Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Year of Living Biblically

I finally made it to the top of the waiting list at the library for The Year of Living Biblically. I wasn't sure what to expect, but the premise looked interesting--an agnostic men's magazine editor spends a year trying to follow everything the Bible says, as literally as possible. It could have gone different ways, from very cynical to very serious. Fortunately, he seems to have taken the project rather seriously. There's plenty of humor, but especially as the book progresses, he becomes more introspective and seems more in pursuit of some meaningful results.

The author is Jewish, so although he begins with a sensible enough division of the year--focusing proportionally on one testament at a time--by the time he gets to the New Testament, he confesses a more detached approach. Indeed, although he continually maintains an attempt to be biblical, rather than following some traditional application, he leans heavily on Jewish tradition to aid his efforts. Of course, it should only make sense that applying OT commands will bear some striking resemblances to Rabbinic Judaism, since the objective of Jewish tradition is to keep the Torah. And there are points where he decisively departs from tradition--meat and dairy restrictions, for instance (though he does avoid cooking a young goat in its mother's milk). But he also appeals at various points to existing Jewish practice--bringing in an Orthodox Jewish consultant to check his wardrobe for mixed fabrics, sacrificing a chicken with Hasidim, etc.

I guess the most interesting thing to me was how his efforts to live biblically led him to appreciate Jewish tradition, not just for its biblical aspects, but as his own distant heritage and as a logical way to apply the OT, even though it clearly does go beyond what's explicitly written in the text. He recognized that often you have to choose how to apply a biblical command, and acknowledged the advantage of tradition's explication. On the other hand, by the end of the book he tended more to embrace the freedom to choose for himself. In this respect, the book is unremarkable. It concludes with much the same outlook that one sees today in other postmodern approaches to the Bible--everyone picks and chooses, you have to pick and choose, it's probably OK to let a tradition choose for you, but it's also OK to choose for yourself, as long as you do it with open eyes. Is it telling that at the same time he admits only to a greater belief in the sacred, while remaining agnostic about God? In my own experience, it was a lot easier to accept this fuzzy, postmodern vision while my focus was on the Bible as such. I wasn't exactly agnostic about God, but I was certainly more vague about him than at any other point in my life. Once God comes into focus as a personal, self-existent entity, it gets a lot harder to accept that making a choice is more significant than what I choose.

And that's where tradition becomes critical. If God is really "out there" (in the Christian concept, he's not just "out there," but transcendence is an important element here), I can't be happy with my own subjective experiences and opinions. To have real communion with this real person, it can't just be about my perceptions. There has to be Truth beyond me and my little brain. The Bible itself embraces divine Tradition as a critical means of ascertaining this Truth; indeed, it is the only means available.

That point aside, it's still a very funny, very interesting book; and it makes some great points about taking the Bible seriously, even if the outcomes seem bizarre. There are important lessons here--just don't expect too much from its theology.

1 comment:

Amber Mc said...

Thanks for the's on my "to read" list.