Anti-literal literalism

JacobsCoverIt’s almost the Gregorian chant of liberal religion, and you don’t need to attend many inquirer’s classes before hearing it: “We take the Bible too seriously to take it literally.” Yet it’s usually the same people who talk the most about biblical literalism, as if it were a metastasizing cancer in American culture. By percentage, very few Americans engage in the sort of biblical interpretation that will deprive them of coffee in the morning or a blood transfusion in the emergency room.

Author A.J. Jacobs’ book The Year of Living Biblically goes on sale Oct. 9, and Newsweek‘s Jennie Yabroff has written about it twice in as many weeks. On Sept. 21 she published a fun Q&A with Jacobs, in which he made clear that he did not go into the project to mock people’s faith. “I started the year as an agnostic, and now I am a reverent agnostic,” Jacobs tells Yabroff. “Whether or not there is a God, I believe in sacredness. Rituals can be sacred, the Sabbath can be sacred however you choose to observe it.”

Still, he does end up creating problems. Rather than stoning an adulterer, he seeks permission to stone one — and ends up in a brief exchange of pebbles with man who self-identifies as an adulterer. The absurdity should be obvious enough: Jacobs takes a moral code that God gave to a specific community (and which has since become a nonviolent moral standard usually enforced without violence) and tries to apply it individually, little rocks and all.

This week, Yabroff tied Jacobs’ book in with other “year of” experiments:

Sara Bongiorni gave up buying Chinese products for “A Year Without ‘Made in China’.” Judith Levine gave up shopping altogether for “Not Buying It.” Barbara Kingsolver fed her family with what they could grow or source locally for “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.” Ellen Currey-Wilson banned TV from the house for “The Big Turnoff.” And Colin Beavan swore off luxuries like toilet paper, disposable cups and air conditioning for his blog No Impact Man.

Yabroff makes the fair observation that such projects lead not only to book deals, but sometimes also to movie rights. Here are two amazing sentences: “So why is this a year of year-of books? One answer is that the more ethically motivated projects, like Kingsolver’s and Beavan’s, tap into growing concern about protecting the environment.”

Funny, but it seems that A Year Without “Made in China” would be just “ethically motivated.” In the great cosmic economy, is it somehow more righteous to forsake toilet paper and disposable cups than to resist the steady tide of buying nearly everything at the cheapest possible price — even if that price is made possible by slavish working conditions?

Despite some 21st-century eisegesis, Jacobs appears to have discovered an important principle in his own one-year experiment:

One of the lessons of the book is, there is some picking and choosing in following the Bible, and I think that’s OK. Some people call that cafeteria religion, which is supposed to be a disparaging term, but I think there’s nothing wrong with cafeterias, I’ve had some delicious meals in cafeterias. I’ve also had some terrible meals in cafeterias. It’s all about picking the right parts. You want to take a heaping serving of the parts about compassion, mercy and gratefulness — instead of the parts about hatred and intolerance. [sic]

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  • Dale

    I don’t think he should stop with the Bible. How about:

    1) The year of living scientifically– He can not assert or rely upon any fact without first proving its validity by repeated, controlled experiments and publication of the results in a peer reviewed journal. (So much for “I love you, dear”).

    2) The year of living rationally– Starting from presuppositions that are necessarily true, he must be able to give a logically coherent account of the ethical basis for any action before he acts. (Ham, or pastrami? Hmm. Cogito, ergo sum. . . .)

    3) The year of living romantically–He must express his true self by acting on any impulse that enters his mind, without regard to social convention or likely consequence.

    Think of the enlightening results!

  • Dick

    Dale, that’s a great observation. I don’t know anything about the book other than what I see posted here but it sounds like the author has no clue about the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament or that Christ did not come to give us more laws (i.e., rules of conduct). It looks like the author believes that the Bible is a set of rules for “proper” living (from the Pentateuch only?) rather than something that points to a relationship with Christ (New Testament). Of course, this also ignores the fact that even the Old Testament is not just about “laws” and “rules” but also includes poetry, history and prophecy. Sounds like the author has set up a straw man and has an abysmal understanding of Christianity.

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  • Mark Goodyear

    Jacobs’ reading of the Bible would certainly not qualify as evangelical. Believing in the Bible’s inerrancy and/or authority doesn’t mean we suddenly dump everything we’ve learned about how to read and interpret a text.

    It makes me wonder why people feel the need to read the Bible differently than they read other narratives. Even the most legal books like Numbers contain bits of narrative. They aren’t pure law in the way that No Child Left Behind is.

  • Jerry

    It makes me wonder why people feel the need to read the Bible differently than they read other narratives.

    See the extensive discussion of inerrancy at Wikipedia
    and elsewhere. There’s a fundamental question: How do we know what God wishes us to believe and do? The varied answers to that question form a foundation to the diversity of religious expression we see today. And answers your observation.

  • Mike

    When I first heard about this experiment, I wondered if he obeyed ALL the rules, or just the ones involving behavior. In many ways, Deut. 6:4ff can be considered the central passage of the Hebrew Scriptures (in many Hebrew Bibles, it’s set apart with extra-large letters, and Jesus affirms that it’s the “most important commandment”):

    Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all of your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.

    Does Jacobs actually try to obey this? Or does he concentrate on more, um, elaborate rules like not wearing blended cloth?

  • Bob Andelman

    If you’d like to hear A.J. Jacobs talk about his new book, “The Year of Living Biblically,” check out this audio interview link.