‘God hates shrimp’ is a question. That question needs an answer.

‘God hates shrimp’ is a question. That question needs an answer. November 6, 2014

“God hates shrimp” is a snarky distillation of something larger than it seems. It’s not really a rebuttal or an argument, but rather a way of raising a question. And it’s a really important question.

We sometimes miss that question when “God hates shrimp” gets tossed around as a smart-alecky slogan in response to those Christians who cite the half-dozen clobber texts they say require them to condemn LGBT people. One of the most amusing examples of this response can be seen in the classic, star-studded Funny or Die sketch, “Prop 8: The Musical“:

In that video Jack Black, as a singing and dancing Jesus Christ, offers a nutshell formulation of the “God hates shrimp” retort. “The Bible says a lot of things,” he says.

“Doesn’t the Bible say these people are an abomination?” John C. Reilly’s uptight Prop 8 supporter asks.

“Yeah,” Jack/Jesus replies, “but you know it says the exact same thing about this shrimp cocktail. … Leviticus says shrimp is an abomination.”

The musical parody continues with a very brief nod in the direction of what this all suggests. “You pick and choose,” Jack/Jesus sings. “So please choose love instead of hate.”

It’s a comedy sketch, so there’s not a lot of room there to explore what that means, but this is actually pretty important. And it’s theologically significant. The point is that Christians cite some texts from the Bible as authoritative and binding, while disregarding the equally emphatic and unambiguous commandments found in other biblical texts. “You pick and choose,” is not an accusation, but merely a description.

JackJesusThat description does not mean that such picking-and-choosing Christians must therefore be hypocrites. It is simply an acknowledgement that such picking and choosing is a necessary, inescapable part of what it means to be a Christian who takes the Bible seriously. All Christians “pick and choose” in some way. All Christians should do this and must do this.

But the underlying question here remains unspoken. It gets lost and forgotten amid the familiar clash between snark and smarm. The snarky inclusivists lobbing the “God hates shrimp” challenge forget to articulate the question, and the smarmy exclusivists thus get to continue avoiding having to answer it. Or, perhaps, continue to avoid revealing that they do not know how to answer it.

So let’s talk about that question here: On what basis do we pick and choose? What principle are they invoking when they say that Leviticus is authoritative for X but not authoritative for Y? Is this picking and choosing arbitrary? Is it nothing more than an expression of cultural preferences? Or is there some rule, some logical distinction, some theological, hermeneutical reason for it?

This is vitally important far beyond the particular argument over how Christians respond to those of us who are LGBT. Set that “controversy” aside and just consider the larger matter at stake here. Either we have a satisfactory hermeneutic or we do not. If we do not, then the Bible is meaningless to us and for us.

If we are to be “Bible-believing” Christians — people for whom that scripture is, in any real way, authoritative or meaningful — then we have to have some principle or set of principles that allows us to distinguish between the various passages we are picking and choosing to be authoritative and those we are picking and choosing not to be.

No Christian wants to be like the John C. Reilly character in the sketch above. No Christian wants to just shrug and say that we can or should simply ignore some verses while respecting others. That would reduce the Bible to nothing more than a fun-house mirror in which we see only what we want or expect to see — projecting our own preferences and prejudices into the text and then gleaning them back out of it by selecting those prooftexts that confirm our ideas and disregarding all of those that don’t.

The impression that this might be the case — that we’re just “picking and choosing” arbitrarily, or due to semi-conscious cultural predispositions — makes every appeal to the Bible seem shabby, stupid and self-serving. It hardly matters whether such arbitrary picking and choosing is done consciously or unconsciously. The former would be wicked, the latter would be ignorant. The consequence would be indistinguishable.

There’s been a lot of discussion of the “rise of the nones” and the worry that younger people are leaving the American church “in droves.” Survey data shows that many young people are repulsed by the church’s apparent animus toward LGBT people and the cruelties that this animus continually supports. Underlying that, I think, is the impression that most of the church does not have an answer to the larger question raised by the “God hates shrimp” argument — the impression that its selective citation of certain prooftexts and disregard for others is not guided by any principled reasoning other than self-serving wickedness or a clueless cultural inertia.

Again, this is not something that most Christians want to be. Most Christians want to be people for whom the Bible is a divinely inspired source of revelation. They want to be able to turn to their Bible for answers, for authoritative guidance. They don’t want their Bible to be nothing more than a pliable plaything from which they can capriciously extract a few prooftexts to confirm their own prejudices and preferences, while glibly ignoring the rest.

But that requires an answer to the question underlying “God hates shrimp.” It requires the ability to appeal to a principled, systematic basis for saying that Passage X should be treated as authoritative while Passage Y need not be.

Given how important this is, then, it’s remarkable how ad hoc, ad libbed and ad-dled most attempts to answer that question turn out to be. The explanations for the basis for our picking and choosing mostly seem to be hasty, after-the-fact rationalizations. They come across as attempts to ret-con some semi-plausible explanation for why we did that, not like a description of the actual process that was actually involved in making those decisions at the time they were made.

When we return to this topic, I want to examine three popular “answers” to the “God hates shrimp” question. None of them offers a satisfying, reliable explanation for how we should pick and choose between which Levitical “abominations” remain binding and which do not.

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