Skye Jethani. What’s Wrong With Religion? 9 Things No One Told You About Faith. Skypilot Media, 2017. (119 pages)
Intro: Religion Is A Game
Chapter 1 Everyone Is Religious
The idea that all spiritual paths lead to the same destination ignores each religion’s unique teachings, culture, and history. It also misses the shared human struggle that motivates all religions. A more accurate picture turns the mountain upside down to show how all religions start from the same place. (14)
Our world is a wilderness. That is why we are all afraid. (16)
This is where religion enters the picture. Religion gives us a sense of control over an uncontrollable world. (18)
War is the normal occupation of man. War…and gardening. – Winston Chuchill
Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned. – Paul Tillich
Each person’s ultimate concern functions as their god. (22)
Chapter 2 How Religion Ruins the World
Early religions used sacrifices and rituals to appease the anger of some gods and win the blessing of others. Religion was basically cosmic bribery. (25)
As religion evolved so did it systems of control. Rather than rituals, incantations, and sacrifices, in time morality also became an important way of winning divine favor or escaping divine wrath. (26)
To gain control over these uncontrollable things, the religious person tries to win God’s favor through moral behavior. The person may appear devoted to God, but in reality she is trying to control him like a puppet in order to manipulate the world in her favor. (27)
God does not play ball with our attempts to control him. But if God can’t be controlled, why do so many people still try? | It’s called confirmation bias. Religions like to tell the stories of how prayers/rituals/morality have won God’s favor in the past, but they usually ignore the stories of God’s silence or non-cooperation. (28)
In truth, where a fear-based view of religion is held, strict clergy are usually deeply respected. (30)
Christopher Hitches was the kind of person Jesus would have spent time with. (32)
Chapter 3 Why Getting Rid of Religion Doesn’t Help
There is a difference between giving up a failed solution and actually solving the problem. (39)
…some religious people have (44) confused a relationship with the Bible for a relationship with the God of the Bible. (46)
Chapter 4 God Does Not Exist to Be Used…
In this consumeristic approach to religion our desires are never questioned or challenged. A desire is never judged as right or wrong; it is only seen as met or unmet. (55)
Chapter 5 …And Neither Do You
…in their creation story humans are not God’s servants but his representatives. (63)
This not only elevated the dignity of all people, it also undermined the purpose of religion. (64)
Ironically, in their attempt to remove our culture’s idol of consumerism, many religious people have exchanged it for another idol called missionalism, and they’ve become even more pagan in the process. (65)
The world needs changing. The problem is when we fall into the pagan view that God needs us or that our value is defined by our usefulness. (69)
What God cares most about is not your obedience nor your disobedience but your presence. (71)
Chapter 6 The Solution: Living With God
A trinitarian vision of God means the foundation of our universe is not material but relational. (78)
Chapter 7 The “Radical” Life Isn’t What You Think
The call to be radical causes many to think a truly blessed life is only available to extremists. (88)
Changing your circumstances, he insisted, does not change your relationship with God or your ability to experience the fullness of a life with him.
1 Corinthians 7:17 Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches.18 Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised. 19 Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts. 20 Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.
21 Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. 22 For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave. 23 You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings. 24 Brothers and sisters, each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.
The word radical means “root”–the invisible part of a plant that gives it strength and nourishment. (89)
Chapter 8 The World Is A Perfectly Safe Place (Really)
Albert Einstein once said that if his life depended on solving a problem in only one hour, he would use fifty-five minutes determining the right question to ask, “Once I know the proper question,” he said, “I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” Einstein understood that if we begin with the wrong question we will never arrive at the right answer. (97)
Jesus’ message accepts one simple fact: control is an illusion. … So, any religious system promising you control is either delusional or dangerously deceptive. (100)
Faith is the opposite of seeking control; faith is willfully surrendering it. (105)
Chapter 9 All You Need Is Love
He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword. I want you to love your enemies. Be good to them. Love them and let them know you love them. For we doing what is right. We are doing what is just. And God is with us. – Martin Luther King, January 30, 1956
This siege imagery explains why religions often talk about love but struggle to display it. (113)
Fear engenders fear. It never gives birth to love. – Henri Nouwen
Jethani is a really critical, thoughtful, and at times prophetic voice for The Church. I have appreciated his ministry and work for many years, and consider this book to be another important contribution to correcting the waywardness that so plagues our humanity in expressing our faith and religious ideals. The illustrations (by Jethani himself) are also captivating, putting concepts into visuals that communicate to another part of our psyche. (If the other illustrations are digitally available, I’d love to add them to this post.) I really do recommend this book, especially for those who are curious once again, What is the point of all of this?
With that, here are some critical thoughts about some of his content, offered here with profound respect for Jethani and his work.
First, I very much appreciate the articulation of the truth that, “To ease our fears, we all strive to control the people and circumstances around us.” (18) Yet, I am not so sure of the next statement, “The problem is that the more we seek control over the world, the more dangerous it becomes.” Jethani then uses an example of two tribes living in a desert with a single drinking well. “Fear of dehydration leads each tribe to want control of [sic] the well, but access for one tribe means death for the other. Rather than eliminating their fears, seeking control of the well will only multiply them. Now the tribes have to fear both dehydration and war.” (18)
There are several problems with this. Notwithstanding the slippery nature of the word, “control” is actually a good thing. From this perspective, we have brought many things under control and thus made them better. This is the essence of the advancements of science and technology in virtually every area of our human existence; agriculture, medicine, and even behavioral sciences. Second, the illustration that Jethani uses of one well and two tribes is not a problem of control. It’s a problem of tribalism, which is more about how we see one another, and the reaction and responses that humanity has to scarcity. It’s about exerting power over another, which is different, and distinct from “control.” I fundamentally agree with the sentiment that Jethani proposes, but the description and illustration of it were dissatisfying.
On page 33, Jethani writes,
Jesus restored the man’s sign and said the man was actually blessed (John 9).
Admittedly a quibble, there is no mention of the man being “blessed” in that narrative. It seems important to be fair to the focus of the story, which is, “that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:3)
On page 35, Jethani writes,
In ancient Israel, religious requirements were called a “yoke”–the apparatus put on an animal’s shoulders to pull a wagon or plough.
More specifically, from a rabbinic perspective, the “yoke” was a specific interpretation of the Torah of a particular rabbi. Each rabbi had his own “yoke,” meaning, his own way of understanding and living out the text.
On page 71, Jethani writes,
What God cares most about is not your obedience nor your disobedience but your presence. (71)
While I appreciate the sentiment, this could easily slide into an expression of “egoism.” And herein lies the deep challenge of writing any book that is attempting to correct the missteps or misunderstandings of any faith expression. While attempting to critique one kind of expression as consumeristic, or one of control, Jethani posits an alternative that has the potential of being just as misguided. I don’t really see any way around this. Put another way, every expression is a complex mix of something beautifully true and dangerously nefarious. How we move forward in that reality is complicated, and should give us pause, cause us to expand our humility, and temper our opinions. I don’t have a solution to this dilemma, as I don’t think there is one. I simply believe recognizing and accepting this reality is an important guiding principle in our efforts.
Last, in chapter 8, Jethani suggests “safe” as a more pure experience, writing on page 101-102,
As we come to see God clearly and experience his unending goodness we discover a life-changing truth–we are perfectly safe in his hands.
This was quite curious for me as C.S. Lewis has written that Aslan (i.e. Jesus) is not safe. Good, yes. Safe, no. This may be a quibble, and I appreciate that Jethani is pushing us towards overcoming fear through faith, but the category of “safe” was just a perplexing one in light of C.S. Lewis, the history of Christian martyrdom, and the biblical story itself.
Again, all of what I write above are with a high esteem for Jethani and his work. I commend the book and my critical review for your consideration.