(Above: Amy Doom center, with daughter Maggie right and friend Philly left in the beautiful mission church in Marty, South Dakota.)
Tonight I am in Wagner, South Dakota, where I enjoyed a fine dinner and conversation with the Doom family.
After dinner, patriarch Todd Doom pulled up the YouTube video Why I Hate Religion But Love Jesus, a video I had heard about but not yet seen. It's a charming and well-produced quasi-rap poem pitting Jesus against "religion" - though it's not easy to tell what the performer means by "religion". At one point he says he hates religion but loves the Church. Not sure what he means by that. At any rate, he seems to be saying that Jesus is about more than following rules, and he's certainly got that right.
But he gets a lot wrong. He says that Jesus came to abolish religion, whereas, as Fr. Barron points out , Jesus came not to abolish religion but to perfect it, not to do away with rules but to intensify the purpose of the rules, not to destroy the Law but to fulfil it (see Matthew 5:17). The Achilles heel of this video, then, is a false dichotomy that the performer sets up between Christ and the Body of Christ.
Todd Doom and I discussed the video at length. Todd emphasized that the point of following Jesus is to get away from the thinking that by fulfilling external requirements one becomes justified, that the point of following Christ is to be like Christ; the point is a person, not a set of rules; our call is to internalize the being of Christ. It's about being, not behavior.
"But to argue that is to argue the indispensability of rules," I pointed out, and took as an example learning to play a musical instrument or learning to speak a language. If you don't follow "the rule" of the thing, you won't get very far. At first you struggle mightily to get the technique down, and to learn the method; you struggle to internalize the way to play the instrument or how to speak the foreign tongue. Very slowly and with much effort, you become proficient, so that "the rule" becomes a part of you and the instrument or language can be used to express your thoughts and feelings. The rules exist so the thing you are trying to integrate can become a part of who you are. Abolish rules and you abolish the integration of rules, you abolish integration itself.
"For example," I said. "What of the rules known as the Commandments? It is by internalizing the Commandments that we become better Christians - better people. But in internalizing the Commandments does this mean we can ignore them? Can a Christian ignore the Commandments and commit adultery?"
"A Christian," Todd replied, "wouldn't want to."
"Todd," I said, "Have you ever met a Christian who so perfectly followed Jesus that he didn't want to disobey the rules, that he didn't want to sin?"
"Have I ever met a Christian?" Todd replied.
That was clearly the best line of the night, and I wasn't going to top it. Still, we forged ahead.
Todd kept bringing up an alcoholic, who had to abstain from booze because he couldn't handle it. "For the alcoholic, that rule applies. For others, it doesn't."
Why, I began asking myself, does Todd's argument that certain rules apply only to certain (particularly unadvanced) people make me think of Christopher West's position on custody of the eyes?
I responded, "But we're all alcoholics when it comes to sin. We're all sin addicts who need to follow the rules - either external rules if we can't muster doing good from our hearts, or rules that have become internalized and that we concede are written on our hearts. Either way, the rules are from God and show the Way to live, which is the Way called Jesus."
In other words, contrary to what Todd and the performer seemed to be arguing, the rules of religion are not arbitrary. They are not a man made code of conduct to make us feel superior to those not in the club.
They are the indicia of who we are - and who we are made to be.
And even the performer in the video implicitly acknowledges this, as much as he rails against it. For the performer admits to having once been a bad Christian, who would go to church on Sunday morning but watch porn and get drunk on Saturday night.
But who tells this guy that porn and too much booze are bad? Religion. The Church. The Law. And what is abstaining from porn and inebriation but following the rules, living out "religion"?
For rules are from God and are for all of us. God's Law is the Law of Love - the framework, the guideposts and the form through which we are better able to love.
Blessed are those whose ways are blameless,
who walk according to the law of the LORD.
Blessed are those who keep his statutes
and seek him with all their heart—
they do no wrong
but follow his ways. (Psalm 119:1-3)