Sunday, January 06, 2008

Stoning Adulterers and Killing Magicians

Review and Discussion: The Year of Living Biblically

So I've gotten to do this strange thing lately, which I haven't had the time for in several months, and that's "read a book". Among what I got for Christmas was The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs (author of another book about reading the entire encyclopedia, cover-to-cover, which I'll certainly be picking up as soon as I can). In a double attempt to 1) pay homage to his crazy Uncle Gil, who in his second spurt of ultra-Orthodox Judaism has decided to tie tassels to all his clothing, and 2) give an agnostic New York moderate-liberal "ha! gotcha!" to fundamentalist Jew or Christian who would claim to follow every mandate of their holy text to the letter.

Two main themes arise in Jacobs' book: first, that it's actually impossible to follow every word literally, and second, that even for a non-believer, the Bible contains moral teachings that can be worthwhile to follow.

For anyone in modern times trying to interpret every word of every sentence as true and literal, several conflicts show up. These might be conflicts between different parts of the Bible itself, or situational circumstances that essentially mandate a conflict. (How many times has "keeping holy the Sabbath" conflicted with, say, "honor thy father and mother"?)

Then there are the clearly old-fashioned laws, like the ones about sacrificing, who it's okay to stone, and what you're allowed to do to and with your slave under various circumstances. Most of these rules don't have any place anymore... but where's the religious justification of that? If the Bible is the literal word of God, why should the workings of man abolish your duty to abide by those laws?

Literalist Jews and literalist Christians have different answers to that. Jews say that most of the laws they no longer follow (for instance, those nasty bits about animal sacrifice) are because they were only designed to be observed at the Temple in Jerusalem. With that temple no longer around, the Jews aren't bound by those rules anymore. As for Christians, with Jesus' death and resurrection came discarding the so-called "ritual laws" (which encompass sacrifice, not eating shellfish, not wearing mixed linen/cotten clothing, etc.). The tricky thing is, Christians are still supposed to abide by the "moral laws" (such as respecting your elders, etc.). What counts as "moral" versus "ritual" law? Well, there's yet more interpretation, because it's not like Jesus ever made a list.

But whether moral or ritual, whether abolished by the temple's destruction or not, Jacobs follows them all. At least, all of the ones that aren't downright illegal by modern standards. And through them, he actually starts to live Biblically, as opposed to merely according to the rules of the Bible. He's not sure whether to attribute this to cognitive dissonance theory, which in part says that if you act as if something is true, you begin to believe it's true. Maybe it's that, and maybe it's a genuine effect, through studying the teachings of God, to become closer to God.

In the end, Jacobs isn't quite sure what he learned, and I think that's sort of the point of the book. The lengths that Jacobs goes to understand the exact message behind everything described in the Bible are astounding, and if you're a religious person anyway, you probably believe that this isn't the sort of thing that can merely be reduced to a set of words. He settles on the Jeffersonian belief that the Bible contains a worthwhile set of moral guidelines, but can't pull himself toward belief in a personal, interactive God.

Most Jews and Christians would retort that this is the very crux of living Biblically.

Despite this apparent fatal flaw, Jacobs' book is fascinating, and highly recommended. His discussion of almost all of the prominent Biblical issues is balanced and thorough. Furthermore, he tries very hard to understand cultural, historical, and societal contexts of all the Biblical laws, and explain to the reader exactly why that rule existed. The thing Jacobs does best is avoid bias, acknowledging the possibility of truth and "rightness" in every possibility he encounters.

Interestingly, that lack of bias that Jacobs is able to pull off so effortlessly shows that it really does take an agnostic to write a book this Biblical. A fundamentalist evangelical would take a different perspective as a Hasid, and both points of view would be vastly different from a mainline Protestant, or Catholic, or Reform Jew. Jacobs is able to take his lack of perspective--something that any of those religious groups would criticize--and turn it into something utterly spiritual anyway.

Currently listening: Drastic Fantastic, KT Tunstall

1 comment:

zm1285ghaa said...

Come to Matthew Pavlovich for all your criticism needs! Screw those professional dudes. I'll have to pick up this book sometime (or borrow it from you).