Jefferson Bethke burst into the cultural conversation in 2012 with a passionate, provocative poem titled “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus.” The 4-minute video literally became an overnight sensation, with 7 million YouTube views in its first 48 hours (and 23+ million in a year). The message blew up on social-media, triggering an avalanche of responses running the gamut from encouraged to enraged.
Jefferson is quick to acknowledge that he’s not a pastor or theologian, but simply a regular, twenty-something who cried out for a life greater than the one for which he had settled. Along his journey, he discovered the real Jesus, who beckoned him beyond the props of false religion.
I was able to talk with Jeff over the phone about his life. How he grew up. We chatted about what shaped him. Where the idea for the video came from and his plans for the future.
John: Jeff, I'm wondering if you could give us a little bit of background information. Where did you come from and how did you get into the place you are now?
Jefferson: I grew up in Tacoma, Washington—spent pretty much my whole life in the Northwest. I grew up in a really tough broken home with a single mom and welfare, stuff like that. Religion was something that we still did, or saw, as the cultural default. So we would go to church sometimes. I knew the songs, but I wasn't myself necessarily a church kid. That took me all the way to high school where I was defined by what I didn't do: I didn't smoke, I didn't drink, so you know, I was that “I'm better than you” kid. This was my identity.
In my junior and senior years, the world became a lot more attractive than white-knuckling obedience. So I threw in the towel on that, went down more of a prodigal son path. That took me to college where everything just crashed down a couple of years in. I soon realized that lifestyle wasn't fruitful either. My girlfriend broke up with me, I got kicked off the baseball team, and I got put on academic probation all in one week. That woke me up and made me say, "Hey, what am I doing with my life?" That's when I opened the Scriptures and read about Jesus for the first time, the actual real Jesus. The man who was compassionate but did some interesting things, so you couldn't really put Him in a box. I remember just saying then, "That's a guy worth following."
It wasn't an overnight process. I remember six months after reading and praying and loving this Jesus guy, I looked back and said, "Well, I guess that makes me a Christian now because I follow Him, I love Him, I read the Word and want to be a disciple." That was about five years ago.
Fast forward to senior year of college. I was going to a non-Christian, really secular, liberal arts small school outside of Portland. It's very similar to Reed College in its atmosphere. I was just looking for opportunities to talk about Jesus. I remember posting a Bible study and inviting anyone, but only two people would show up. There was open mic on campus where once a month, any student can sing, dance, whatever, stuff like that. So I said, "Well, a couple of hundred people show up to that and there's only 1,500 students in the school, so it seems like a great opportunity."
That's when I initially wrote the poem called "Sexual Healing." And then I wrote "Why I Hate Religion" for that open mic. I never performed the "Why I Hate Religion" because I graduated before the next open mic, but that's where that came from. That's the heart it came from: me wanting to share with a very post-modern college demographic—just a few hundred students. Then my buddy who was a videographer heard about one of them and was like, “Hey, let's put this on YouTube." We had no rhyme or reason, just maybe our moms or our friends would see it. We put up "Why I Hate Religion" and it got a little crazy overnight. That has definitely put me where I am today, in the sense of what I do now. I get to just be creative on a daily basis. I get to write stuff. I get to do videos, which is really fun. I get to study God's Word.
John: Jefferson, were you making videos before "Why I Hate Religion"?
Jefferson: No, not really. The "Sexual Healing" poem we did one video. We put that online, and that did pretty well. It got like 100,000 views, I think, in 6 or 7 months. We were kind of like, "Oh, we might as well make another one" but this time I had the platform to put it out on social media. So we decided to do the "Why I Hate Religion," the second video I ever uploaded to YouTube.
John: Why do you think the "Why I Hate Religion" video struck such a chord with culture today?
Jefferson: I think there are a million reasons, honestly. I think one of the main reasons is that religion means a million different things to a million different people. "Religion" is a very, very beautiful biblical word to people. And then at least in my context—a little more Seattle or Oregon context—that word becomes synonymous with "that stuff." It's a caricature, this idea that you have to earn God by what you do, and hate gays, and can't drink beer. And so that was part of it I think. I think putting "Why I Hate Religion But Love Jesus" in a title can get a little crazy when everyone has their own definition of that, right?
We're in the middle of a cultural shift in America. I really do believe that. I think when I was a kid, America was predominantly Christian in thought. Now of course I'm not saying Christian nation, none of that stuff. I'm saying there was a worldview, when I was growing up, of Christian principles, Christian values. Now I would argue that America is post-Christian. Christianity no longer has power, authority, or influences our values, culture or society.
Being in the middle of that shift, I think a lot of my generation resonated with that video because I think it was trying to pull from one shift to the other and say, "Hey, this is where we're at. This is what Jesus really says." Looking back and having thought about it for almost two years now, I landed in the middle of that zeitgeist of the cultural shift.
John: Were you expecting the amount of criticism that you received?
Jefferson: No, no, not one bit. Looking back, I was 100% naive and oblivious to any of that. I lived with 10 guys at the time I put the video up. We put it up online at night. We were joking around and took bets on how many views we think it would get in 24 hours. Whoever was closest would get dinner paid for by the other guys. I think the lowest bet was 2,000 views in 24 hours and the highest bet was 9,000 views in 24 hours. And I was like, "That is ludicrous; it'll never happen." And then in 24 hours it had 1.6 million views—just a little more than 9,000! And with that came all the criticism. And it was hard, the criticism. I don't want to relive those two weeks. I don't ever want to go back there.
John: Do you think that to some extent you were exposing some people's false identity within the body of Christ, and that's what caused people to not like the video so much?
Jefferson: Yeah. I would totally agree with that. I think when you read the Scriptures there's a level of Jesus being ridiculously pervasive, right? Offensive and pervasive and pushing back against certain paradigms and worldviews that had become stale, corrupt, stuff like that. So we have to recognize those are probably still there.
When you tell the best people in the world, the most moral people in the world, i.e., the Pharisees, that what they're doing isn't good enough and what they're doing isn't working, and that Jesus doesn't approve of what they're doing, that's really offensive. A better way to say it is, they've missed it. If you go to those people who have dedicated their whole lives to doing X, Y and Z, and you say, “Hey, you missed it. It's actually about intimacy with your Creator and He desires mercy, not sacrifice," things like that, yeah that's offensive.
John: Because all of a sudden you made it extremely personal then.
Jefferson: Exactly. And that's what I thought was really interesting: Every denomination and almost every world religion took the video as offensive to them personally. I thought that was fascinating. There was a response from every religion. There was a Mormon video response, a Catholic video response, an atheist video response, etc. And then also a few denominations wrote critiques and responses. I never really mentioned any kind of cultural or denominational bent, and it was interesting that some people thought I was writing to them.
John: As I was going through and reliving the video from a couple of years ago, I was also looking at some of those critiques and how they were coming from, like you said, both within the body of Christ—as far as a particular denomination—as well as those that would be outside the body of Christ—people that were maybe within a specific religion that would not be considered Christian. And I thought that was really ironic, because it was almost as if they weren't listening to what you were saying. They were more interested in protecting their own turf in a sense.
Jefferson: Yes. That's a good way to put it, and what I think it turned into is everyone thought, "We have to respond with our version." In all honesty, I didn't totally lay my cards all out on the table, but that video was to Christians. That video wasn't really to anyone else. Maybe New Testament Christianity is just a little bit different than 21st century modern Evangelicalism in these ways. That was my thrust and heart behind writing it in the first place.
John: When you look at the body of Christ today, Jefferson, are you excited? Are you hopeful? Do you have concerns over the church? You've been speaking both in churches and on college campuses since you put out the video—what have you seen?
Jefferson: I'm always excited about the body of Christ. I think that's God's Plan A. There is no Plan B. And I think the promise He gave to Peter 2,000 years ago, that the gates of hell won't prevail against it, it's not going anywhere—that always excites me. No matter what happens, no matter what chaff might burn away, the body of Christ is always there and always changing the world and always moving and organic across the globe, making disciples. Yeah, that always excites me.
This is a little bit more radical position, but I am excited about being in a more post-Christian society than a pseudo-Christian society, if that makes sense. Because I think there's a lot more opportunity for realness. You know whose team everyone is on.
John: Well, there's a definite line between somebody who's standing up for the moral rights of an individual, or a group of people, and declaring that that is gospel, versus somebody that's saying what we find in the Bible is completely and radically different than what you're saying over here.
Jefferson: Exactly, exactly. That excites me, because I think when you read church history, you see that when there's a little bit more purity of the body of Christ in a particular nation or society, then there seems to be a little bit more power. I think we're going to a place where the people who might only culturally want Jesus are falling by the wayside. It makes it a little bit easier for the gospel, too, because 15 years ago if you were to go up to anyone and say, "Let me tell you about Jesus," nine people out of ten would say, "I already raised my hand and signed a card. I don't need that."
One thing that I think is a little scary for me is that the millennial generation is going to be the predominant generation here soon. I'm scared that when we get there, we're not setting ourselves up for success in the sense of community. I don't think my generation is very good at community. I don't think we're very good at vulnerability, I don't think we're very good at not living individualistically and submitting to others out of love. I think that can really come back to bite us in 20 or 30 years. That would be one thing that's scaring me about the future.
John: Jefferson, would you consider yourself to be a theologian?
Jefferson: I think technically everyone's a theologian; some people just have really crappy theology. I'm going to just say that bluntly because it's kind of true. But if you're asking in the traditional sense, it's yes and no. Yes, because technically everyone is. All that means is that you have studies about God and views about God and knowledge of God actually. But then technically, no, because I'm not a Ph.D. or anything of that nature. I do think there's a little bit of idolatry in America over degrees, over power of the Spirit, if that makes sense. Like if you didn't go to seminary, then don't talk about God. I just don't see that in the Scriptures. I do see education and knowledge and context, all those things being vitally important, but there's a little tension there.
John: You're about ready to launch your first book, Jesus Is Greater Than Religion. Was that the logical next step?
Jefferson: For me, book writing has always been my heart, always been my love, always been something I’ve wanted to do. It's something that's been a dream of mine.
A lot of people don't know this, but poetry isn't really my—how do I say this?—it's not really my huge calling, desire, overarching passion. Those poems were written because I was trying to force myself to figure something out that would work on a stage to talk to a couple of hundred students at a specific university. You can't speak, you can't preach for 45 minutes at an open mic, and I can't sing or play instruments, so I thought I would make something rhyme and see how it goes. And when I first did it, I thought that would be the first and the last poem I'd ever write. Obviously it's snowballed since then, but I've only written five or six poems.
My heart really is in teaching. Even outside of seminary or anything like that, I wanted to be a high school teacher, teach social studies and government. Now I really enjoy teaching the Word. I've always had that teaching bent. I think poems were one outflow of that, and so for me, a book actually feels more natural to me, in the sense of what I like to do, what stirs me. I hope based on how well this one does and the second one that I have to turn in next year, that hopefully I can do this for good and make it one of the predominant things I do for the next 50 years. But that could just be a hopeful wish. We'll see.
John: When you do walk into a university, a college campus, or a church as a speaker, what are you speaking about? Are you dovetailing off what took place in the poetry and the video?
Jefferson: It depends what they invite me for. For example, my wife Alyssa and I traveled
to West Virginia a couple of weeks ago for a church camp. That was more like sessions where I'm walking them through certain things. I think I spoke eight times or something like that. If it's just one Sunday service, then people usually know me from the poem, I'll take that familiarity and say, "OK, this is what I was trying to do with that." And I'll speak on the prodigal son, or I'll speak on the difference between religion and Jesus and say, "This is my heart. This is what I think, where we need to go and how we convey the gospel from here on out."
John: You and your wife are launching something new. How would you describe it?
Jefferson: I'd call it a social startup or a social entrepreneurship.
John: Tell us about it.
Jefferson: I started it with a buddy of mine named Brett. He's the CEO and I'm the co-founder with him. He does a lot of non-profit work with development in Uganda and Ghana and all these different places in Africa. And then, me and a buddy of mine do a college ministry in town. We started to get this burden for non-profits. They're usually doing the best Kingdom work, but also struggle the most for resources and finances. They always have to do the same ask. Sooner or later they run out of money and have to go ask again.
We said, "What would it look like if we entered the domain of business, redeemed that culture of business, did it differently as a Christian and showed that the gospel informs business just as much as it informs non-profit work? And then used that to give money, or to bring light and social awareness to different causes?"
Our tagline is bring light to social injustice. We thought candles were really interesting symbols for a few reasons. They're in everyone's homes. You don't really have to be a certain age to be a candle person. I love candles. I know people that love candles. It burns for a long time, and so even as a symbol, it's remembrance. When you burn a candle, you're remembering something.
What each candle represents is a different element of injustice. We have one that's called Peace, which is for child soldiers. We have candles for Food, Education, Water, etc. We have nine all together. Each time you buy a candle, there's a different tangible outcome. If you buy a small Food candle, it gives one meal to a child in need. If you buy a large Food candle, it gives three meals. If you buy the Addiction candle, it gives an hour session of counseling to bring people out of addiction.
It's our way of bringing light to social injustice. We wanted the candle to be in someone's home where they're remembering they are in solidarity with humanity. They are supporting someone across the globe or in their backyard by that purchase.
We didn't want to start something new in the sense of a non-profit; we wanted to raise awareness and funds for people who are already doing awesome stuff.
John: That's very cool. All right, one last question, Jeff. You're a Pacific Northwesterner. So are you a coffee drinker?
Jefferson: I am not just a coffee drinker, I am a coffee-IV-in-my vein-drinker. My wife and I love coffee. I just had a cup of coffee a second ago. We're those snobs who research how to make it perfectly, fiddle with temperatures, all that stuff.
Do you remember watching the video?
SIDE NOTE: Jefferson asked his friends and followers to submit videos in supporting his new book. Here is the winner. A powerful video indeed. What do you think?