As someone who possesses far too many unread books, there is a constant backlog and churn in my to-read list. I think it’s true to say that this book has been in my ‘to-read’ list for about seven years and only now makes the shift to ‘read’.
In 2007 AJ Jacobs was an agnostic New York liberal (of Jewish heritage) working for Esquire magazine when he decided to write about biblical literalism. His approach was unique – for one year he would try to follow the rules of the Bible as literally as possible.
Jacobs had a few goals in writing the book one was to explore the spiritual dimension of life through immersion in its world. Another goal (and this is the key one) was to explore the topic of biblical literalism. An astonishingly high number of Americans claim to take the Bible literally (somewhere from one-third to over half) and as Jacobs says:
“A literal interpretation of the Bible – both Jewish and Christian – shapes American policies on the Middle East, homosexuality, stem cell research, education, abortion – right down to rules about buying beer on Sunday.” (p.6)
But Jacobs, quite rightly, suspected that most people were guilty of picking and choosing and Jacobs’ fearless year of doing it properly would expose the shallowness of these other literalists. What follows, in a year long journal of his efforts, is a very entertaining and insightful account of Jacobs’ journey.
As a Jew and because the Old Testament is bigger than the new, the majority of the book is weighted towards his exploration of the Hebrew rules so the section on the New Testament covers a mere 50 pages or so out of 330. To be honest, his heart really isn’t in his exploration of Christian literalism – not that I think he’s missing much.
Along the way, there are some strange and difficult rules to follow – his attempt at stoning an adulterer is hilarious and various sideways journeys into rabbinical Judaism are both curious and enlightening. As he discovers that it is almost impossible to take the Bible literally, he also discovers that the Bible also has much that is wise, virtuous and good and he chronicles the positive changes to his parenting among other things. He moves from thinking of religion as simply the cause of division to seeing how the religious do far more good than he had imagined.
Some of his attempts to be literal are just plain silly – not saying Thursday because it’s origin is the god Thor which violates Ex 23:13 and some are funny, his huge biblical beard and tassle-wearing, tent-making and pigeon lifting efforts. Often the attempt to be literal goes much further than the plain-reading would suggest but then, exactly how far do you take literal? Which is, after all, basically his point.
As a result of his quest to be ultra-literal, Jacobs book is oft-quoted in pop-level hermeneutics books – it’s the plea to drop the false notion that we take it literally, or that we don’t all pick and choose which is Jacobs’ conclusion:
“The year showed me beyond doubt that everyone practices cafeteria religion (pick and choose). It’s not just moderates. Fundamentalists do it too. They can’t heap everything on their plate…But the more important lesson was this: there’s nothing wrong with choosing…the key is is choosing the right dishes.” (p.328)
He then raises the key question that follows, what then of authority?
“Once you acknowledge that we pick and choose from the Bible, doesn’t that destroy its credibility? Doesn’t that knock the legs out from under it? Why should we put any stock in any of the Bible?” (p.328)
The question is a good one and Jacobs never really explores the ways Christians or Jews should interpret the Bible, that interpretation has always been a valid task or how one chooses is vitally important although that omission is not a fault of this book.
It’s worth noting this book is one of the more significant books of the past ten years because his ‘Year of…’ approach has also became much copied. Quite often it’s used as a tactic to try to prove the ridiculousness of your opponent’s position by showing how silly it is to take it literally, so don’t try to follow it at all like Rachel Held-Evans and her Year of Biblical Womanhood being a good example of that.
Overall, this is a really enlightening and entertaining read, it reveals as much about general contemporary ignorance of faith as it does about the complexities of living with faith and that literalism is not the way to go when it comes to reading the Bible.