USCCB Publishing, 2012 (usccb.org).
Porta Fidei (The Apostolic Letter for the Indiction of the Year of Faith). Benedict XVI. Vatican City, 2011 (vatican.va).
United States Catholic Catechism for Adults. Washington, DC: USCCB Publishing, 2006 (usccb.org).
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This article was written by the Catechist Staff and appeared in Catechist magazine, October 2012.
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