"Jacobs, a New York Jewish agnostic (he says he is Jewish in the same sense that the Olive Garden restaurant is Italian, which is to say, not much), decides to follow the laws and rules of the Bible, beginning with the Old Testament, for one year. (He actually adds some bonus days and makes it a 381-day year.) He starts by growing a beard and we are with him through every itchy moment. Jacobs is borderline OCD, at least as he describes himself; obsessing over possible dangers to his son, germs, literal interpretation of Bible verses, etc. He enlists the aid of counselors along the way; Jewish rabbis, Christians of every stripe, friends and neighbors.
"In an open-minded way he also visits with atheists, Evangelicals Concerned (a gay group), Jerry Falwell, snake handlers, Red Letter Christians--those who adhere to the red letters in the Bible, those words spoken by Jesus Himself, and even takes a trip to Israel and meets Samaritans. Through it all, he keeps a healthy skepticism, but continues to pray and is open to the flowering of real faith.
"Jacobs is a knowledge junky, to be sure. He enjoys the lore he picks up along the way as much as any other aspect of his experiment. One of the ongoing schticks is his meeting with the shatnez tester, Mr. Berkowitz. He is the one who determines whether or not your clothes are made of mixed fibers, in keeping with the Biblical injunction not to wear wool and linen together. The two become friends and prayer partners, in only one of the unexpected results of this year."In the end, he says, "I'm now a reverent agnostic. Which isn't an oxymoron, I swear. I now believe that whether or not there's a God, there is such a thing as sacredness. Life is sacred." Not a bad outcome." --Valerie Ryan
He also came to believe that the Bible is a valuable holy text that deserves respect and hard scrutiny.
There are a variety of interesting insights for us all along the way in this book. In the first place, since Judaism as we know it today is all about orthopraxy more than orthodoxy ( a way of living faithfully according to the Torah), it is no surprise that Jacobs approaches things from the point of view of changed behavior first. Indeed, he notes how changed behavior seems to change beliefs along the way. This is indeed a profound truth that too few Christians understand. The habits of the body affect the habits of the heart and mind. Thus, whilst Evangelicals might well think that Jacobs starts things the wrong way around (i.e. he should have begun to change his beliefs first, leaving behind his secular attitudes and assumptions), in Jacobs case changed behavior opened the door to a reconsideration of beliefs. Hmmm. Maybe its not such a bad thing to get people to go to church regularly before they believe in Jesus.
A second profound insight from this book is that no one, and I do mean no one, actually follows the Bible literally in all its demands and aspects. This includes the most diligent orthodox Jews, and the most fundamentalist Protestants. All are selective in various ways, and in some cases the selectivity has a good rationale (e.g. the Temple isn't around any more, therefore Jews shouldn't offer sacrifices), and sometimes it does not.
A.J. Jacobs is a funny guy, and he writes very well, but lest you think his Bible Quest was done in jest, I would urge you to read through the book and see how hard he struggled to keep God's Word even in particulars, as he strove to understand it all. He assumes throughout that there must be a reason for all these peculiar rules and 613 plus commandments in the OT, never mind the NT. And to be balanced, he spends the final one third of his quest trying to follow the commandments and teachings of the NT. Fair is fair.
What is interesting is that a genuine spiritual quest happened along the way of this little experiment and it is important to notice its effects. For one thing, Jacobs became a less critical and profoundly more grateful person for God's good gifts of life and health and the like. A few excerpts will give you the flavor of the book.
"Before I started living biblically, I had feared that I'd be forced into a year of sobriety. After all, I knew some Puritans banned booze. And certain fundamentalist Christians think of alcohol as up there with adultery, idol worship and South Park. A few even argue that the 'wine' drunk in the Bible is not wine at all but actually grape juice. This was the thinking of a temperance advocate named Thomas Welch, who tried to sell 'unfermented wine' in the late 19th century for communion services. He failed. At least until his family changed the name to grape juice and marketed it to the secular.
" The truth is, biblical wine is wine. But is it a good thing or a bad thing? In some passages wine seems like a gift from God. In other passages , it is portrayed as a wicked toxin: '[Wine] bites like a serpent, and stings like an adder. Your eyes will see strange things, and your mind utter perverse things. You will be like who who lies down in the midst of the sea, like one who lies on top of a mast." (Proverbs 23.32-34)
"To clear things up, I found the expert of all experts, a conservative Christian oenophile named Daniel Whitfield. Whitfield has made an astoundingly exhaustive study of every alcohol reference in Scripture-- all 247 of them. I quote here his findings:
On the negative side, there are 17 warnings against abusing alcohol, 19 examples of people
abusing alcohol, 3 references to selecting leaders, and one verse advocating abstinence if
drinking will cause a brother to stumble. Total negative references 40, or 16%.
On the positive side, there are 59 references to the commonly accepted practice of drinking
wine (and strong drink) with meals, 27 references to the abundance of wine as an example
of God's blessing, 20 references to the loss of wine and strong drink as an example of God's
curse, 25 references to the use of wine in offerings and sacrifices, 9 references to wine
being used as a gift, and 5 metaphorical references to wine as a basis for a favorable com-
parison. Total positive references: 145, or 59%.
"Neutral references make up the other 25%. If I could add only one observation to Whitfield's study: There is also one reference to medicinal alcohol: 'No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of yopur stomach and your frequent ailments (1 Timothy 5.23).
"It comes down to a battle between the Bible's gusto for life, and the Bible's wariness of excess. Between its Epicureanism and Puritanism. You can find both themes in Scripture....The key seems to be to enjoy wine as one of the many great things God has provided us. But don't enjoy it too much. Use what Anheuser-Busch public service announcements call 'responsible drinking'. Otherwise, bad things happen." (pp. 231-33).
One of the things that is interesting about this and other surveys and studies that Jacobs does in this book is the sort of flat hermeneutic applied to the Biblical text, assuming that it all applies to all God's people at all times, rather than a more covenantal approach which says that there are different regulations for differing times in the history of God's people as the covenant and its rules are changed by God. In other words, Jacobs the secular Jew reads the Bible like the ultimate literalist or fundamentalist. Interesting.
Jacobs takes trips to visit all kinds of persons-- orthodox Jews both inside and outside the Holy Land, the Amish, a snake handling preacher outside Knoxville, various red-letter Christians, and he even visits Jerry Falwell's Church and finds them remarkably friendly and welcoming, to his surprise. He also critiques the sermon Falwell gave on the 50th anniversary of the founding to Thomas Road Baptist Church. He uses the Biblical passages on Jubilee in the Bible, and encourages the audience to be soul winners. Here is Jacobs comment:
"It's not a particularly offensive sermon, but I will say that it has absolutely nothing to do with the Jubilee the Bible talks about. The Bible's Jubilee year is about forgiving debts and returning all property to the original owner, about social justice, about evening the balance between rich and poor. Falwell's was about expanding his church." (p. 262).
And now we have hit on something truly insightful. Biblical literalists often, oxymoronically, spirtualize passages of the Bible so they can use them for their own purposes, and not for the purposes originally intended in the text. Or as Jacobs puts it in his final summary "The year showed me beyond a doubt that everyone practices cafeteria religion. It's not just the moderates. Fundamentalists do it too. They can't heap everything on their plate." (p. 328). Wow. Busted. Along the way Jacobs also learned that fundamentalists are in most ways absolutely normal and often very likable persons. They're just religiously conservative.
A long time ago, I learned that it is a good thing to take a step back and listen to outsiders, so that you can see yourself as others see you. This helps to learn, at a minimum, the impression you leave on people who are outsiders, which is not an unimportant factor if you are trying to win the world for Christ. In that vein, this book is a very important book for Christians to read. It will make you smile, it will make you cry, and above all it is achingly genuine and honest, and occasionally profound. If you read it, let me know what you think.