12 October 2010

"The Year of Living Biblically" (Or, how I followed lots and lots of rules)

The part in quotes is the title of a book by A.J. Jacobs. He's also written The Know-It All about his mission to read through the entire Encyclopedia Britannica.  I find "outsider" views on religion in general and Christianity in particular to be interesting, sort of a window into what separates my belief system from someone else's and why.  This book, however, didn't do much more than scratch the surface of anything, including the author's reasons for even embarking on this escapade.

Jacobs' idea is to live out the rules of the Bible and follow them as closely as possible.  He will spend eight months with the Old Testament and four months with the New Testament in an effort to...well, I'm not really sure other than I think Esquire magazine (his employer) and his book publisher thought it would make good reading.

Jacobs' heritage is Jewish so it makes sense he would start with the Old Testament and he is also up front in admitting his heritage makes him step back from the idea of Jesus as the Messiah.  His forays into Old Testament living include the 600+ rules that made up life for people in the OT.  He lets his hair and beard grow, he doesn't mix clothing fibers, he observes the correct procedure for touching/not touching his wife when she is considered ritually unclean, etc.  His New Testament wanderings include snake handlers, Jerry Falwell, the biblical creationists in Kentucky, and Red-Letter Christians; an interesting mix for the latter but also one that is rather stereotypical and easy to categorize both for himself and for any reader who may also only have a passing interest in Christianity.  It's actually a kind of polarizing group of New Testament "spokespeople" that he picks.  Now, mind, I certainly don't agree with Falwell on just about anything and I've never handled a snake in my life (for example) but many people have preconceived ideas about these groups of people and would, I think, read those chapters with an eye towards those quotes or impressions that would bolster their own opinions.  Rather than go for easy and identifiable, I would have liked to see Jacobs search out a few less Christian monoliths and a few more smaller churches or groups.

I think the biggest issue I had with Jacobs is he never really surrenders himself to the idea of God as an actual Person who has an interest in and love for A.J..  From reading his previous book, it's apparent he enjoys knowledge and facts but it seems he enjoys them simply for the fact of knowing them and nothing seemed to ever really penetrate beyond "Wow, isn't that interesting."  He amasses books and lists and rules simply for the sake of doing so and then sets about trying to live them.  The leap he seems to be unable to make is that Jesus' coming to Earth removed the need to live by those rules.  They are no longer valid.  For all his perusing and rule-checking and interviewing both Christian and Jewish leaders, no one seems to really mention the idea of grace, that we are free to screw up and can come ask forgiveness and start over again.  He misses that Christianity is not merely a bunch of rules to live by, get a grade when we die, and then live out the afterlife on A, B or C cloud layer.  If so, then Jacobs would already have lost in his quest to follow the rules.  God is holy and can have nothing to do with anything that isn't.  The law (the Old Testament) was death.  Nobody could keep it.  You could sacrifice at the temple until the cows came home but it didn't keep you current in terms of atonement for your sins.  That was why Jesus came.  He came to do away with the rules and bring us in to a direct relationship with God.  No more sacrifices or middle men.  We would be able to speak directly to the Creator of the universe and he to us.

In the New Testament, yes, there are rules and guidelines that Jesus laid out for his apostles but it is not nearly as rigid as Jacobs makes it.  Since God also gave us free will, we have the choice to obey or not.   He misses that as we pursue Jesus, and that by doing so, we grow to become more like Him.  As we grow to be more like Him, we desire to follow what He laid out.  There is a connection that goes deeper than rules, deeper than simply following the letter of the law, and by not allowing himself to jump off the metaphorical bridge and experience the relationship aspect of Jesus, I think Jacobs really missed the boat.

So, overall?  I found the book interesting and somewhat humorous in watching Jacobs struggle with the legalistic aspects of Christianity with a smile and a "been there, done that" nod to his musings but I wish he would have come away with a greater understanding that God is not just a set of rules.  He is also a relationship.

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