Biblical Literalism

Last year A. J. Jacobs wrote a book on his attempt to live biblically for a year. By this he means trying to identify as many rules in the Bible as possible and then obey those rules. The inspiration for the book apparently came from a relative, Uncle Gil, who did this to a certain extent in his own spiritual journey. On his web site, Jacobs notes several dimensions of the year that are discussed in the book:

-An exploration of some of the Bible’s startlingly relevant rules. I tried not to covet, gossip, or lie for a year. I’m a journalist in New York. This was not easy.

-An investigation of the rules that baffle the 21st century brain. How to justify the laws about stoning homosexuals? Or smashing idols? Or sacrificing oxen? And how do you follow those in modern-day Manhattan?

-A look at various fascinating religious groups. I embedded myself among several groups that take the Bible literally in their own way, from creationists to snake handlers, Hasidim to the Amish.

-A critique of fundamentalism. I became the ultra-fundamentalist. I found that fundamentalists may claim to take the Bible literally, but they actually just pick and choose certain rules to follow. By taking fundamentalism extreme, I found that literalism is not the best way to interpret the Bible.

-A spiritual journey. As an agnostic, I’d never seriously explored such things as sacredness and revelation.

-A memoir of my family’s eccentric religious history, including my ex-uncle Gil, who has been, among other things, a Hindu cult leader, an evangelical Christian and an Orthodox Jew.

I read this book over vacation at the recommendation of a good friend who found it to be hilarious. It is a funny read. You will find yourself laughing out loud at some points, and it is important to remember that it is categorized in the Humor section, so it shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

It was interesting to read how people responded to Jacobs when he announced he was going to do the project. For example, friends and coworkers thought he would “go native” (i.e., get religion). A family member told him he couldn’t just follow the law literally, but that he had to draw upon the interpretation of those who went before. In Judaism, that would entail reading resources like the Talmud. Several Christians pointed out that the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross meant many of the rules he was going to follow did not need to be followed. For those who follow methodology, this would be the greatest disappointment: Jacobs followed his model with the Old Testment for the first 9 months but then couldn’t bring himself to follow his model in terms of the New Testament for the last 3 months (attempt to believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior). Here’s what he says about it:

For the bona fide literal New Testament experience, I should accept Jesus as Lord. But I just can’t do it. I’ve read the New Testament several times, and although I think of Jesus as a great man, I don’t come away from the experience accepting him as savior…. [p. 255]

What he did with God was assume God existed until he grew to a sense of the sacred, a sense of the divine. He refers to this as his “cognitive-dissonance strategy.” He thought about it with Jesus:

If I act like Jesus is God, eventually maybe I will start to believe that Jesus is God. That’s been my tactic with the God of the Hebrew Bible, and it’s actually started to work. But there’s a difference. When I do it with the Hebre God, I feel like I’m trying on my forefathers’ robes and sandles. There’s a family connection. Dongin it with Jesus would feel uncomfortable. I’ve come to value my heritage enough that it’s feel disloyal to convert. [p. 256]

So the book isn’t just humorous. Jacobs does end up struggling with some decisions, and he talks about his own growth in terms of valuing the sacred. This is particularly true in relation to God and to his son, and there are several poignant moments in that regard.

Throughout the book, though, one thing stood out to me: Jacobs interviewed representatives of Judaism and Christianity like he was going to a buffet that had equal amounts of fish, beef, and pasta. This approach was funny because he seemed to be able to find people who actually practiced some of the ritual laws or otherwise extraordianary behaviors mentioned in Scripture (e.g., snake handling). Jacobs seemed to realize this at times, like when he interviewed Ralph Blair, a self-identified gay evangelical Christian; Jacobs seemed to see that as an implausible combination that stretches the plain reading of Scripture. In any case, this approach gives the reader the impression that the rules, laws, or behaviors are equally likely to be followed or practiced within that religion without offering the reader a sense for the core or central elements of that faith.

This approach of talking to “outliers,” if you will, contributed significantly to the author’s conclusions: that everyone is guilty of practicing “cafeteria religion” [p. 328], by which he means everyone is inconsistent because everyone picks and chooses among Bible verses they follow. I’m not sure how seriously to take Jacobs on this point, but I think he is serious about it. It’s an intuitively attractive conclusion to draw, but it is one that is hard to advance without any substantive discussion of hermeneutics. He mentions the Talmud and implies some awareness of Talmudical hermeneutics.

As a Christian, however, I am more interested in how Christians have developed biblical hermeneutics specifically for the purpose of learning to interpret Scripture accurately and consistently. Perhaps a more accurate conclusion is that everyone practices biblical hermeneutics rather than everyone picks and chooses. But this discussion is probably too much to ask of a book in the Humor section. In the end, I recommend the book for it’s humor regarding biblical literalism but not for it’s attempt to draw meaningful conclusions about biblical literalism.

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