Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | November 18, 2007

2007.11.18 “The Year of Living Biblically”

Central United Methodist Church

“The Year of Living Biblically”

Psalm 119:105:  “Thy word is a lamp

to my feet and a light to my path”

Rev. David L. Haley

November 18th, 2007 (Bible Sunday)

On this Bible Sunday, before you lead the chorus of:

“The B – I – B – L – E:

that’s the book for me”

you might want to consider the experience of A. J. Jacobs.

Jacobs is the author of a new book “The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible.”  Inspired by an uncle who at one point on his spiritual path tried living the Bible literally, Jacobs decided to do the same.

A Jew by birth and an agnostic by belief, Jacobs, 39, said he wanted to explore biblical literalism for two reasons: to under-stand a worldview shared by millions of Americans, and to live religion rather than study it, in hopes of discovering if he was missing out on spiritual life.

After marshaling a group of clergy and academic advisers and taping copies of the Ten Commandments all over his apartment, Jacobs pursued what he called a “moral makeover.”


Imagine spending a year of your life without telling a single lie, coveting thy neighbor’s iPhone or touching women. Jacobs did all that and more – stoning suspected adulterers with pebbles gathered in Central Park, worshipping with snake handlers at a Tennessee church, sacrificing chickens — attempting to adhere as literally as possible to the 800 or so rules in the Bible. 

So Jacobs tackled myriad rules, both uplifting and obscure. He honored his parents and blew a trumpet once a month. He didn’t cut his beard and immersed himself in religious communities ranging from evangelicals to Amish to Hasidic Jews.

Some rules proved more difficult than others. “I think there were two types of rules that were hard to follow,” said Jacobs, an editor at large at Esquire magazine. “The first was avoiding sins that we commit every day, all the time, like lying, gossiping, coveting, even stealing . . . . I work in the media, and I live in New York, so that’s like 90 percent of my day right there.”

“Trying not to covet was a huge challenge. I coveted everything, you know, the iPhone. I do covet that . . .

The ancient purity laws proved equally challenging, including a rule not to touch women, since they might be menstruating. In real terms, that meant no sitting on the subway or in restaurants where women may have sat.

But the positive side, Jacobs also embarked on a ritual of daily prayer. Initially, as a nonbeliever, it felt awkward, but he grew to appreciate it.  “It’s sort of like moral weight training: You’re forced to think about other people. And it trains your mind to be less selfish and to be more thoughtful, so in that sense I got really into it,” he said. “I became an extreme thanker. I was thanking the elevator for coming on time.”

Despite such challenges, Jacobs said in some ways taking the Bible literally simplified life. “We talk a lot in this country about freedom of choice, but here I was experiencing some of the benefits of freedom from choice,” Jacobs said.  “Because the Bible will tell you, should I give 10 percent to the needy? Yes. Should I read this magazine about Lindsay Lohan? No. Should I lie to make things easier with my wife? No. So it was almost a lovely, paradoxically liberating feeling to have freedom from choice.” (N.Y. Man Takes Bible Literally for a Year. Author Finds Following All the Rules Difficult but Liberating. By Shona Crabtree. Religion News Service, Saturday, November 10, 2007; Page B09)

Jacob’s experience — his willingness to do what we so-called Biblical Believers are not — illustrates the promise and problem of Biblical living.  The promise is what Biblical living offers us: of being for us, as Psalm 119:105 puts it, “a lamp to our feet and a light to our path”; the problem is to follow the Bible uncritically.

I suppose, in some ways, many of us could — I could — write a similar story, not only about a year, but “My Life with the Bible.” 

Like these youth, we are taught to revere the Bible before we even know what it is.  Black cover, luxurious paper, the words of Jesus in red, the Bible definitely looks like a holy book. So at some point we sit down to read it, start in Genesis, get to somewhere in Leviticus, feel like we’re reading the phone book, and that’s as far as we get.

Or, we may follow the “foxhole” approach of “how to use” the Bible.  Like the man in desperation who decided to open the bible, put his finger down, and do what it said.  The verse that he hit was, “Judas went and hanged himself.”  That didn’t appeal to him, so he tried again and the second verse he hit was, “Go thou and do likewise.”   Panicked, he tried again and the third hit said, “What thou doest, do quickly.”

Fact is, as much as we love the Bible, most of us are woefully ignorant of what it is, or how to read it. We’re like the man in colonial America, tarred and feathered for not supporting the Monroe Doctrine.  As he was carried out of town on a rail he was heard to say, “I didn’t say I didn’t believe the Monroe Doctrine; I said I didn’t know what it was.”

I would hasten to say, it’s not totally your fault. We pastors and shepherds of the church are at fault, at the least, for using the Bible as a pretext for our favorite causes; but, worse, for not consistently and honestly sharing what we know. 

Huston Smith, scholar of religion and Methodist, says that our religions, and their sacred texts, are our wisdom traditions.  For both Judaism and Christianity, and much of Western Civilization as we know it, the Bible is our Wisdom Tradition, our sacred text, and we ignore it at our peril.  Our disdain for the way fundamentalists have used the Bible should not obscure for us mainline Christians the fact of its importance.

I hated the ignorance my revivalist Methodist background left me with, and once I begin to learn, through the ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ, I couldn’t learn enough.  I began to teach, and like all others who teach, I learned the most, which has continued to this day.  I am looking forward to next Disciple Study we are offering, starting in January, Jesus and the Gospels.  Through such ongoing study, both personal and in groups, I have found the promise of the Bible to be true, and my own spiritual life and journey enriched.  Even though, I admit, for me it has led in directions I never thought I would go.

Which brings me to the second danger of attempting to live Biblically, which is to do it uncritically – as Jacobs was to find out.

I confess that early in my Christian journey, I was a fundamentalist.  Then I was an evangelical, and graduated from an evangelical seminary, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, in Deerfield.  But as I continued to learn — earning another Master’s degree at the University of Chicago — I grew beyond labels, believing that the answers you receive are determined by the questions you ask, and I came to believe there were just some questions evangelicals were afraid to ask, especially in regard to the Bible.  Nowadays, mostly through my own conversation with the Bible, I am somewhere off the charts, and sometimes feel, as the preacher and author Barbara Brown Taylor once said, that I expect to get a letter any day kicking me out.

There have now been over 200 hundred years of critical study of the Bible, and it was not handed down from on high in black letter binding on fine paper with red letter text, as we are often led to believe. The Bible is a library of books, written over a 1600 year period, through 60 generations, by 40+ authors, on 3 continents (Africa, Asia, Europe), in 3 languages (Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic), of their experience with God.  Those who wrote it — like us who read it — were fallible human beings, inextricably intertwined in life and culture and history, specifically the history of Israel.  The more we can know about them, the more we can understand them, of how sometimes they were right, and sometimes they were wrong.

There are parts of the Bible applicable only for a particular time and place, and parts that remain applicable and universal to every time and place.  Yes, we want justice, and increase love of God and love of neighbor, and to follow the 10 commandments and the Golden Rule, but do you really want to shave your beard, or stone adulterers, or avoid menstruating women?  And why are we so focused on the sexual laws, while ignoring those on war or wealth or coveting or giving, especially to the poor?  Do you ever ask yourself that?

Of course, determining which parts of the Bible are universal and applicable to all times and places, and which are only for one time and place, and which best not followed at all, is the question. And do we make that decision by faith, or by knowledge, especially scientific knowledge.  And what happens when the two answers collide.  Indeed, one of the greatest and most heated debates in today’s church, for example, about homosexuality, is between sincere Christians who believe the moral condemnations in the Bible about homosexuality are absolute and universal, and those who believe those references are dated and void, because, now, we know better. 

For example, we no longer believe the earth was created 4004 years ago, nor that it revolves around the sun (thanks to Galileo). Heaven is not up, and hell is not down. Kings do not have theocratic rights, slavery is never right, and women are not the property of men, all things the Bible teaches. 

It’s like this:  when you fly on an airplane, how comfortable would you feel if the pilot insisted on using a 1st century map?  When you go to the doctor, do you insist on a blood-letting?  Here’s the Merck Manual of medical knowledge, 17th edition, 1999. (4 inches thick). Here’s the Merck Manual of medical knowledge from 1900 (one-half inch thick). What’s the difference? We now know better.

This is why, for the most part, I am proud of our United Methodist appreciation of the Bible. At our best, we take the Bible seriously; we do not take it literally. We believe in Scripture, but we also believe in science. We believe in heartfelt faith, but we also believe that we don’t have to check our brains at the door.

In fact, I do not believe we can long be vital and growing Christians — much less a vital and growing congregation — unless we take the Bible seriously.  On the other hand, I do not believe we can be taken seriously, either as Christians or as the Church in the modern world, if we take the Bible literally.

There’s an anecdote about John Wesley, the founder of Methodism that I have always appreciated, though I’ve never been able to actually find it in Wesley’s works, so it may not be “true.” It tells of a man who came up to Oxford-educated Wesley and said, “I’ll have you know, Mr. Wesley, the Lord doesn’t need your great learning.”  To which Wesley supposedly replied, “And I’ll have you know, the Lord doesn’t need your ignorance, either.”

The more I have learned about the Bible — both good and bad — the more seriously I take it.  It’s characters — warts and all — become like old friends. Abraham and Sarah, Job the sufferer, David, whose psalms still shape us. The prophets still shape my preaching and my politics. Peter and Paul, fishermen and zealots, John the Revelator, seeing a new heaven and earth, still shape our dreams. 

Best of all, the Bible tells us of Jesus, who not only taught us the Word of God, but who was the WORD of God.  Jesus, who not only taught us how to live but showed us how to live, with his life and with his death and with his life over death.  Jesus, who not only knew and followed the Law, but broke the Law, as necessary, in the interest of justice and compassion.

A year of Biblical living might be good.  A lifetime of following Jesus would be better.   Both begin here. (Holding Bible).


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