By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — Call it debate by video. Washington State native Jefferson Bethke, 22, who is a member of Mars Hill Church, recorded a street poetry (rap) video early in January that begins,
“What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion …
I mean, if religion is so great, why has it started so many wars?
Why does it build huge churches, but fails to feed the poor?”
Within days, the YouTube video had tallied more than 16 million viewings. People of faith and of no faith responded — Muslim, Christian, atheist. And Catholic. The first time he viewed Bethke’s video, Father Claude “Dusty” Burns, pastor of Holy Spirit Church in Evansville, Ind., knew he had to answer it. A week after Bethke’s video came out, Father Burns’ video, “Why I love Religion, and Love Jesus,” produced by Spirit Juice Studio in conjunction with phatmasss.com, appeared on YouTube.
He said that the purpose of the video is a response to Bethke from a Catholic perspective, in a spirit of love, but also to passionately defend the Catholic Church. And apparently his message is being watched; as of Jan. 31, the video has tallied 350,210 viewings. The priest, a seminary classmate of Father Richard Rocha, Kansas City-St. Joseph diocesan director of Vocations, visited Kansas City for a few days last week.
Father Burns, 39, grew up in southwestern Indiana. During his teenage years, he “drifted away” from Catholicism for a while, and by age 17 was very involved with a nondenominational youth group, The Agape Crew. In 1989, he started rapping, and remained a big fan of the musical genre through his call to the priesthood, seminary and ordination in 2002. His decision to become a priest shocked many of the people he had networked with through The Agape Crew.
Soon after his ordination, Father Burns was introduced to Dustin Sieber, the founder of www.phatmass.com, Preaching Holy Apostolic Truth, which uses a variety of media to “convert Catholics to Catholicism.” Founded in the year 2000, phatmass.com is an online community and, according to their website, an “infiltrator of social media, bold statement maker, and authentic hip-hop production entity.”
Father Burns, whose stage name is Father Pontifex, began to perform and record Catholic hip-hop, including the album Massmatics, through phatmass.com’ production arm. Many of the parishioners of the parish he was assigned to “Couldn’t believe that it was me rapping,” he recalled. “It seemed such a contrast to my priestly persona.”
Rap music or street poetry has received a lot of not-so-good press because some musicians use foul or negative language. Father Burns sees the genre differently.
“I want people to take this art form seriously,” he said. “Street poetry, rap, speaks from the heart. It opens doors to connect with people of all ages and faiths.”
In one online interview, Father Burns said, “My influences are very eclectic. I was heavily influenced by 70s rock and Bob Dylan as a small child. In the 80s, I loved many types of rap. I listened to 3rd Bass, Run DMC, LL Cool J, A Tribe Called Quest, Gangstarr and EPMD. My influences now are The Roots, Matisyahu, Mumford and Sons, Dave Matthews and almost anything by Deepspace 5 and their members.”
His stage name, Father Pontifex, has two meanings. The most familiar is a high ranking member of the college of priests of ancient Rome; the other meaning, which is how Father Burns wants to be viewed, is a bridge builder.
As a bridge builder, he began writing his poetic response to Bethke’s video the same day he saw it for the first time. It was a Friday. He wrote all night, into Saturday morning. “After watching Jeff Bethke’s video, I was upset. As a Catholic and a priest, I felt attacked. I wanted to hit and answer the same notes as the original, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually.” Saturday, Ron Kaczmark of Spirit Juice Studios, a Chicago-based design studio that creates contemporary design for Catholic musicians, companies and organizations, called Father Burns.
His poetic response was ready. “I wanted to make a video response to match Jeff Bethke’s in talent and production quality. Ron and I both felt the response had to come from a priest.”
There are only two known rapping priests in this country. Father Stan Fortuna, a Franciscan friar in New York, and Father Pontifex, who agreed to make the video.
“On Sunday, Jan. 15, I found the perfect church to record my response — Queen of All Saints Basilica in Chicago. Tuesday morning at 5 a.m., I left the rectory in Evansville and drove 5 hours to Chicago. The taping took 5 hours, then I drove 5 hours back to Evansville. It was grueling!” The video was on YouTube by Jan. 18.
Father Burns’ video response, I Love Religion, intentionally uses the same music (with permission from the composer), text typefaces and flashes of black and white as Bethke’s video. But Father Burns has an answer for each of Bethke’s accusations. Where Bethke’s scrolling marquee states Jesus > religion, Father Burns’ marquee states Jesus <3 religion.
(<3 is the text symbol for love. It resembles a heart turned sideways.)
I mean if religion is so great, why has it started so many wars
Why does it build huge churches, but fails to feed the poor
Tells single moms God doesn’t love them if they’ve ever had a divorce
But in the Old Testament, God actually calls religious people whores
See what makes his religion great
Is not the error of wars and inquisitions.
It’s that broken men and women
Participate in his mission.
Both Bethke and Father Burns have been interviewed, argued with and commented on — Facebook, radio and TV, and print media, including National Catholic Reporter and other Catholic newspapers. In an interview on the Glenn Beck Show, Bethke was touted as someone who boldly lives and speaks his faith. The same and more can be said about Father Burns — he’s someone who boldly lives, speaks and loves his faith.