Monday, October 8, 2007

Living Biblically

Author A. J. Jacobs recently spent a year trying to follow every rule in the Bible. His book recounting the experience, entitled The Year of Living Biblically, goes on sale tomorrow, October 9. An interview with Jacobs appears today at It’s worth a read. Here are some of the highlights.

When asked, “What, if any rules, are you still following?” Jacobs said that he tries to be more grateful, that he likes observing the Sabbath, and that he is still wearing white. On that last one, he said that he starting doing that because Ecclesiastes says to “let your garments always be white.” I had to look that one up; it’s in Ecclesiastes 9:8. The rest of the verse says “do not let oil be lacking on your head”; I guess I’ll have to read the book to see if he followed that instruction, too. If he did I hope he used olive oil. Or Vitalis. Then Jacobs said,

One thing I learned is that the outside affects the inside, your behavior shapes your thoughts. I also really liked what one of my spiritual advisers said, which was that you can view life as a series of rights and entitlements, or a series of responsibilities. I like seeing my life as a series of responsibilities. It’s sort of, "Ask not what the world can do for you, ask what you can do for the world."

That is very insightful.

When asked, “Which is the greater learning tool, the Bible or the encyclopedia?” (that question was asked because Jacobs’ last project had been to spend a year reading the Encyclopedia Britannica, which led to his book The Know-It-All), he gave an interesting reply. He said,

The Bible project was a lot more difficult than the encyclopedia project. The Bible affected every single part of my life, it affected the way I walked, the way I dressed, the way I hugged my wife, the way I ate. The year was the most extreme makeover of my life.

While doing what Jacobs tried to do is overkill, one can hardly argue with the premise that taking the Bible seriously will affect every area of life.

Jacobs was then asked, “Once the experiment ends, you write about being feeling unanchored without your list of rules. Were you comforted by the restrictions of living Biblically? And do you think that’s part of the attraction of organized religion for many people?” He answered,

Oh, absolutely. We all talk about freedom of choice, but there’s something very attractive about freedom from choice. Religion provides structure, mooring, anchoring. Should you covet? No. Should you give 10 percent to the needy? Yes. It really structures your life. After my year I felt unmoored, overwhelmed by choice. I have adjusted, but I’m still overwhelmed by choice, as we all are in America.

Elsewhere in the interview, Jacobs said,

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.

As a Christian and as a Baptist who still believes that “the criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ” (that’s from the Preamble to the 1963 Baptist Faith & Message), I would add that Jesus is the standard by which we should determine how to read the various teachings of the Bible. We should take very seriously Jesus’ statements that he prefaced with “You have heard it said unto you, but I say unto you….” Every time we read a passage in the Bible we should be asking ourselves, “What is Jesus saying to us about this, based on his recorded words and the recorded events of his life, death, and resurrection, and based on what the Holy Spirit reveals to us about what Jesus said and did?” If we do that, we will not be able to help but “take a heaping serving of the parts about compassion, mercy and gratefulness.”

What an interesting experiment and what interesting insights!

While I think it is impossible and thankfully unnecessary to take the approach that Jacobs did, I certainly want to commend the practice of living biblically, especially in the light of the life of Jesus Christ. In such a practice we will find much more freedom and joy than most of us presently have.

1 comment:

Scott said...

I never did read his book on reading the Encyclopedia, although it still remains on my amazon wish list. However, I did hear Jacobs speak about his project on C-Span (Yes, I'm that person), and thoroughly enjoyed his dialogue with his audience. I would guess that this book would be a good read.

I haven't read the msnbc article, but isn't Jacobs Jewish? I would guess that by "biblically" he means the Hebrew Bible, but some of his comments sound like New Testament observations...or what my Christian bias sounds like are New Testament observations.