I have been reading an extract in Saturday’s Guardian from an autobiographical book by AJ Jacobs, an American agnostic Jew who decided to see if he could survive a year living biblically – in a very literal way.
This meant, among other things, letting his hair grow (“You shall not round the corners of your head” Leviticus 19:27), not wearing mixed fibres in his clothing, and of course, stoning adulterers. Not exactly activities to make new friends.
He writes: “I grew up in an extremely secular home in New York City. I am officially Jewish, although the closest my family came to observing Judaism was the Star of David on top of our Christmas tree. But in the past few years, religion has become my fixation. I fret. Is my blindness to spirituality a defect in my personality? What if I'm missing out on part of being human, like a guy who goes through life without ever hearing Beethoven or falling in love? And, most important, I now have a young son - if my lack of religion is a flaw, I don't want to pass it on to him.
I decided to explore religion - the question was how. The germ of the idea came from my own family: my uncle Gil. At some point along his spiritual path, via Hinduism and Christianity to Orthodox Judaism, Gil decided to take the Bible literally. Completely literally. Millions of Americans say they take the Bible literally, but my suspicion was that almost everyone's literalism consisted of picking and choosing the parts that fitted their agenda. That would not be my approach.”
He talks about the challenge of trying to know God, love Him and changing long-held attitudes. For instance, how hard it is not to tell little white lies just to keep things sweet? The truth is the Bible is 66 books of thousands of years of history with all its cultural baggage in tow.
It is really quite impossible for us in the UK living in the 21st century to really appreciate what it must have been like to live in a time and place like the Ancient Near East, let alone to make sense of Scripture that tells you that you shouldn’t sit in a chair where an unclean woman (menstruating) has sat. You just starting thinking what is it all about and how on earth it finds relevance to us today.
I remember watching an episode of The West Wing where an Evangelical Christian woman who is anti -same-sex civil marriages is lambasted by the President. He throws texts from Leviticus back in her face, accusing her of hypocrisy and double standards. For TV, he appears to make a pretty good case. However, even the brilliant script writing is no substitute for grappling with the reality of the texts, along with its numerous commentators’ multifarious views.
Living a year biblically is a formulaic approach to finding God design for selling books, and by the author’s own admission, it does not bring him much closer to finding real faith. It would be like me parking my unsexy Vauxhall Zafira in a Ferrari sales room for a year and expecting it turn into a premium sports car.
We are dealing with a supernatural God, not merely the psychology of a religion
Faith is a gift from God and sometimes rather annoyingly defies human understanding. Maybe, this gives us a clue into Leviticus and the intention of the editors of the Bible who could have so easily have left it. Its inclusion illustrates God is not in the business of being put in a box and catalogued under Religious Experiments.