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26 October 2013
While searching for truth, there are those who, experimentally, for a season, push things to an extreme. This method of hands-on learning can lead to some interesting results and even, hopefully, some valuable insights which could not be gained by lesser methods.
Last year I read a book which detailed one such experiment; this week I just finished a second such book. While I definitely don't agree with everything these two authors believe, wrote or concluded, I did find their accounts to be helpful in my own search for truth and journey with Yeshua (Jesus) — helpful enough that I felt they were well worth sharing with you.
Both of these books are penetrating and provocative — often hilarious but just as often deeply serious. Not only will they give you fresh insights as you journey into truth, but they will likely challenge you to reconsider cherished truths which might not be as true as you had imagined.
Of course, you have to read these books just like you do all other books. There are good things and not-so-good things in them — so just eat the meat and spit out the bones! If you have submitted and committed yourself to Yeshua, then you have the Holy Spirit living in your heart, who is promised to "guide you into all the truth" (John 16:13). Therefore, as you read you can listen to His teaching voice in your heart, and let peace be the umpire.
The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible by A.J. Jacobs.
Mr. Jacobs is a blogger who happens to be a secular agnostic Jew — that's how he started his year of living Biblically, and that's pretty much how he ended it. Therefore, keep in mind that he is not speaking from the point of view of a follower of Yeshua. On the other hand, that fact does not disqualify him from sharing good things from his experience.
In preparation for his year-long experiment, he shared these thoughts:
I've read bits and pieces of the Bible before, but never the whole thing, never straight through from Genesis to Revelation. So that's what I do for four weeks, five hours a day.... As I read, I type into my PowerBook [Mac laptop] every rule, every guideline, every suggestion, every nugget of advice I find in the Bible. When I finish, I have a very long list. It runs seventy-two pages. More than seven hundred rules. The scope is astounding. All aspects of my life will be affected — the way I talk, walk, eat, bathe, dress, and hug my wife....Here are some of the conclusions Mr. Jacobs came to at the end of his year:
Millions of Americans say they take the Bible literally.... But my suspicion was that almost everyone's literalism consisted of picking and choosing.... Not me. I thought, with some naïveté, I would peel away the layers of interpretation and find the true Bible underneath. I would do this by being the ultimate fundamentalist. I'd be fearless. I would do exactly what the Bible said, and in so doing, I'd discover what's great and timeless in the Bible and what is outdated....
This is going to be a monster project. I need a plan of attack. I need to make some decisions: Which version of the Bible should I use? What does it mean to follow the Bible literally? Should I obey the Old Testament, the New Testament, or both? Should I have guides — spiritual advisors?
It's a good bet that, at some time or other in history, every single passage in the Bible has been taken as literal. I've decided I can't do that. That'd be misleading, unnecessarily flip, and would result in missing body parts [you'll have to read the book to find out what that means!]. No, instead my plan is this: I will try to find the original intent of the biblical rule or teaching and follow that to the letter. If the passage is unquestionably figurative ... then I won't obey it literally. But if there's any doubt whatsoever — and most often there is — I will err on the side of being literal. When it says don't tell lies, I'll try not to tell any lies. When it says to stone blasphemers, I'll pick up rocks.
There's a phrase called "Cafeteria Christianity." It's a derisive term used by fundamentalist Christians to describe moderate Christians. The idea is that the moderates pick and choose the parts of the Bible they want to follow. They take a nice helping of mercy and compassion. But the ban on homosexuality? They leave that on the countertop.
Fundamentalist Jews don't use the phrase "Cafeteria Judaism," but they have the same critique. You must follow all of the Torah, not just the parts that are palatable.
Their point is, the religious moderates are inconsistent. They're just making the Bible conform to their own values.
The year showed me beyond a doubt that everyone practices cafeteria religion. It's not just moderates. Fundamentalists do it too. They can't heap everything on their plate. Otherwise they'd kick women out of church for saying hello ("the women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak..." — 1 Corinthians 14:34) and boot out men for talking about the "Tennessee Titans" ("make not mention of the names of other gods..." — Exodus 23:13).
But the more important lesson was this: there's nothing wrong with choosing. Cafeterias aren't bad per se. I've had some great meals at cafeterias. I've also had some turkey tetrazzini that gave me the dry heaves for sixteen hours. The key is in choosing the right dishes. You need to pick the nurturing ones (compassion), the healthy ones (love thy neighbor), not the bitter ones. Religious leaders don't know everything about every food, but maybe the good ones can guide you to what is fresh. They can be like a helpful lunch lady who — OK, I've taken the metaphor too far.
Now, this does bring up the problem of authority. Once you acknowledge that we pick and choose from the Bible, doesn't that destroy its credibility? Doesn't that knock the legs out from under it? Why should we put stock in any of the Bible?
"That's a big question," says one of my rabbis, Robbie Harris. I put the question to Robbie as well as every other member of my advisory board. There's no simple or totally satisfying answer. But let me offer two interesting ideas from them:
The first is from the pastor out to pasture, Elton Richards. Here's his metaphor: Try thinking of the Bible as a snapshot of something divine. It may not be a perfect picture. It may have flaws: a thumb on the lens, faded colors in the corners. But it still helps to visualize.
"I need something specific," says Elton. "Beauty is a general thing. It's abstract. I need to see a rose. When I see that Jesus embraced lepers, that's a reason for me to embrace those with AIDS. If he embraced Samaritans, that is a reason for me to fight racism."
The second is from Robbie himself. He says we can't insist that the Bible marks the end of our relationship with God. Who are we to say that the Bible contains all the wisdom? "If you insist that God revealed himself only at one time, at one particular place, using these discrete words, and never any time other than that — that in itself is a kind of idolatry." His point is: You can commit idolatry on the Bible itself. You can start to worship the words instead of the spirit.
A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband "Master" by Rachel Held Evans.It is very interesting to note that both Mr. Jacobs and Mrs. Evans came to a similar conclusion: Even the most extreme Biblical fundamentalists, who insist that they follow the Bible completely — even they still pick and choose which Biblical commands to obey. Nobody can obey all of them. But then again, this conclusion should not be so surprising. Isn't it exactly what the Bible teaches?
Mrs. Evans is a blogger who identifies herself as a "Christian." I put that in quotes because after 1,700 or more years of "Christians" misrepresenting and discrediting Yeshua by their unChristlike behavior and beliefs, the term "Christian" does not have much real meaning these days. She also calls herself a "follower of Jesus," which is more hopeful — with all of my heart I hope that that term doesn't lose its meaning as well!
I'll give Mrs. Evans the benefit of the doubt, because many of her insights seem Biblically sound — although, as you will read below, she would most likely disapprove of me using the word "Biblically." Furthermore, her book is published by a "Christian" publisher — for whatever that's worth.
On the other hand, she says some things that seem pretty "out there," so it's hard to know exactly where she is coming from. But since she seems to be on a journey towards the truth, and since I am on a similar journey, and in light of the sometimes "out there" things that I write, I guess I can't critique her too harshly.
Her one-year experiment was similar in many ways to the one of Mr. Jacobs. But because it was focused on "Biblical womanhood" rather than "living Biblically," there were also some noticeable differences. Being male myself, I didn't find the focus on womanhood to significantly diminish the application of the book to my life.
Here are some of the conclusions Mrs. Evans came to at the end of her year:
The Bible isn't an answer book. It isn't a self-help manual. It isn't a flat, perspicuous list of rules and regulations that we can interpret objectively and apply unilaterally to our lives.
The Bible is a sacred collection of letters and laws, poetry and proverbs, philosophy and prophecies, written and assembled over thousands of years in cultures and contexts very different from our own, that tells the complex, ever-unfolding story of God's interaction with humanity.
When we turn the Bible into an adjective and stick it in front of another loaded word (like manhood, womanhood, politics, economics, marriage, and even equality), we tend to ignore or downplay the parts of the Bible that don't fit our tastes. In an attempt to simplify, we try to force the Bible's cacophony of voices into a single tone, to turn a complicated and at times troubling holy text into a list of bullet points we can put in a manifesto or creed. More often than not, we end up more committed to what we want the Bible to say than what it actually says.
So after twelve months of "biblical womanhood," I'd arrived at the rather unconventional conclusion that there is no such thing. The Bible does not present us with a single model for womanhood, and the notion that it contains a sort of one-size-fits-all formula for how to be a woman of faith is a myth....
I believe that my calling as a Christian is the same as that of any other follower of Jesus. My calling is to love the Lord with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love my neighbor as myself. Jesus himself said that the rest of Scripture can be rendered down into these two commands. If love was Jesus' definition of "biblical," then perhaps it should be mine.
Philosopher Peter Rollins has said, "By acknowledging that all our readings [of Scripture] are located in a cultural context and have certain prejudices, we understand that engaging with the Bible can never mean that we simply extract meaning from it, but also that we read meaning into it. In being faithful to the text we must move away from the naïve attempt to read it from some neutral, heavenly height and we must attempt to read it as one who has been born of God and thus born of love: for that is the prejudice of God. Here the ideal of scripture reading as a type of scientific objectivity is replaced by an approach that creatively interprets with love."
For those who count the Bible as sacred, interpretation is not a matter of whether to pick and choose, but how to pick and choose. We are all selective. We all wrestle with how to interpret and apply the Bible to our lives. We all go to the text looking for something, and we all have a tendency to find it. So the question we have to ask ourselves is this: Are we reading with the prejudice of love or are we reading with the prejudices of judgment and power, self-interest and greed?
If you are looking for Bible verses with which to support slavery, you will find them. If you are looking for verses with which to abolish slavery, you will find them. If you are looking for verses with which to oppress women, you will find them. If you are looking for verses with which to liberate and honor women, you will find them. If you are looking for reasons to wage war, you will find them. If you are looking for reasons to promote peace, you will find them. If you want to do violence in this world, you will always find the weapons. If you want to heal, you will always find the balm. If you are looking for an outdated and irrelevant ancient text, you will find it. If you are looking for truth, believe me, you will find it.
This is why there are times when the most instructive question to bring to the text is not, what does it say? but what am I looking for?
Every one of them is unclean, altogether corrupt; not one of them does what is good, not a single one. (Psalm 53:3)Yeshua the Messiah came to perfectly fulfill the Biblical commands in our place. For His entire earthly life He lived Biblically, knowing that as sinful human beings we were not able to do so. Through His death and resurrection, we are made partakers of His righteousness, which enables us to live in a manner which pleases God — see Romans 8:1-9.
We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags. Like autumn leaves, we wither and fall, and our sins sweep us away like the wind. (Isaiah 64:6)
Everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God's glorious standard. (Romans 3:23)
As Mrs. Evans concluded, love is the key to living Biblically. As the Apostle Paul explained:
If you love your neighbor, you will fulfill the requirements of God's law.... All the commandments are summed up in this one commandment: "Love your neighbor as yourself." Love does no wrong to others, so love fulfills the requirements of God's law. (Romans 13:8b,9b,10)I encourage you to get a copy of both of these books. Buy, borrow or beg — but thou shalt not steal! — and read them both in their entirety. Once you are done, come back here and share your comments and insights below, so that we can all benefit from what you have learned.
For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: "Love your neighbor as yourself." (Galatians 5:14)
For a closer look at living Biblically, don't miss my next article: Should Christian Males Be Castrated?
14 January 2014 UPDATE and DISCLAIMER:
I found out today that Mrs. Evans just spoke at the annual Gay Christian Network conference this past weekend. I think we can safely assume that she wasn't there to show them the error of their ways and to plead with them to repent of their sexual immorality! She also seems quite annoyed with Phil Robertson and his supporters, as she expressed in a recent blog article. For more on this subject, see my article Christianity and Homosexuality.
As I mentioned above, when I read her book I had strong doubts about where she was coming from and if she truly was a "Christian." Even though she has some good things to say in her book, I might want to reconsider my recommendation of it, and you might want to reconsider reading it. As with anything you read, "eat the meat and spit out the bones."
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