During a recent visit, my wife’s cousin distributed some books which she had read. She handed me A. J. Jacob’s, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. “You’re the only person I could think of who would get this”. Having been reared in a Protestant tradition, in which personal access and exploration of scriptures, and having an independent mind, this book was right up my alley. If you have read my blogs about faith, you know that I do not come from a traditional perspective. What a great book for a non-traditional look at religious traditions.
A. J. Jacobs writes magazine articles and memoirs on personal quests. As the subtitle suggests, his project was to try to identify all the commandments in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, then follow them for one year. He presents his exploration in a day-by-day journal style memoir. He describes his process for accumulating commandments, consisting of consulting with various Jewish and Christian texts and religious authorities, and his own reading of the Bible to highlight anything that sounds remotely like instruction.
The Jewish Torah and Talmud traditions list over 600 “laws”. Jacobs added a few other Godly suggestions, and Christian instructions to come up with close to 800 rules. These he divides into moral laws (do not kill) and ritual laws (circumcism to baptism).
In addition to experimenting with how to follow these rules, he visits various religious groups and leaders who profess to interpreting the scriptures literally. This includes going to Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood to participate in various Hasidic Jewish rituals, to attending a service at Jerry Farwell’s church (Farwell was still alive at the time of Jacob’s project).
Jacobs acknowledges his own position: secular Jew, agnostic living in NYC. He compares this to her persona in his project. And, at the end of the year, he presents his introspection of how he has been influence by his attempts to follow the rules, or as he quotes C.S. Lewis “pretending to be better”.
His style of storytelling is witty, with many LOL observations, about how absurd our attempts to follow rules can become. At the same time, he presents his stories with reverence and sincerity. He is not merely mocking fundamentalist. In the end he shares his observations about how understanding other faith perspectives gives him more connection with people who hold different views on moral and ritual practices. He also points out how moderates and fundamentalist approach the “cafeteria” of religious beliefs by picking what they want, or what supports positions they already believe.
I was reminded of my high school church attending days, in which a literal interpretation of the Bible was advocated by the paster and church members. Even though I did not have a list of 600 to 800 rules, that I was aware of, I questioned my ability to follow the basics. I also questioned the concept of why those dozen or so rules were chosen by the denomination.
In my young-adult days in the 1980’s, I watched the rise of socially active, Christian groups, such as the Moral Majority, Focus on the Family, et al. Again, I questioned how they selected the set of rules to follow, while disregarding others. Living and working in NYC in the late 80’s to early 90’s, I came in contact with co-workers, friends, and clients who came from Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish traditions. I realized that fundamentalism was not limited to Christian Evangelical groups.
With 911, when fundamentalist Muslim groups grabbed the news cycle, I formalized my hypothesis that we are moving in a period of history in which Purity (that is purity with a capital P) would dominate social, religious, and political history. Over the past decade, I have seen more evidence for this.
Religious groups claim moral and spiritual superiority over others based on being pure in their beliefs and practices, even to the extend of justifying Cleansing Borders of those who are not pure. Social and economic justice advocates from all sides claim that they know how to make society better. Political organizations push further apart, pointing out the flaws on the other side, while positioning themselves to be the purest in the land.
A key question that Jacobs raises through his project is to wonder what is the purpose of following rules? Do we follow rules so that we can get along? Do we follow rules so that we can set ourselves apart and above everyone else? How we answer these questions will guide our history for the next few centuries.