Cafeteria Christianity: Picking & Choosing

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...

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21 thoughts on “Cafeteria Christianity: Picking & Choosing”

  1. This question has done the rounds - it is related but not identical to the inerrancy thingy. The New Testament writers picked and chose as well - loving the psalms and eschewing Job and Esther. Picking their nuggets out of context and making a verse say what they wanted it to. What mandate do we have? Are we constrained by the canon? Or is it there to teach us how to 'chose the right'! (To take a bit more of Matthew's almah not bethulah passage out of context from Isaiah 7:14-16). I put my $.02 in yesterday here

  2. I recently rounded out a series of posts that included a discussion of this subject. Most relevant to the "picking and choosing" phenomenon is the post on Holy kissing and authority. Then, in the following post, I wrestled with the observation that we would never have concluded that human trafficking or the subjugation of women were immoral based on a model of biblical authority.

    I've been attracted - in the alternative - to the scientific concept of emergence as a model for discernment. But I don't claim to have all of the answers. Just callin' it as best I can see it from a lay perspective.

  3. HEY richard
    Interesting post. What this approach does is undermine a clear 'foundation' of the bible, per se. The bible becomes one of many foundations... but I don't know if that is such a bad thing. And perhaps more pragmatically, once you are at this position of belief I think it is difficult to do anything else. An attempt to follow things of the bible that we feel are unethical also feels 'unorthodox' in that it is untrue to oneself.

  4. It seems to me that besides the similarities of the two clips in picking and choosing which is really "seeing" as in Gestalt thearpy...there is moral development.

    Children internalize memories and these are memories that become part of thier value system, unless there are little or no good memories associated with religion.

    One wonders why men/women become gay after a "christian upbringing", is it bad parenting, bad religious associations, or just a coming to terms with "who they are by nature"?

    Conventional morality is set by culture's traditions, but in America we really don't have unified "traditions" except within individual families and/or churches. People who arrive at a more reasoned assessment of their velue structure either must have been taught how to think critically, or be or higher intelligence, or have a wider exposure in life experiences...

    Why are you interested in biblical hermenuetics? I think it is very limiting, and conservative religious people (bible believing), as a whole, do not attract me, as they think in black and white terms...maybe I just haven't met the right ones:)..I'm much more attracted to "free thought"...

  5. I picked up /The Year of Living Biblically/ as I was walking through the airport. I loved the part where he stones the adulterer, but one of the parts that really stuck with me was his reflection on wearing all white ... how it made him feel different, particularly because everyone else in New York was wearing blacks and browns and grays. I think what attracted me in general was his allowance that some of these practices actually /worked/ in ways that made him a better person.

  6. Matthew, how do you think that living 'biblically" (whatever that means) makes a person "a better person"?

    If stoning someone an adulterer is required, then how does that make you "better". I don't like terms of "comparison" anyway, as it is measurement, against some standard, instead of just "being" in the world..."fitting in" is "THE major task of "tradition", as to ritual, dress, behavior, etc. There is nothing innately wrong with that, but it does limit development of the individual to the "herd" or "comfort zone" of "faith's traditional understanding".

    "Self's" definition and maturing means that one knows themself, as well as other and can converse across differences...which any close relationship is challenged to do...

  7. Fundamentalists are hypocrites for calling anyone "Cafeteria Christians". They are the worst Cafeteria Christians around. They hype to the hilt the verses against homosexuality and the ones advocating that women be submissive to men. They even demand everyone else obey them, since they're "deeply held religious beliefs" and if everybody wasn't subject to them it would offend the holders of those beliefs. Then they ignore everything else since it might make their compulsively lying, stealing, adultering, divorced congregations feel guilty.

  8. Angie,

    One wonders why men/women become gay after a "christian upbringing", is it bad parenting, bad religious associations, or just a coming to terms with "who they are by nature"?"

    I didn't 'become' gay and I was brought up Christian. I just realized as I grew up that I *was* gay. I developed crushes on girls the way straight girls develop crushes on boys. It was the same with my wife, who was brought up in a Catholic home and even went to Catholic school until she was a teenager. Homosexuality is a normal sexual orientation as is heterosexuality. People don't 'become' gay just like they don't 'become' straight. It also has nothing to do with religion or lack of religion, or upbringing despite what some sources like to claim. Gay children come from parents who hate gay people (though typically with psychological and spiritual damage) just as much as they come from open and accepting parents.


    Jacobs goes a little more in depth on his position at the TED conference. The clip is about 20 minutes long but entertaining.

  10. Richard,
    It just occurred to me that your two clips were based on "emotive" or 'rational" factors concerning social psychology.

    The first concerning a "social group", who 'doesn't belong" and the second "a person", who doesn't belong to a particular "intellectual sub=group".

    Both are challenged with a type of "belonging". The gays are ostericized in the general context of a social norm, but are "accepted" if they serve the purpose of material gain to the very ones that have resisted their acceptance. This is moral hypocrisy.

    The other clip on a person who lacked the real creditials to speak authoritatively about a common subject was ostericized. Her ostericism came from rational principles, while the other group was dismissed on purely emotive/social reasons, a threat to identifying factors...

    Did you intentionally mean to have thow distince types of reasons for the osterization?

  11. Richard

    No doubt a big one here, and everyone has their canon within the canon--even the biblical writers. Not many NT writers are finding proverbs to support their understanding of who Jesus is. The Exodus tradition plays bigger than the Davidic tradition in deutero Isaiah. The prayer of Jabez is not mentioned anywhere else in Scripture. This is the dynamic of interpretation for me (how a variety of materials get used, adapted, innovated, over time) and says something about what kind of God could stand behind a collection like this. There are several problems one might have with Scripture, but many have to do with defending a Scripture that doesn't exist, and maybe a view of God that would go along with that.

    Great clips. I've used West Wing clips for so many things. But mostly from the Aaron Sorkin years, a cafeteria approach of sorts.


  12. > Matthew, how do you think that living 'biblically" (whatever that means) makes a person "a better person"?

    Angie, I think if you read the book, my comment will make more sense.

    I'm not saying that following the levitical laws will make you a better (kinder, more generous, more loving) person, and I agree that the goal of these regulations was to codify a distinct Jewish identity. The thing that struck me about Jacobs was his lack of cynicism about the whole endeavor, and his willingness to accept the serendipitous benefits of his experimental lifestyle. This included the benefits of following rules that appeared ethically "hard" (do not lie) as well as finding benefit in those that appeared ethically "silly" (wear white).

    So in general, I appreciated his willingness to respect several thousand years of religious tradition and try to learn from it, rather than ridiculing the whole thing because it contained bits that seemed silly, or because the writers hadn't developed a thorough-going western individualism.

  13. Matthew,
    If you are arguing from an experienc based understanding, I have done that in missions, in South America. But, I have other personal priorities presently.

    Western individualism is the basis of political and religious freedom. Without individualism, there will be oppression in some area of choice.

    While I understand that absolutizing individuality is not realistic in the real world, as we all have to live in this world within relationships...BUT, what I am arguing is that freedom is the first and foremost priority of "good government", that means a limitation to government's power, which allows freedom of choice in religious commitments and values. This is not a negotiable to me, as without it, we affirm oppressive forms of religion or government, which is what the West should be battling presently!

    We do no one any service by tolerating the intolerant because the intolerant will not rest untill all is under submission to their understanding and way of life, whatever kind of fundamentalism we are talking about.

    On the other hand, we cannot allow the State to determine religion, either, as otherwise, we give the State a means to determine choice, which limits religious freedom of expression.

    Government should allow whateve is within a civilized form without interference.

    I just read today where the U.N. was wanting America to sanction certain universal women's rights declarations, which demand health reforms that are mandated from a centralized "power source", which means a lack of choice concerning abortion.

    The same goes for child protection laws. If we want to allow for parental choice of education then we cannot demand State control of such issues...

  14. Richard,

    The responses to this post demonstrate precisely what you are talking about. Since the discrediting of the magisterium, cafeteria faith and cherry picking intepretations have been reality--even if unacknowledged. As long as we want (and we do want it even when we don't) individual choice, we are faced with the dilemma and reality of one of my favorite junior high hermeneutical/ecclesiological pronouncements:

    "You can pick your friends. You can pick your nose. Be afraid of picking your friend's nose."


    George C.

  15. Dr. Beck,

    When you figure this one out, I can not express how greatful I would be if you'd give me the low down.

    Actually, when I get back to the USA (currently I'm hanging out in a little nook of South Asia I like to call Bangladesh) I may call upon you to remind me how you've reconcilled your beliefs and your church attendance for so long. Having been away for a while, I'm wondering how I am going to do it.

  16. I suppose the charge of "Picking & choosing" is one of the most prominent ones faced by the Christian Right. Presumably, they have answers -- something that they teach their kids in their youth ministries. And presumably, there are user-friendly publications (probably with high production values, and printed in grunge fonts for teens, and versions in papyrus fonts for older folk, and especially for women). Does anybody know what and where the popular answers are?

    It's not that I have no idea about how these issues are addressed. I get the sense that on homosexuality, much emphasis is put on the NT passages they appeal to, and that there is relevant NT support is supposed to distinguish this from stuff like seafood issues. And there seems to be a lot resting on a distinction between dietary & ceremonial law on the one hand vs. the moral law on the other, with the moral teachings of the OT being thought to be more binding on us. But it would be nice to see how this gets spelled out.

    Of course, it's not just OT ceremonial law that most evangelical groups seem to pass over: there's also NT stuff like head-covering. And there's the issue of Jesus's at least apparently very tough stand on divorce & remarrying, which many evangelical groups go easy on at least to the extent that they open themselves up to the question of why they don't similarly ease up on gays. Here I really do have little idea what conservative Christian groups teach their youth. And things like selling one's daughter into slavery don't seem to be matters of ceremonial practice.

    Anyway, I'd be very interested if there were fairly popular books on this issue that someone might point me toward.

  17. Keith-

    The books that have helped me the most on the subject are (in no particular order)...

    - Scot McKnight - The Blue Parakeet
    - N.T. Wright - The Last Word
    - Doug Pagitt - A Christianity Worth Believing

    However, all of these books probably reflect my particular theological biases, so maybe some others can make suggestions as well.

  18. Lots of great conversation.

    I don't have a lot of good ideas about resolving this issue of picking and choosing. So, just some random reflections...

    I think Peter is right, I don't think there are any firm foundations, any secure methods that guarantee that we'll get the Right Answer at the end of the day.

    I think the best one can do is just be transparent (privately and publically) about the method of interpretation you are using. That way people can enter into conversation with you. For me the biggest issue is not what you believe as much as your ability to change and learn.

    A lot of what I see published on the subject of biblical interpretation seem to me to be "hermeneutical demonstrations." That is, they state a method and then show how the bible is read if you apply that method. For instance, Hays's Moral Vision of the New Testament shows a method or reading with associated outcomes. By contrast, Dale Martin's Sex and the Single Savior shows a different method, one sharply at odds with Hays. Each is a kind of demonstration, a kind of experiment. One should simply look at their assumptions and outcomes and see if they agree or not.

    At the end of the day this is what I think:
    You can't help but make God into your own image. So the only question of import is this: What kind of God do you want to serve?

  19. "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..."

    Absolutely true. We're all cafeteria Christians. I am, and I'm proud to say that I am. There is much in the Bible and in the subsequent Christian tradition that I do find unpalatable, and I make no bones about spitting them out: original sin, substitutionary atonement, biblical "authority," and a whole host of other doctrines and passages from the Bible (Joshua, Judges, Job, Revelation, parts of St. Paul) that make me gag. Pick and choose? You bet!

    BTW, the Gospel writers themselves freely picked and chose the teachings and actions of Jesus that they wanted to include in their works. John admits as much at the end of his gospel. Does anyonr really think that Matthew, Mark, and Luke included every single story, saying, and deed they knew of?

  20. I don't have a problem with people picking and choosing from the Bible as long as they are picking and choosing for their own lives. It's the picking and choosing for how they think others should live their lives that is the problem. Unfortunately it seems as if that is the majority of Christians.

  21. The problem is that you and other's aren't using a biblical hermeneutics. You are study the bible by picking out verses as it pertains to topics. This will always lead to confusion. The issue here is the use of the Old Testament law as a law that we as Christians are supposed to follow. Any decent theologian will tell you that it is made clear in Paul's letter's that we are no longer under the law. Christ's fulfillment of the law renders it moot. This is why Christians don't keep Kosher or sacrifice animals. The law was given to Israel at a time that they needed it. Many of the restrictions if you look at them scientifically are rules that would keep a large population healthy while moving. So every time I hear about homosexuality being an abomination I cringe. This is a misuse of scripture. So homosexuality is perfectly acceptable? No there are several passages in Paul's writings that condemn homosexuality (Some will try to convince you that these are poor interpretations of Greek. They are simply wrong.) However it doesn't sound as catchy as abomination, and conservative Christians have set out to make homosexual the worst sin there is. It doesn't feed their political agenda to admit that acts of homosexuality are no different from adultery, pre-marital sex, or lustful thoughts. Liberals on the other hand want to find a way to dismiss the entirety of scripture to allow everyone to be themselves. The problem with this is who we are deep down is sinful people that cannot make moral decisions without the help of God.

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