This title caught my eye on the new book shelf at Borders. Check out the subtitle: "one man's humble quest to follow the Bible as literally as possible" (William Heinemann, 2007). A.J. Jacobs - an agnostic, or non-believer - sets aside a year to follow the 700+ rules in the Bible as literally as is possible, allowing them to impact "the way I talk, walk, eat, bathe, dress, and hug my wife" (8). Intriguing!
I was surprised
The cynicism which I expected did not eventuate. Even th0ugh he finishes the year as a "reverent agnostic" (329) he does benefit from the yearlong experience. It is easy to warm to his story. He is so open. He finds value in the rituals and the repetition as he goes in search of "the meaning beyond the wierdness" (87). He reaches a point where he can say "I no longer dread prayer" (94). Elsewhere he claims that "I feel more connected ... My life is more significant" (107). At times "the entire world takes on a glow of sacredness" (153). He is not trying to be destructive. There is some honest humble searching going on here.
Plus a lot of wisdom spills out as he writes - and not just from the spiritual advisors with whom he surrounds himself (including the 'pastor out to pasture', the Rev Elton Richards). I value his insight about speech: "the less I vocalise my negative thoughts, the fewer negative thoughts I cook up in the first place" (157).
I loved his appreciation of the prophets and Ecclesiastes - "I feel the thrill of recognizing thoughts that I have had myself, but that I've never been able to capture in such beautiful language" (114) - two of my own favourite rest areas in the Bible.
What about the usefulness of intercessory prayer? "It's ten minutes where it's impossible to be self-centered." (128) ... or, the wisdom contained in "stop looking at the Bible as a self-help book" (208).
Yes, I was surprised!
I was humoured
The guy writes so well ... and with a few laughs along the way.
As he struggles to shut down for a Sabbath he is feeling stressed: "the outside world is speeding along without me. Emails are being answered. Lattes are being sipped. George Bush's childhood friends are being appointed to high-level positions" (124).
On capital punishment in the Hebrew scriptures? "Think Saudi Arabia, multiply by Texas, then triple that" (92).
On living Israel's food laws in their pagan world: "they were marking their territory with menus" (170).
Or take his visit to Jerry Falwell's church or to Amish country or Israel.
Tracking alongside his year in the Bible is his commentary on life with his wife Julie and son Jaspar (and the growth of his own beard!). Part way through the book Julie becomes pregnant with IVF-assisted twins, a procedure having its own humour (like asking for pen marks to be put on his wife's but so that he knows where to put the needle) - as does the section on the dilemma of avoiding contact with a woman (ie Julie!) having her period near the beginning of the book and the decisions about circumcision when twin boys eventually are born near the end.
Yes, I was humoured!
I was frustrated
With an eye on the way the Bible is handled, Jacobs divides the Christian world into two sections. There are the fundamentalists. For them "the Bible emerged from God's oven like a fully baked cake ... God sat behind His big oak desk in heaven and dictated the words verbatim to a bunch of flawless secretaries" (200-201). Here is where biblical literalism is practised. Then there are the liberals - a word Jacobs does not use but still describes his position well enough: "the Bible has evolved, like humans themeselves. Like a Wikipedia entry" (201). He writes of a "cafeteria Christianity" where you pick and choose what you like form the biblical buffet - a position which he considers to be unavoidable by both sections.
I do beg to differ. There is another approach. Sadly the bibliography suggests that this was never really engaged - as it rarely is by people writing from Jacobs' perspective.
One where the 'literal' word is seen to be unhelpful.
One where you hold an ancient text at a distance before you bring it close.
One where issues like reading texts within their historical and literary contexts is the way to uncover their natural and plain sense.
One where a text's genre - and there are a dozen separate ones in the Bible - plays a decisive role in unpacking the meaning.
One where across the many authors and many centuries covered in the biblical text, a single story from a single divine author is discovered and any one bit is interpreted then in light of this whole bit.
One where oak tables and secretaries are dismissed in favour of fully human authors being fully inspired by God.
One where the New Testament does not feel like an afterthought (as it does in Jacobs' book) but the very fulfillment of the Old Testament, with passages like Jesus on the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24) and Jesus in the book of Hebrews (which doesn't rate even a mention) leading the way.
One where the Bible is not seen to be an exhaustive encyclopedia of all there is to know and do, but a sufficient guidebook that sets up a trajectory of wisdom which we follow on into the challenges of today.
Yes, I do find this frustrating.
A.J. Jacobs has done what is so common today. He has deleted this third option. This option doesn't take all the problems away. But gee, I find it provides me with a compelling vision and feeds my sincere intent to aim at living my whole life biblically and not just a single year.