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Why All Christians Are "Cafeteria Christians"

Thursday, June 16, 2011

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Why All Christians Are 'Cafeteria Christians' | Faith Permeating Life
I recently mentioned I was reading a fantastic book called The Year of Living Biblically and promised to talk more about it when I finished. Unfortunately I procrastinated a little because I had the NFP posts scheduled, so now the book has been returned to the library and I will have to do my best from memory.

The premise of the book is that A.J. Jacobs, who wrote his first book about reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, decides to spend a year attempting to follow every rule in the Bible. Since some Old Testament and New Testament verses contradict one another, he spends three-quarters of the year following the Old Testament rules and then the remaining months adding on the New Testament commandments.

Jacobs makes a few discoveries during this year:
  • Even though he spends a few months of prep time creating his list of rules, it is impossible to begin following every rule at once. It's just too much to get your head around. He decides instead to add them to his daily life in layers, focusing on certain ones at any given time.
  • There are a lot of different groups attempting to follow the Bible literally. Here's what's so interesting: None of them live exactly the same way. Jacobs visits with many of these groups and each of them put more emphasis on some rules than others, and some dismiss as irrelevant ones that others view as central.
  • There are varying degrees of how much to take as literal:
    • Even the most fundamental Christians don't literally follow Jesus' command that "If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out," although there have been cases of mental patients trying to remove their eyes.
    • Some people believe that if a Biblical prophet is described as doing something, we should do it too, even if it's not specifically commanded, while others only adhere to verses that literally say, "You shall" or "You shall not."
    • Even "you shall" verses may be interpreted as moral -- applying to everyone, in every era -- or historical, only applying to those who were first commanded to do so.
    • Biblical stories are open to interpretation -- if somebody in the Bible did something and God punished them, there may be six different interpretations of why exactly that person was punished and as many opinions on whether it's necessary for us to avoid that behavior.

At the end of the book, Jacobs directly acknowledges what I had been thinking for most of the book: It's common to condemn someone as being a "cafeteria Christian," only following the Biblical rules that fit with their viewpoint, but every Christian is a cafeteria Christian. Everyone who wants to follow the Bible has to make decisions about which verses need to be followed literally and what behaviors constitute "adhering to the rule."

For example, Christians have to decide how much of the Old Testament law they believe Jesus' sacrifice or teachings wiped out. Jews have to decide which rules became irrelevant when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. (Almost all believe that animal sacrifice was no longer required after the Temple was destroyed, but other areas are not as clear.)

There are two main ways you can make these decisions:
  • You can figure it out for yourself, as Jacobs does.
  • You can allow someone else to interpret the Bible for you and just tell you what to do.
The latter option is where a religion like the Catholic Church comes in. You can choose to save yourself the headache of interpreting the Bible for yourself by instead committing to a prefab set of rules.

The issue, of course, with having a religious group that tells people what to do is that they aren't required to adhere strictly to what's in the Bible. They are the experts, after all, on what God really meant and really wants from you, and so their teachings encompass more than the topics covered in the Bible.

One orthodox Jewish man that Jacobs meets talks about the order in which you should put your shoes on and tie them, according to rabbinical teachings. It's not in the Bible, but, he says, it saves you from spending mental energy wondering which way God wants you to put your shoes on. As if the average person is devoting lots of brainpower to that decision.

(All of this assumes, of course, that you care about following the Bible in the first place. Jacobs is not a particular religious person when beginning his year -- a secular Jew, he calls himself -- but he finds many unexpected benefits from following Biblical rules, overall finding a greater sense of peace, contemplation, and even deep gratitude, though he's not entirely sure to Whom.)

For my own part, this whole reflection helped me to better understand my own relationship to the Catholic Church. I don't wish to spend time puzzling out God's message on every single aspect of life, so I start with Church teaching. And where it makes sense I try to apply it to my own life. Where it doesn't make sense -- where it is discriminatory or harmful or flies in the face of what I know to be true about the world and other people -- I choose to listen to God and hash those things out for myself.

In the end, I think all people of faith, of all faiths, are doing their best to live in a way that is congruent with their deepest convinctions about what they are called to do. Namecalling and judgment serve no purpose in bringing another person closer to God. Jesus said to remove the plank from your own eye before taking a speck of dust out of another's eye; if you are tempted to call someone else a "cafeteria Christian," I invite you to pull out your Bible and see all of the rules you yourself (or your chosen religion) have decided are irrelevant. Or just read Jacobs' book -- you'll get the idea soon enough.

Where do you stand? Do you try to follow the Bible, a religion's teachings, your own calling from God, or a combination?


  1. Okay, I've been thinking this for a while now. I went on a study abroad trip in college studying American and Irish Catholicism, and there was this terror of a girl (Type A cheerleader type, so our personalities were never going to mesh anyway) who would make snide, cutesy little jokes about 'cafeteria' Catholics ... as she walks around the whole trip in spaghetti strap dresses cut down to her belly-button.

    Which I have no problem with whatsoever, except that I knew she judges people like me who will vocally object to things that the church teaches, and not follow the rules, just because the things I object to and disobey aren't the same things she disobeys.

    So what ticks me off is that she doesn't think she's a cafeteria Catholic. She thinks she's orthodox, or devout, or whatever label she wants to use. But that's just not possible. For one thing, when we're talking about the Catholic church it is literally impossible to know everything that the church teaches. There are centuries worth of documents and theological theories to sort through - you simply can't get through it all. And yet, people have opinions about lots of things. I'm guessing that every single person who professes to be Catholic disagrees with the church on at least one (probably more than one) thing, simply because they aren't even aware that the church has a stance on the issue. For another thing, as you point out, the written word never, ever, ever has just one, literal meaning. So even if you somehow had the intellectual powers and time to read every piece of Catholic doctrine that exists, there's no way that any two people will take all of that the exact same way.

    Love this post! Everyone is a cafeteria Catholic, and I think that's a good thing. Diversity is an intentional aspect of creation.

  2. @Macha
    Wow, that must have been annoying! It amazes me that some people can claim to be such devout Christians and yet somehow have missed Jesus' repeated admonishments about such "holier than thou" behavior.

    Your story reminded me of one of my own experiences: I once spent a summer running high school mission trip camps with a team of three other college students, and one of the guys thought that because he was in theology school he knew everything. We were supposed to do Bible study together every night, and he would just say, "This is what it means" and then assume it was closed for discussion. Like you said, diversity is important--when he left partway through the summer, our Bible studies got a lot better because we could challenge each other's viewpoints and grow individually as a result.

    You bring up a really good point about Catholic teaching also. Just as it's not possible to follow everything in the Bible literally, it's likely impossible to get your head around and follow every part of Catholic teaching (or even completely understand how to follow all of it). And some people may still have the goal of following all of Catholic teaching, but claiming that you're currently following everything the Church teaches... unlikely.

    I know you have a lot of issues with Catholic teaching... Are there still aspects of it you find useful or inspirational, or have you pretty much rejected all of it now?

  3. I loved that book! It made me really think about what I believe and how I go about my relationship with God. It also made me realize that there is no answer, that all our interpretations of God's word are essentially "right". It was also interesting to read all the rules and see how, if you take it literally, it's impossible to do it all because so much of it contradicts other parts.

    I guess what I took away from that book was to do your best, do what you think is right, and not to criticize other religions/beliefs because they are all following their view of what is right.

  4. @Amanda
    I totally agree. I think most Christians (and Jews) are doing their best to live in accordance with God's will, even though that looks different for different people. Criticizing each other for our differences helps no one!

  5. wow, this is challenging. there are definitely certain practices outlined in the Bible that I have tried my best to follow my entire life (some with success), but there are so many areas in which I fall short (much more failure than success, I think). Some things puzzle me, such as when Paul talks about women covering their heads as a sign of marriage and even as a spiritual act, yet no Christian women I know wear a head covering, except maybe a scarf but only for style, not for religion. So I wonder about those things and if we are wrong. But in the end I think we should all just do the best we can and trust Jesus to fill in the gaps :)

  6. @Hannah J. Holmes
    I think you would find the book really interesting. It makes you realize just how vast the number of "rules" in the Bible really are--over 600 just in the Old Testament. I definitely agree about doing the best you can--if you really put all your energy into following the Bible literally, I think you'd 1) go crazy because it's basically impossible and 2) end up with the kind of focus Jesus condemns in the Gospels, one on the letter of the law. That's why I personally don't worry too much about not following any one individual verse literally, like the head-covering one you mentioned.

    On a sidenote, people--at least Catholics--did at one time try to have their heads covered while in church. My mom talks about how in Catholic school they'd get a Kleenex or something to put on their head so it was covered for Mass :)

  7. @Jessica that is too cute about the kleenex haha :)

  8. I hate the term "Cafeteria Catholic." It's so judgmental. And so, excuse me while I judge those who use it. But you always hear "Oh they are a Cafeteria Catholic because they only go to church on Christmas and Easter" or because "they don't use NFP" or "they don't go to confession." You never here, "well she's a cafeteria Catholic because all she does is pray the rosary and never volunteers" or "he's a Cafeteria Catholic because he doesn't give his cloak to the poor." No! The whole point is that none of us get it all right.

    I once had a priest who compared cafeteria Catholics to Satan. "And you know who else picked and chose what they believed. Lucifer."

  9. @Jackie
    EXACTLY. It's almost always used in a law-breaking sense, like, "Oh, you don't follow the Catholic rulebook to the letter." It's never, "Oh, that person is such a Cafeteria Catholic for going to Mass and confession but not feeding the hungry." I've never understood why people thinks it's OK to get so caught up in whether other people are following all of the Catholic "rules" when Jesus seriously spends about half the Gospels condemning people like that.

    OK, now I am getting judgmental. But thank you. Yes. You understand. And that is super-ridiculous that that priest said Cafeteria Catholics are like Satan. Wow.

  10. I became a Christian when I was 7. I just knew I was saved but I didn't have any "rules" to follow at that point. I just had fun and relaxed and even loved going to church. I did know some of the rules but they were from my upbringing (like some of the 10 commandments). I learned a few more rules as years passed but I didn't know there were so many and I better not break them until I was about 16 or 17. In other words I needed to avoid sin and it was at this time where I started to get exposed to more pastors and different teachings and I started to become more religious. I don't even know what was going through people's minds like my family, friends, and neighbors concerning my behavior. It's also interesting that my Dad led me to the Lord and he told me to lighten up but he was making no sense at that point. So here I was later around 19 years old and I knew or heard there were 25,000 commands in the Bible (my pastor was exaggerating of course). I didn't know all these rules but I knew to go to church, pray, tithe, give offerings, help the poor, read my Bible, meditate/speak on Bible verses, the 10 commandments, love my neighbor, love God, worship Him in song, all the things Proverbs says to do like seek wisdom, understanding, don't be lazy, avoid prostitutes, lying, being divisive, argumentative and many more things. I even added to that list greeting the brothers with a kiss as Paul said to do in his letters on a few occasions. Then came Jesus and I remembered how He'd taken care of me all my life even before I was trying hard to be good and what mattered was not what I was doing but what He did. As such I've stopped doing many things I did before. I still do other things like the New Testament says we need to work. However my goal is to do things from a pure heart and not simply for religious reasons. I figure God can give me the desire to do whatever He wants me to do instead of it being something I have to do and I know I won't get it all right but He'll always be with me. So I can stop obsessing about what I need to do and focus on what He's done at the cross. Knowing that none of the Old or New Testament saints were perfect and that they did things that might really upset some people (like not following some of the laws we think are important) I can relax and just rely on God that He can get me where He wants me and He'll lead me by speaking to me or in other ways and it won't be how perfect I am at it but His grace and His loving kindness that leads me. Or as Wilberforce wrote "Grace will lead me home". Really as far as I'm concerned He can carry me home like the sheep He put on His shoulders.


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