Thursday, August 26, 2010

Cafeteria Christianity

There's a phrase called "Cafeteria Christianity." It's a derisive term used by fundamentalist Christians to describe moderate Christians. The idea is that the 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, the 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. Otherwise they'd kick women out of church for saying hello ("the women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak…"- 1 Corinthians 14:34) and boot out men for talking about the "Tennessee Titans" ("make no mention of the names of other gods…"— Exodus 23:13).

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. I've also had some turkey tetrazzini that gave me the dry heaves for sixteen hours. The key is in choosing the right dishes. You need to pick the nurturing ones (compassion), the healthy ones (love thy neighbor), not the bitter ones. Religious leaders don't know everything about every food, but maybe the good ones can guide you to what is fresh. They can be like a helpful lunch lady who—OK, I've taken the metaphor too far.

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, Robbie Harris. I put the question to Robbie as well as every other member of my advisory board. There's no simple or totally satisfying answer. But let me offer two interesting ideas from them:

The first is from the pastor out to pasture, Elton Richards. Here's his metaphor: Try thinking of the Bible as a snapshot of something divine. It may not be a perfect picture. It may have flaws: a thumb on the lens, faded colors in the corners. But it still helps to visualize.

"I need something specific," says Elton. "Beauty is a general thing, It's abstract. I need to see a rose. When I see that Jesus embraced lepers, that's a reason for me to embrace those with AIDS. If he embraced Samaritans, that's a reason for me to fight racism."

The second is from Robbie himself. He says we can't insist that the Bible marks the end of our relationship with God. Who are we to say that the Bible contained all the wisdom? “If you insist that God revealed himself only at one time, at one particular place, using these discrete words, and never any time other than that—that in itself is a kind of idolatry.” His point is: You can commit idolory on the Bible itself. You can start to worship the words instead of the spirit. You need to “meet God halfway in the woods.”

- AJ Jacobs

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