Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Loveless Law-keeping

What if you woke up tomorrow determined to take the Bible at its literal word?  That is the premise of the book, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, by A.J. Jacobs.  A professional memoir writer/Esquire columnist he wanted to explore his Jewish roots and see what all the fuss was about.  He devoted an entire calendar year to the pursuit of following the Bible literally - 8 months for the Old Testament and 4 months for the New Testament. 

Jacobs is a little neurotic, very funny and an admittedly secular person.  That makes it entertaining to read about the fact that he didn't trim his beard for a year, wore tassels on his all-white clothes, and gave up shaking hands in an attempt to observe the laws of both female and male purity (ceremonial uncleanness during/following menstruation or seminal emmision).  I loved the description of the intense awkwardness of going through airport security with an enormous beard.   And don't get me started on the time he tried to build a hut (for the Feast of Booths) in the living room of his New York City apartment. More than once he came to realizations that were encouraging to me; as a non-spanker he finally understood how much his young son needed more structure and discipline.

He wasn't always successful in his quest.  The moral laws proved impossible for him.  He continued to lie through out the year and experienced a steep learning curve on both the Sabbath and lust. He became very aware as the year passed of his inability to generate humility in himself or to kill his pride and self-absorption (not that I don't have sympathy for someone googling themselves or checking the statistics on their blog). 

He also admits to having failed in his quest because he undertook it so individually.  The law given at Sinai was meant to be lived out in a community.  Tithing was a religious tax not a personal gift to charity.  Capital punishment was an act of the entire community, each one lifting a stone against the lawbreaker. Worship especially is a group activity and there is no possible way to follow the example of the New Testament (either Jesus or the apostles) in isolation. 

But for all that, he tried his best to follow every law he could find in the Bible. He would label me a "fundamentalist," and I was impressed that even so he was following rules I had barely even heard of; did you know multiple places in Proverbs warn against winking? (Proverbs 10:10; 16:30) He reexamined and refused to excuse away difficult texts.  I was reminded with a pang of guilt that I have often skimmed over things without deeply considering application.  In the book, Jacobs feels guilty for absentmindedly listening to his parents during his weekly 20 minute duty call in light of the commandment to "honor your father and mother." I need to apply what I read like that.

Jacobs records being told that the New Testament couldn't be followed one commandment at a time but that the entire new covenant was about putting faith in Jesus Christ.  This was "leap of faith" was one he was unwilling to take.  Although no one put it quite this way, Jesus would say that Jacobs was unable to follow the old covenant as well since he failed in the first and greatest command
You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Deuteronomy 6:5
I can recommend this to you with a single caveat. It is at times irreverent.  That shouldn't be unexpected - Jacobs began and remained agnostic throughout the book.  Law-keeping without love, or for the New Testament ethics-keeping without faith is naturally ridiculous.  This of course lent the book humor but it also left it at times contemptuous of things I hold precious. But the book was funny, interesting, and very thought-provoking.   I was challenged to examine the commandments and ask myself if I was excusing them away or trying my best to fulfill them.  And more poignantly I was reminded that no amount of commandment keeping substitutes for the weightier matters of faith, hope and love.


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