Tuesday, February 10, 2009

My Year of Living Biblically

My year of living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible.

A.J. Jacobs (Simon & Schuster, 2007)

As we know from his earlier book, The Know-It-All, in which he read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, A.J. Jacobs is a seriously compulsive fellow; when he decided to devote a year to following the Bible's laws as literally as possible, he applied the same sort of witty intensity to the project.

One of his goals, beyond producing a book, is to test the limits of literalism. "My suspicion was that almost everyone's literalism consisted of picking and choosing." Jacobs attempts not to do that, though he does find that he still has to decide what's figurative and what's literal, and what's been added by convention in the intervening centuries. Times have changed, quite a lot, after all: where is Jacobs going to find a slave in twenty-first century Manhattan? Actually, that one solves itself: a young man offers to serve an unpaid internship.

And so it goes. Jacobs meets a lot of people with peculiar ideas, both from his family's Jewish tradition, like the hyper-religious ex-uncle-by-marriage who inspired the project; and from the farther reaches of evangelical Christianity, including a snake-handler, and the people who are trying to breed a pure red heifer to bring about the Apocalypse. His stable of advisors encompasses those who are the world's experts on Deuteronomy 22:6, and those who keep pulling back, back, back for the long view, about the goodness and mercy of God.

Of course, many of the oddest-sounding ideas are right there in the large print. The Second Commandment, against the making of images, bars Jacobs from making Play-Doh animals for his toddler. "I feel ridiculous for refusing to make him a fish, but I also know that I have to do this experiment full bore, or else I'll risk missing out on key spiritual discoveries. No cutting corners."
Amid this goofy diligence, Jacobs comes to some helpful conclusions. "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." That's not only inevitable, it may not be a bad thing. "Now," he adds, "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?"

Jacobs put this question to his panel of advisors. From the liberal side, a retired Lutheran minister named Elton Richards offered this: the Bible is an aid to our visualization of divinity. "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."

One of his rabbis, Robbie Harris, 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?" Amen, amen--that would be idolatry, and it's all around us.

Having begun this project as a devout secularist, Jacobs knew that he was entering perilous territory; his friends worried that he might come out the other end as an unrecognizable religious nut--such are the risks of immersion journalism. Where he actually emerges is perfectly lovely:
"I'm still agnostic. But in the words of Elton Richards, I'm now a reverent agnostic. Which isn't an oxymoron, I swear. I now believe that whether or not there's a God, there is such a thing as sacredness. Life is sacred. The Sabbath can be a sacred day. Prayer can be a sacred ritual. There is something transcendent, beyond the everyday. It's possible that humans created this sacredness ourselves, but that doesn't take away from its power or importance."
Hallelujah, Amen.

September 2008

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