A few years ago, a good friend recommended a book called The Year of Living Biblically. It was summer and the family beach trip was approaching, so the timing was perfect. Turned out to be a great read - one of those rare books that's both entertaining and thought-provoking. If you haven't heard the concept, author A.J. Jacobs decided to take an entire year to live biblically - in other words, following every one of the 600-700 laws of the Old and New Testaments to a "T," no matter how silly they seemed in today's world or what awkward situation they might put him in. It's a fabulous read and certainly worth your time. If you're looking for a teaser, check out this short TED video (click HERE if it doesn't appear):
It should be noted that Jacobs was raised Jewish but considers himself an agnostic. Even so, this self-imposed journey was not about making fun of religion, but in fact exploring its depths in a way, quite frankly, many religious folk have not. Of course, he knew he'd be writing a book and had to sell copies. Still, there's a level of sincerity to what he does that appeals to both the faithful and skeptic.
There are lots of hilarious moments, like the time he had to find an adulterer to stone, or the time he spent shepherding (with an actual sheep). In the end, Jacobs' beliefs weren't necessarily changed - he bills himself now as a "reverent agnostic" - but he says he came to a better understand of faith and appreciation for the Bible, captured in his "Thou Shalls" below. Ironically, I feel these are words of wisdom not only for the reverent agnostics among us, but the faithful as well:
Thou shall not take the Bible literally - I remember an exercise my Old Testament seminary professor led us in on our first day of class. She had us split into groups of three or four, gave us a large sheet of newsprint and markers, and asked us to draw Song of Solomon 4:1-5, exactly as we read it. Look it up and you'll understand the point of the exercise. Taking the Bible seriously and taking it literally are two very, very different things.
Thou shall give thanks - One of the great thing Jacobs took away from his experience of living Biblically was how his behavior changed his thoughts - kind of the opposite of how we usually think things work. Simply following God's command to give thanks, in the long run, actually made him a more thankful person. I love the way Jacobs describes how he started realizing the little things that went right every day instead of the few things that went wrong.
Thou shall have reverence - Might sound odd coming from an agnostic, but remember - he's a reverent agnostic. Yeah, I'm not quite sure what that means either, but Jacobs does recognize that there's something important about the idea of sacredness and seeking out the sacred in our world. I'd agree with that.
Thou shall not stereotype - Jacobs spent a lot of time with different religious groups as part of this exercise - everything from evangelical Christians to Hasidic Jews to Red-Letter Christians. He went into those interactions with a lot of preconceived notions, and he came out learning that many of them were not true. If only we could do the same. Our society today - especially religious circles - is often built on the premise that we don't necessarily need to interact with "the other," especially if we think we've got it right already. Here's to Jacobs for demonstrating the folly of that thinking.
Thou shall not disregard the irrational - A common criticism on organized religion is that some religious practices make no rational sense. Can't argue with them there - who really understands communion, anyway? Or the one Jacobs initially wrestled with - the commandment against wearing clothes made out of mixed fabric (yep, it's in there). What Jacobs came to realize, though, is that the mystery of the irrational in faith actually comprises the very heart of belief. As long as they're not harming another person, he says, they serve a good purpose.
Thou shall pick and choose - This one's a little tough to swallow. I can't totally buy Jacob's image of "cafeteria religion;" a buffet line where you grab a little bit of this and that; whatever your taste buds desire at the moment. I don't think that's the way it works. But he hits the nail on the head when he says you can't follow everything in the Bible. Inevitably, we wind up picking and choosing, whether we admit it or not. The key, Jacobs says, is choosing the right things to follow. I'd clarify that a bit more to say that the task of the faithful is to look for the "common threads" that run throughout the scriptures - not only in the books of the law, but in stories of the Old Testament, the prophets, the writings, the life of Jesus, and the words of the early church. And when we focus on those common threads that tie them all together - rather than extracting an obscure verse or two here and there - I'd say we do the best job we can of "living biblically."
Like I said, I can't agree with everything A.J. Jacobs says. But he does get the wheels turning and us thinking about what we believe and why. And that certainly can't be a bad thing.