I recently mentioned I was reading a fantastic book called The Year of Living Biblically and promised to talk more about it when I finished. Unfortunately I procrastinated a little because I had the NFP posts scheduled, so now the book has been returned to the library and I will have to do my best from memory.
The premise of the book is that A.J. Jacobs, who wrote his first book about reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, decides to spend a year attempting to follow every rule in the Bible. Since some Old Testament and New Testament verses contradict one another, he spends three-quarters of the year following the Old Testament rules and then the remaining months adding on the New Testament commandments.
Jacobs makes a few discoveries during this year:
- Even though he spends a few months of prep time creating his list of rules, it is impossible to begin following every rule at once. It's just too much to get your head around. He decides instead to add them to his daily life in layers, focusing on certain ones at any given time.
- There are a lot of different groups attempting to follow the Bible literally. Here's what's so interesting: None of them live exactly the same way. Jacobs visits with many of these groups and each of them put more emphasis on some rules than others, and some dismiss as irrelevant ones that others view as central.
- There are varying degrees of how much to take as literal:
- Even the most fundamental Christians don't literally follow Jesus' command that "If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out," although there have been cases of mental patients trying to remove their eyes.
- Some people believe that if a Biblical prophet is described as doing something, we should do it too, even if it's not specifically commanded, while others only adhere to verses that literally say, "You shall" or "You shall not."
- Even "you shall" verses may be interpreted as moral -- applying to everyone, in every era -- or historical, only applying to those who were first commanded to do so.
- Biblical stories are open to interpretation -- if somebody in the Bible did something and God punished them, there may be six different interpretations of why exactly that person was punished and as many opinions on whether it's necessary for us to avoid that behavior.
At the end of the book, Jacobs directly acknowledges what I had been thinking for most of the book: It's common to condemn someone as being a "cafeteria Christian," only following the Biblical rules that fit with their viewpoint, but every Christian is a cafeteria Christian. Everyone who wants to follow the Bible has to make decisions about which verses need to be followed literally and what behaviors constitute "adhering to the rule."
For example, Christians have to decide how much of the Old Testament law they believe Jesus' sacrifice or teachings wiped out. Jews have to decide which rules became irrelevant when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. (Almost all believe that animal sacrifice was no longer required after the Temple was destroyed, but other areas are not as clear.)
There are two main ways you can make these decisions:
- You can figure it out for yourself, as Jacobs does.
- You can allow someone else to interpret the Bible for you and just tell you what to do.
The issue, of course, with having a religious group that tells people what to do is that they aren't required to adhere strictly to what's in the Bible. They are the experts, after all, on what God really meant and really wants from you, and so their teachings encompass more than the topics covered in the Bible.
One orthodox Jewish man that Jacobs meets talks about the order in which you should put your shoes on and tie them, according to rabbinical teachings. It's not in the Bible, but, he says, it saves you from spending mental energy wondering which way God wants you to put your shoes on. As if the average person is devoting lots of brainpower to that decision.
(All of this assumes, of course, that you care about following the Bible in the first place. Jacobs is not a particular religious person when beginning his year -- a secular Jew, he calls himself -- but he finds many unexpected benefits from following Biblical rules, overall finding a greater sense of peace, contemplation, and even deep gratitude, though he's not entirely sure to Whom.)
For my own part, this whole reflection helped me to better understand my own relationship to the Catholic Church. I don't wish to spend time puzzling out God's message on every single aspect of life, so I start with Church teaching. And where it makes sense I try to apply it to my own life. Where it doesn't make sense -- where it is discriminatory or harmful or flies in the face of what I know to be true about the world and other people -- I choose to listen to God and hash those things out for myself.
In the end, I think all people of faith, of all faiths, are doing their best to live in a way that is congruent with their deepest convinctions about what they are called to do. Namecalling and judgment serve no purpose in bringing another person closer to God. Jesus said to remove the plank from your own eye before taking a speck of dust out of another's eye; if you are tempted to call someone else a "cafeteria Christian," I invite you to pull out your Bible and see all of the rules you yourself (or your chosen religion) have decided are irrelevant. Or just read Jacobs' book -- you'll get the idea soon enough.
Where do you stand? Do you try to follow the Bible, a religion's teachings, your own calling from God, or a combination?