Evangelical Gnosticism

Religion is inseparable from Christian belief.

Every once in a while, a viral video comes along that involves neither the evolution of dance nor finger biting brothers. More rarely still, some of these videos illuminate the passions, interests, and desires of the present moment. It is these videos that offer valuable and penetrating insights into our culture. Such is the case with “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus,” a video that in its nearly two week virtual life has garnered over 16 million views. The argument of the spoken-word performance is straightforward and presents a view dominant in evangelical Christianity: Jesus and religion are not the same thing. In fact, they are in conflict with each other, so much so that “Jesus came to abolish religion.” In this pitched battle between human pieties and divine perfection, the right choice is clear. We must pick Jesus.

There is no doubt that the video is an honest and passionate expression of genuine sentiment, and its popularity is a testament to the prevalence of the grievance it identifies. But, what is most important, it flows from a widespread belief in evangelical Christianity that has serious flaws. For in the rejection of religion comes a decisive turn inward, a repudiation of the external and physical in favor of the personal and spiritual. The immaterial and the self are elevated over the physical and the other. In other words, the message of the video sounds a lot like Gnosticism, a set of beliefs deeply inimical to Christianity.

Now I know that the mere mention of Gnosticism is liable to excite the passions of those who both agree and disagree with the video. It is a weighty charge, one not to be thrown around cavalierly. Thus I must state at the outset that my comments are not criticisms of the video’s creator nor are they cheap shots at evangelical Christianity. Such would be neither appropriate nor productive. Rather, what I say is intended to draw attention to a troubling characteristic of the faith in which I was raised, to which I owe a great debt, and for which I continue to care. I emphatically am not calling evangelicals gnostic. But I am speaking to what I believe is a phenomenon that threatens to engulf a generation of Christians that has become disaffected with religion.

The Inward Turn

I should start by admitting that the video’s central conflict—Jesus versus religion—left me a bit nonplused. I hadn’t thought of them as opposed to each other; I didn’t know I had to choose between the two. But understanding the video requires making sense of this conflict; that is, the constituent parts must be construed so as to be in conflict. So here’s what I think it means: the Christian life consists in an unmediated relationship with Jesus. The rituals and traditions of religion are little more than distractions from what is truly needed, an immediate and personal relationship with Christ. Therefore, the two are opposed and a choice of one must be made.

With the conflict framed thusly, it is clear that the label gnosticism isn’t as ill-fitting as it initially may have seemed. The Gnostics emphasized their possession of a special, saving knowledge (gnosis) unmediated by, and therefore beyond the reach of, external authority and regulation. Likewise, many evangelical Christians claim that the essence of their faith is a personal relationship with Jesus as apprehended by and worked out through subjective experience. This too is beyond the regulating or guiding influence of external authority. For many evangelicals it is one’s personal relationship with the divine that is most important, and who is in a position to question that? Gnostics of yore and a large segment of today’s evangelicals share a fundamental commitment to the primacy of subjective experience. As one observer put it, both Gnosticism and much modern Christianity are “inward, deeply distrustful of institutions, mediated grace, the intellect, theology, creeds, and the demand to look outside of oneself for salvation.”

The Need for Outwardness

The problem with this understanding is that it contradicts—if not directly denies—the first tenet of Christianity: man is sinful and incapable of doing anything to save himself. It’s more than a little odd, then, to consign the arbitration of salvation to that sinful individual. While there are undeniably profound relational dimensions of the Christian’s connection to God, it seems clear that placing the construction and maintenance of that relationship beyond the reach of regulative control is a step too far. (An old adage about foxes and henhouses comes to mind.) At bottom, the view of human nature affirmed by Christianity is at odds with the view implied by the evangelical economy of salvation, in which subjectivity is the ground of faith. With this inward turn comes an added emphasis on the spiritual world—very often at the expense of the material world. So it is that one can repudiate the hard physicality of religion in favor of a spiritual relationship with Jesus.

But this is clearly an unworkable situation, because the reliance on subjective apprehension and regulation of belief is an invitation to the fragmentation of belief. If all can believe whatever and however they please, there simply cannot be any essential requirements of belief. To affirm everything is to affirm nothing at all. So there must be some limitation to this spiritual inwardness, the gnostic impulse of evangelical Christianity.

And this is where religion comes into the picture. The complex structure of beliefs, practices, and traditions that constitute religion orients the self’s focus. Far from obliterating subjectivity, the externality of religion shapes the inward life, habituating the self in the habits of heart and mind that enable one to rightly understand the claims and requirements of Christianity. This pedagogical role belongs to the church. And for this reason one cannot say, as it is said in the video, that he loves the church but rejects religion.

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There is merit to this video, not least for the conversation and debate it has set off. As its author points out, it is false religion that moved him to write and perform the poem. That motivation is just and, it must be admitted, there is great need for the forceful dissent he voices. But in our zeal to scrub the grime from the church walls, we must be certain we are not tearing them down around our heads. The self alone is impotent to gain salvation. For that we need God. And the crooked timber of humanity is molded in His image through education in the message of the Gospel and habituation in the practices that enable us to acknowledge it as true. That is the task of the church. And that is why we need religion.

This post was originally published January 23 2012.


  • January 23, 2012

    Bryan Wandel

    The video’s author repeatedly emphasizes grace, rather than a ritualistic performance. How do you think this relates to Rene Girard’s theory that Jesus came to destroy the ritualistic contraptions that obscure (social) reality?

  • January 26, 2012


    Bravo! This is by far the best response I’ve seen to that video. I was excited to see you deal with “evangelical gnosticism” in addition to the mere rebuttal of a sub-par poet. The video is just a symptom; you have addressed the core.

  • February 8, 2012


    I think it is important to avoid a false dichotomy between the head and the heart, the external and the internal. When the infallible Word of God is taken seriously as the touchstone for understanding the best balance between the two, we can then see the genius of the Body of Christ. A rote externalism (ritual, etc.) is as unhelpful as a subjectivity run amok.

  • February 13, 2012


    Very insightful post! Could you provide some examples of “The complex structure of beliefs, practices, and traditions that constitute religion” in your mind? I can easily see the value of beliefs in religion – I would rather trust a belief that has been debated and validated by multitudes of scholars than a personal revelation left unchallenged. However, certain practices and traditions (e.g. attending church every Sunday), performed without investment of heart or mind, will surely garner the criticism of “religion” as described in the video.

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