I was intrigued last week when I read the Huffington Post article, A.J. Jacobs’s TED Talk, ‘My Year Of Living Biblically,’ Raises Important Questions About How To Read The Bible and watched the video. Jacobs is, by his own admission, an agnostic. He is a writer that likes to immerse himself in whatever topic he is going to write about. In this case, it was trying to live out all of the commands he found in the Bible. My first reaction to the title of the Huff Post article was, “What about historical/grammatical context?” This is something which believers and non-believers alike either are uninformed about or disregard and is destined to bring about wrong understandings of Scripture. Not all things are too all people for all time. Some need to be understood in the context of the times and language. The problems can be seen in the reason for the experiment and the outline of his approach.
Jacobs, a writer for Esquire magazine known for immersing himself in his subjects, decided to spend one year living out all the rules of the Bible – literally. Concerned with the rise of religious fundamentalism, Jacobs wanted to show the logical conclusion of following every law (he compiled over 700 from multiple versions) to the letter. From the 10 commandments to more obscure writs, Jacobs obeyed them all
His concern about “religious fundamentalism” does not seem to make a distinction between, say, Evangelical/Fundamentalist Christians and Islamic Fundamentalists. Does his experiment “to show the logical conclusion of following every law”? Not really. I did enjoy his short video talk on this and thought we could have an interesting discussion over lunch. One of the things I would have to point out is that when we speak of taking the Bible literally it is not a wooden literalism but a historical/grammatical literalism. For example, when Jesus said, “I am the door” he was not claiming to be a piece of wood with hinges hanging on a door frame. He was using a figure of speech to communicate that He is the way or access to God.
Another aspect is the purpose of some things. For example, was the Law given to teach us how to live? That is how Jacobs is applying it. According to the Apostle Paul who discusses the Law in Romans 1 – 3 at great length tells us in Romans 3:19-20:
Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.
Who are those that are under the Law? Those who are not in Christ. What was the Law given for? Again, the Apostle Paul address this in Galatians 3:24-25:
Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.
Unfortunately, because Jacobs intentionally chose to ignore historical/grammatical context, he missed some very important aspects of Scripture.
Some things from his experience were interesting though. He said that he learned that by doing some of the things in Scripture, changing his behavior changed his thoughts. If you want to become more compassionate visit sick people in the hospital and you will become more compassaionate. “You donate money to a cause, you become emotionally involved in that cause.” He mentions that in Proverbs it says that “if you smile you will become happier” which, he said, “is actually true.” This is an aspect of faith that is often neglected and not well taught on. We have grown to depend on our feelings and allow them to rule us. However, our feelings can deceive us and will change as we change our behavior.
He concludes by claiming that we must just pick and choose which Bible passages we want to believe and act on. However, noting that all passages in Scripture do not apply to all people at all times in the same way is not the same as “picking and choosing” passages to follow. His essential position is as absurd as taking a Do It Yourself Manual and just opening it up to wherever it calls in order to fix a plumbing leak. You may follow it without regard to context and connect your electrical outlet to the water faucet and electrocute someone. To say you were following the manual without picking and choosing labels you irresponsible or uniformed or both and put you and those around you in danger. Jacobs method does the same thing just on a spiritual level. Unfortunately the fruits of his risky methods won’t be apparent until after death.