Lately, I've been thinking a lot about biblical hermeneutics. Well, to be honest, I pretty much always think about biblical interpretation. The bible is a thorn in my side.
But my most recent ruminations started soon after Election Day when I stumbled across a humorous but sharp social commentary in the form of a viral video that came out after the passing of Proposition 8 in California. You've probably seen it. It stars Jack Black as Jesus in "Proposition 8: The Musical." If you haven't seen it, here it is for your viewing pleasure:
The part the struck me in the video was Black's/Jesus's lines about "picking and choosing." Those lines brought to mind a famous scene from the show The West Wing.
For those who need a bit more context for this next clip, this scene from The West Wing was a commentary about then radio sensation Dr. Laura Schlessinger. At the time, "Dr. Laura" was gaining a lot of press for dispensing therapeutic advice on the radio. This despite her PhD being in physiology. Many thought her use of the title "Dr." was a bit misleading. Regardless, relevant to The West Wing clip Schlessinger had been in the news for calling homosexuality "an abomination," citing biblical warrant. That cultural backdrop set up this response from The West Wing writers:
The point of showing this clip is that it basically makes the same argument as the Proposition 8 video: People are picking and choosing from the Bible. People are not interpreting the bible consistently.
These thoughts congealed in my head having just finished the book The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible by A.J. Jacobs. In the book, Jacobs, as a personal and journalistic adventure, sets himself the task of living by the Bible's rules and commands as literally as possible for one full year. I'd highly recommend the book. It is entertaining, educational, and thought provoking. (Thanks to Craig for lending me his copy.)
Having finished The Year of Living Biblically I was struck by the same issues I noted above in the two videos. Specifically, if you know anything about the bible, both Old and New Testament, you know that Jacobs's task was impossible. First, what does it mean to follow the bible literally? That issue hits Jacobs immediately in the book and dominates much of his task. One must make interpretations and decisions. Second, to follow the bible literally would quickly land you in jail (if not the nuthouse). One of the highlights in the book is when Jacobs attempts to stone an adulterer. Fantastically funny scene.
At the end of the book Jacobs reflects back on the lessons he learned from a full year's worth of literal commandment keeping. Here is the lesson that struck me (pp. 327-328):
There's a phrase called "Cafeteria Christianity." It's a derisive term used by fundamentalist Christians to describe moderate Christians. The idea is that moderates pick and choose the parts of the Bible they want to follow. They take a nice helping of mercy and compassion. But the ban on homosexuality? They leave that on the countertop.
Fundamentalist Jews don't use the phrase "Cafeteria Judaism," but they have the same critique. You must follow all of the Torah, not just the parts that are palatable.
Their point is, religious moderates are inconsistent. They're just making the bible conform to their own values.
The year showed me beyond a doubt that everyone practices cafeteria religion. It's not just moderates. Fundamentalists do it too. They can't heap everything on their plate...
But the more important lesson was this: there's nothing wrong with choosing. Cafeterias aren't bad per se. I've had some great meals at cafeterias...
Now, this does bring up the problem of authority. Once you acknowledge that we pick and choose from the Bible, doesn't that destroy its credibility? Doesn't that knock the legs out from under it? Why should we put stock in any of the Bible?
"That's the big question," says one of my rabbis...