Jeff Bethke let sex, partying and pornography dominate his life before turning to Jesus.
The 22-year-old Tacoma native started out sharing his newfound beliefs with fellow Pacific University students at open mic nights.
He became a YouTube sensation after posting a spoken-word poem, “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus,” on Jan. 10. The 4-minute video went viral in less than two days, and had acquired more than 20 million hits by Thursday.
Since then, he’s been the subject of national media coverage – The Washington Post dubbed him an “e-evangelist” – and appeared on Fox News’ “On the Record” with Glenn Beck, and was the subject of an ABC “Nightline” special.
Churches, universities and high schools across the country are flying him in to speak at packed events. Online, more than 200 response videos have cropped up on YouTube.
“I’ve learned a lot. It’s been really humbling,” Bethke said this week. “I want to share my heart but I want to continue to learn and grow.”
He’s started work on a book to expound on his beliefs and why he created the religion video – which took him six hours to fine-tune.
Bethke delivers his recorded message in front of Stadium High School, rhyming about what he sees as the purity of Jesus’ teachings and the hypocrisy of the church and self-righteousness sometimes associated with churchgoers.
He asserts that “Jesus came to abolish religion” and appeals to a younger generation with lines like, “Religion puts you in shackles, but Jesus sets you free. Religion makes you blind, but Jesus lets you see.”
Bethke stresses he loves church. Since becoming a born-again Christian in 2009, he attends hipster Mars Hill Church in Federal Way. He will speak at the megachurch April 8 for an Easter service.
His issue is with organized religion, as he sees it. He says religion is a man-made invention and complains it has started wars and built churches while failing to feed the poor. He also rails against those who claim to be Christian but don’t live by those standards, often judging others and refusing to forgive differences.
But Bethke admits there are flaws in his theology, and his definition of religion is based more on his personal experiences than on the institution.Being raised by a single mother and hearing so many acquaintances equate religion with hating homosexuals or affiliating with the Republican Party shaped his views and led him to write lines like “I hate religion. In fact, I literally resent it.”
Bethke recognizes his video’s subject can be polarizing. While striking a chord with people who consider themselves Christian but don’t trust the church, it also has provoked a few lashings in the national media. An angry few have even called him the anti-Christ.
In an opinion piece, David Brooks of The New York Times took Bethke to task for – like the Occupy movement – making an ineffectual protest and not having a solution to the issues he raises.
On the “CBS This Morning show,” a pastor (the Rev. Edward Burke) debated the accuracy of what Bethke says in the video.
“Yo, Jeff, let me give ya a holla from the collar,” Burke raps. “I don’t think it’s religion you should be dissin’, I think it’s the nuance that you’re missing.”
The recent college grad said he was shocked by how much attention his video has received. Before posting it, he bet his best friend – now his manager – the video wouldn’t get more than 2,000 hits.
In two days it racked up more than 1 million hits, and at one point was the second most viewed video in the world.
“Religion and God deal with the most fundamental basic questions of life,” Bethke said in response to a question about why his video has elicited such a big response. “Those words spark up the big deep questions everybody can relate to.”
Bethke said he has been humbled by the overwhelming response and while happy to have sparked a conversation, he has learned not to take the criticism too seriously. He is just as unaffected by the adulation being heaped upon him, insisting the focus should remain on Jesus.
“What’s beautiful about Jesus is that he frees you from both the praise of man and the critique of man,” Bethke said. “No one can critique me more than the cross already has, and no one can show me my worth more than the cross already has.”
Bethke has a way of communicating with youth that many church leaders seem to lack. He believes the divide has occurred because his generation grew up hearing religious and political leaders tell people how to behave and then get caught in a sex scandal months later.
Bethke isn’t a pastor and has no formal training in theology, but his rapport with youth is undeniable. Usually clad in a hoodie and jeans, he fits in well among teens and college students and unabashedly answers their questions about sex, alcohol and Christianity.
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