A. J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically: Living the New Testament Literally
The Old Testament may take up far more room in the Bible, but the real meat of the text, the part that ushers in the true spirit of Christianity, is reserved for the New Testament, where Jesus takes center stage. For this content, A. J. Jacobs, in The Year of Living Biblically, reserved the last four months of his experience. During this time, he discovers a lot of interesting points about following the Bible literally.
First, he wrestles with how to handle the difference between moral and ritual laws. The Ten Commandments give us the moral laws: thou shall not kill, etc. Ritual laws, on the other hand, speak to avoiding bacon, not wearing mixed fibers, etc. As he states, Jesus came along and, because society had evolved past the point where the ritual laws made any more sense, he, in Jacobs’ words, “made those laws obsolete” (255).
This distinction is important, for it shows that even Jesus did not adhere to every law in the Old Testament literally. He used his judgment to revise them for the era in which he lived.
But not everyone who follows the Bible seems to pay attention to Jesus’ example. In order to find out why, Jacobs visits one of the titans of the Religious Right, Jerry Falwell. He uses this to experience what Christian Fundamentalist believe, but before he goes, a pastor cautions him: Jesus’ message was one of inclusion, and those followers aim to exclude anyone who does not believe what they believe (258). While visiting the Church in Richmond, Virginia, he encounters a lot of friendly people and even observes that “The radical wing of the Christian right is a lot more boring than its liberal detractors would have you believe” (262).
That said, it didn’t take long to hear about how homosexuality is an abomination.
In this section we get a lot of discussion of this issue. Jacobs even expresses his concern with this sect’s stance on gay people. One person, Tom, agrees, and even says he too has a lot of gay friends—although he means ex-gays, people who have been “cured” (263).
Jacobs balanced this experience with a Bible study group run by evangelical Christians who are all out, currently proud gays. This group embraces their sexuality and their love of scripture with the same fervor (264). Not only does this group demonstrate that a religious person can also be gay and be happy about it, but the group’s leader, Dr. Ralph Blair, says that people need to distinguish between evangelical Christianity and the religious right. As he says, the right’s obsession with homosexuality comes “out of their culture, not out of scripture” (266).
How does Blair support this stance? He says that the Bible is not addressing monogamous, loving same-sex relationships; instead, passages such as Leviticus are anti-abuse and anti-Paganism (266). These passages warn against treating your fellow man disgracefully, something a committed relationship (hopefully) does not. Therefore, as Blair argues, Jesus would have had no problem with a committed relationship of same-sex people (266).
Regardless of what you think the Bible says, Jacob learns a very important lesson in all of this, one that bears learning by all who read the Bible. As the first out Orthodox Rabbi in America Steven Greenberg tells him, people need to “grapple” with the Bible—meaning: don’t take what it says at face value; rather, work with the material to uncover its meaning (268). The entire book is really about “working out the relationship between God and man” (267). This relationship is interactive, and along the way, God has revised his plan for man. For example, in one instance, He uses a flood to wipe out man, but in other places, He shows his willingness to negotiate—with Moses, for instance. Therefore, we should not take anything written in the Bible literally; instead, consider the content as a starting point with which to negotiate our relationship with God or this era’s relationship with Him.
Perhaps part of the problem, as Jacobs learns, is that somewhere along the way, we stopped following what Jesus said and began to follow interpretations of what he said (270-1). People like Paul, for example, who had their own spin on what Jesus said. His ideas clearly present contradictions to what Jesus did and preached in the Gospels.
And if this doesn’t convince people to not take the Bible literally, Jacobs reminds them that even the Bible says not to do this, for people who over-literalize—take things too far, against the Bible’s intentions—are mocked in its pages (290).
But by this experience’s end, Jacobs has not arrived at a place where he is going to chuck everything contained in the Bible. He discusses how this experience he has trained him to follow every rule society enacts, such as seemingly meaningless traffic laws, like jaywalking. And when he did—and you can imagine how funny he looked doing so in Manhattan, where such laws are more or less suggestions—he discovered that what these really added to his life: an “enforced pause” (285). This timeout afforded him moments to reflect, not rush (285), and this, perhaps more than anything, demonstrates that there is value to living by a set of rules, even if they seem ridiculous on the surface.
Although I privileged the gay content in his experience here, I think focusing on it provides an important point: people who use the Bible zero in on a small sliver of the Bible’s content, and when they use it, they are not even representing the spirit of the ideas. Perhaps these people could use one of Jacobs’ pause moments in order to reflect on what they are using and, more importantly, why.