I just finished A.J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically. It is a book that received a lot of press when it was released late in 2007 and I received it as a Christmas present from my mom. It was a fun read and actually ended up having more depth to it than I first thought it might.
As he sets up the premise of the book Jacobs introduces himself as a Jew and then adds some clarification – he is “Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant. Which is to say; not very.” But, as an experiment, he decides to spend 12 months following all of the laws in the Bible literally (and wrestles through the process with what that means).
As he wraps up the project in the closing days Jacobs reflects:
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 ouf of the 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 nuruting 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.
That seems a noble goal to me; to seek to guide others to the foods of faith that are fresh, that are healthy, and that provide nourishment.