Sunday, November 30, 2008

A.J. Jacobs - The Year of Living Biblically

I was interested to see not only what a year of living biblically would entail, but what the process of adhering to the bible would end up being. There are so many differences between various Biblically-inspired religions and factions that it understandable that the author chose a relatively broad yet intense set of requirements (for example, his time with the Amish, his explorations into fundamental Judaism). However, I did find that the eventual book was quite biased toward traditional Judaism at the expense of a deeper look at other religions (although it's been a while since I read it so memory might not be serving me accurately as to the proportion of coverage).
In any case, I quite enjoyed this book. I felt that while it wasn't particularly applicable to all people due to the personal nature of so much of it, and it consequently read more like a diary than the strictly-religious adventure I had anticipated, I liked the application of this fundamental Biblical rhetoric being applied to the life of an ordinary, relatively-unbiased guy.
" 'the animal sacrifices weren't important. The important thing is to 'Do justice. And to love mercy. And to walk humbly with your God.'" (37).
- I was delighted to discover the mercy and compassion Abrams found during this period. So much of what people hear of religion is the element of fear and anger rather than love and grace, and I myself have had a long journey from a childhood of religious fear to a belief in God's love over fear of his angry judgement. Therefore I was especially gratified that so many of the authour's mentors seemed legitimately connected to their roles and spiritually generous rather than petty and narrow-minded.
"How can these ethically advanced rules and these bizarre decrees be found in the same book? And not just the same book. Sometimes the same page. The prohibition against mixing wool and linen comes right after the command to love your neighbor. It's not like the Bible has a section called 'And Now for Some Crazy Laws.' They're all jumbled up like a chopped salad" (43).
"the Handy Seat is my little island of cleanliness. There's something safe and comforting about it" (52).
"As indisputable as the fact that the sun is hot or that Charles Darwin married his first cousin (the latter of which I learned in that encyclopedia and can't get out of my head)" (56).
"He argued that the developed nations should forgive third-world debt. Often these IOUs were left over from corrupt regimes. The Bible says that everyone deserves a fresh start. The Jubilee movement they started has resulted in massive cancellations of debt by England, France, the U.S., and others. They got a huge publicity boost when Bono and his sunglasses joined the cause. Here's what he said about Jubilee in his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2006" (64,65).
"Martin Luther advocated sola scriptura in reaction to the CAtholic Church. At the risk of muddying matters, Catholicism is somewhere between Judaism and Protestantism in terms of biblical interpretation. Like Judaism, there's a middle step between you and the Bible- -namely the church doctrine. But the Catholic church's mandates are generally slightly less elaborate and complex than those of the rabbis...I'm trying to follow the word. When the Bible says, 'an eye for an eye,' I don't want to soften it to the rabbinically approved 'some money for an eye.' When it says smash idols, I want to smash idols" (70).
"'you shouldn't sing to people with a heavy heart. That'd be like rubbing vinegar in the wound.'
'So you're not going to sing to me?'
David seems grateful for the wine, and no doubt the lack of singing as well. I love it when the Bible gives Emily Post-like tips that are both wise and easy to follow" (71).
"the Puritans left England in large part for the freedom to follow the fourth commandment. The Puritans took the Sabbath seriously: no sports, no dancing, no smoking, no visiting. You must attend church, but the Puritans 'punished anyone who got there with unseemly haste of on too showy a horse... You can see traces of the Puritan influence today--just try buying liquor on Sunday morning in Manhatten" (72).
I found this particularly interesting: "You can't make words, so Scrabble is often considered off-limits (though at least one rabbi allows Deluxe Scrabble, since the squares have ridges, which provides enough separation between letters so that they don't actually form words)" (72). I would LOVE to have heard the argument that prompted this decision, because I can not conceive that the original proclamation wasn't intended to in some way prevent the mental exertion of forming words and that their physical formatting is largely irrelevant.
Jehovah's Witnesses "don't believe in the Trinity. Jesus is not God, but instead God's first creation. (This belief is why they are sometimes seen as belonging outside of Christianity.)" (75). Why would they ever be included IN Christianity? Followers of God, perhaps, but CHRISTians? The very name of the religion specifies that Christ is the center of the belief system, not a peripherally-involved character.
Furthermore, Mormans believe that "Armageddon is coming soon-- and believers will be resurrected and live in paradise. But most righteous people won't live in heaven. Almost everyone will live in a paradise here on earth. Heaven will be reserved for 144,000 pious souls who will reign with Jehovah as divine administrators" (75). What a very tragic viewpoint. If you are the 144,001st most righteous person to ever live, you still don't achieve heaven where you will be with God. And being the 144,001st most righteous person would be no easy feat, either.
"The Witnesses don't celebrate Christmas or Easter, as neither holiday is mentioned in the Bible. Birthdays are also out: The only two birthdays celebrated in the Bible were those of evil people--one a Pharoah and one a pro-Roman Jewish king" (75).
Finally... "There is no hell. The Witnesses believe hell is a mistranslation of Gehenna, which was an ancient garbage dump. They say that nonbelievers simply die at Armageddon, rather than being thrown into an inferno. 'How can you have a kind and loving God who also roasts people"' he asks" (76). This is, of course, a main problem that many people have with any religion that DOES advocate severe punishment such as hell.
"On the other hand, there are plenty of times when life takes precedence over obeying rules. Jesus lashes out at the Pharisees who criticize his followers for gathering grain on the Sabbath. Likewise, in modern Judaism, life trumps all. Even the most kosher rabbi would allow his followers to get pigs' valves put in their hearts if necessary (despite a misleading Grey's Anatomy plotline to the contrary)" (77) To be fair, though, the girl was the one who insisted that she shouldn't have a porcine valve, not any rabbis (as I recall), and she was peculiarly stubborn while those around her were more liberal and reasonable.
"Bertrand Russell--the famously agnostic philosopher--said there are two kinds of work in this world: altering the position
of matter on earth, and telling other people to alter the position of matter on earth" (80). I agree and I find that unless I do something every day to move matter myself- doing the dishes, gardening, brushing the dogs- I feel out-of-touch and restless. I have to say that to me, this is like the difference between those who have had "real" jobs in which they have been trampled, shot down, abused, forced to work with the public, and generally instructed on what it's like to be a working person. The rest are those who have gone directly from school to a profession or a teaching position and have never once had to deal with a customer complaint, field a return, or wait through a 15 minute phone call of some irritating and insane customer who grates your nerves and destroys your day. While some people develop an appropriate sensibility about others without these experiences and some who have these experiences never develop an ability to understand others, I find that in general, anyone who has gone through the trials of ordinary, demeaning working life in the "real world"- for even a relatively short period of time- is a fundamentally more understanding and improved person than those who have not. Although again, this is a vast generalization that by no means applies to everyone. I feel that moving matter is the same way- some people move themselves and move things themselves,
while others only know how to direct other people to work and to move everyone's things to their liking.
"Did I really need to get so angry at the juggler at the street fair who stopped juggling to take a cell phone call? And then talked for, like, fifteen minutes while Jasper looked on all eager and hopeful?" (81). It's a lot easier to suffer than to watch someone you love suffer, I find.
The Prophets "berate the hard headed rich who lie on beds of ivory and sip wine contentedly and 'trample the heads of the poor into the dust of the earth'" (88). I wish the entire planet would take a note from this. Seriously.
"Maybe my alter ego Jacob is in the prophetic tradition of Ezekiel. I hope so. On the other hand, he could be way off. I imagine that for every Ezekiel, there were a couple hundred false prophets walking around Jerusalem with, say, loincloths on their heads and eating clumps of dirt" (89).
"Even with pebbles, it i surprisingly hard to stone people... I would pretend to be clumsy and drop the pebble on his shoe. So I did. And in this way I stoned. But it was probably the most polite stoning in history--I said, 'I'm sorry,' and then leaned down to pick up the pebble. And he leaned down at the same time, and we almost butted heads, and then he apologized, then I apologized again. Highly unsatisfying" (92).
"As for supplication, I'm doing it, but I feel greedy asking God to help my career. Should I really be cluttering His in-box by asking for better placement of The Know-It-All at airport bookstores?" (95).
"In Deuteronomy, the Bible says that we should thank the Lord when we've eaten our fill--grace after meals, it's called. Christians moved grace to the beginning of the meal, preappetizer. To be safe, I'm praying both before and after" (95). At this point, I think it would feel sacrilegious to pray after I'd eaten, as though the food weren't properly blessed or something. Since I'm used to it, I suppose, it feels normal that I thank God before I partake rather than after I've had all wanted. Although maybe I'm just lazy and don't want to worry about forgetting to pray after the meal is over.
"if you really want to be biblically safe, you should go much further. You should avoid almost all negative speech whatsoever...'any derogatory or damaging statement against an individual-even when the slanderous or defaming remarks are true-which if publicized to others would cause the subject physical or monetary damage, anguish, or fear'...In Hebrew, evil tongue is called Lashon hara, and the rabbis compare it to murder" (99). I used to be quite disciplined about this but recently I've gotten pretty comfortable with having an evil tongue. I should probably work on that.
Regarding his attempts to forego imagery and drawing and how it became difficult to play with his son Jasper: "I figure Platonic shapes are OK. I make a circle.
'You want to see a square?' I make a square.
'Nemo,' says Jasper. (Nemo is Jasper's word for any type of fish; as a good protoconsumer, he speaks in brand names.)
'Here you go' I say, making an oval. I'm starting to run out of shapes.
Jasper seems disappointed by my Play-Doh geometry. I feel ridiculous for refusing to make him a fish, but I also know that I have to do this experiment full bore, or else I'll risk missing out on key spiritual discoveries. No cutting corners" (105).
These moments in the book are some of my favorite (although, as I said before, they're increasingly personal and less strictly about the religious elements involved). Not only the humour and wit, but also a demonstration of Jacobs' dedication to this task. I too am a perfectionist- one who can never complete something too perfectly, and who must attempt to do everything as well as possible or not at all. This gives me tremendous respect for him and makes the book increasingly valuable, for I feel that I can trust that he fully underwent the experience as I would have done, and that his resulting ideas are consequently valid.
I ADORE the fact that some 14th-century German Jews refused to create the likeness of a human, but were happy to "bird-headed humans" in their books because "the commandment forbids the likeness of anything in heaven or earth--and, technically, bird-headed humans don't exist in heaven or earth" (106). Although I have to say that in my opinion, this loophole doesn't work. It's like drawing a tiny hippo next to a large robin and arguing that real hippos aren't that small, so it isn't a representation of something on earth. Then again, at this point in history they may also have been arguing that the earth was flat or that bathing caused illness, so I really can't say that I'm surprised that their reasoning was significantly different from mine.
"If everyone on earth is descended from two identifiable people--Adam and Eve--then the 'family of man' isn't just pabulum. It's true. The guy who sells me bananas at the deli on 81st Street- he's my cousin" (107).
I also agree with the comment about human pride and its conflicting combination with excess humility. It's baffling to have two such strong and opposing convictions thrown at you- and as someone who has struggled with these ideas all my life- I can tell you that it never quite balances out to any reasonable conclusion that makes sense to the human mind (or my human mind, anyway).
Note to the author- the anecdote about the code word "Helmet" is my favorite in the book. I've relayed to my mother- and although it's on different issues- I have a feeling that this system will prove to be invaluable. So thanks for the laugh and the free communication tools.
"It's just that these kids are so fragile, you know? They've only got that mushy little skull separating their brains from the sidewalk. They have only two years of an immune system built up" (108). I couldn't agree more. I've literally spent hours wondering how any human beings actually make it to adulthood, and the only conclusion is that it's a consequence of their caretakers losing years of sleep and all their hair turning grey.
Oh- and for the record- I agree with Julie that it's "demented" for you to want Jasper to live in the same town as you, and to not develop interest in other countries as a precaution. The single greatest thing about my life has been my exposure to the world around me, and the further I go from home the better a person I become, and the more I understand myself. So my advice; don't hold Jasper too closely or when he breaks free he might wander really really far.
"'It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting' - Ecclesiastes 7:2" (109). Oddly enough, I actually agree with this sentiment, and not just for religious reasons.
"The Lord will 'smite you with... mildew'" (113). Of all the curses I've not heard of, this is probably the most peculiar. Is mildew really that terrifying? I guess perhaps it would be a LOT of mildew but in any case, it's something I would never have expected. (113).
"It goes on to say that you shall be reduced to eating your own children [perhaps this is the source of all the bizarre anti-Semitic urban legends about people eating their children in times of desperation. Probably not, but it would make more sense than anything else] and trying-unsuccessfully- to sell yourself as a slave. That's right. You aren't good enough for slavery" (113).
I learned quite a lot from this book about Jewish compassion and - to be more specific- the wisdom of Jewish elders. Not having known many rabbis and never having been deeply exposed to the religion itself, I didn't really have any idea of what most (or the worst and best) rabbis were like. I'm glad to hear that their interpretations tend to be compassionate and flexible for good reason, as Jacobs points out with his mention of the Chasid Shote on page 119.
*On a personal note, the idea of intercessory prayer [ON DEMAND, that is] drives me CRAZY (page 127). It makes perfect sense to me when it's for someone I know or for a condition that I personally decide is worth praying about or that touches me enough to pray about, but I can't stand it when random strangers ask for prayer or people DEMAND that God give them something (especially something trivial) without realizing that they should be praying for HIS WILL to be done. Don't get me wrong- I'm happy to pray for any random person who asks for help, and I do. I just think it's peculiar and I don't think we should treat prayer so lightly and as a wishing well from God. Although I think Abraham's efforts are beautiful and self-sacrificing, I can't imagine that God would be pleased with humans expecting their every little wish to be granted simply because they took a moment to specifically ask Him about it. Although it makes me feel better to balance it out with thanks- if I thank him for a number of things and then ask him for something (ending with "Your will be done"), and if I'm generally thankful for what I have rather than constantly desperate for more, I don't feel this way as much. But it still tends to irk me sometimes.
Don't even get me STARTED on intercessions from the Saints. Catholicism and I don't agree about a lot of topics, and that's an important one. But I digress.
I too am baffled about the Song of Solomon and the Bible's general views on sex. And I to feel that although it does seem to imply that the lovers are simply young, in love and unafraid to show it (134), I can't help feeling taunted that "The Bible isn't free-love manual, though", particularly (as Jacobs points out) in the case of homosexuality. As someone who believes that homosexuality is a natural orientation, I find it hard to reconcile the Bible's demands on this topic with God's messages of love.
Not to mention polygamy... the advice of Paster Don (page 136) that he has seen "preemptive strike" polygamous marriges work (where a man simply gets married to a second wife and only afterwards announces it to his first) is astounding to me. If my husband came home and announced to me that he'd married and slept with some other woman, I would have lawyers dividing our assets before he could finish explaining himself and introduce me to her. I'm assuming Pastor Don was speaking of people whose wives were already more accepting of this kind of marriage anyway, but it's certainly not something anyone I know would embrace or even begin to tolerate. [Speaking of which- I'm not actually morally opposed to the idea of polygamy or people choosing for themselves what form their marriages should take. What I AM against is the institutionalization of polygamy that has recently been exposed in certain FDLS groups in the United States such as Warren Jeff's group, which consistently marginalizes and brainwashes both women and men for the benefit of just the leader. That kind of abuse- particularly against children- is what concerns me, not the plural marriages].
I have to say that I love Mr. Berkowitz and his dedication to truth amidst his passion. "Well, I don't do that. That's an exaggeration. But I like to be on time. I don't want to run like a madman. I walk briskly" (142). Awesome.
I like the ideas about "freedom from choice" (142). I agree that a certain amount of mindlessness is liberating, and that all too often our physical or trivial preoccupations inhibit us from being fulfilled on any other level.
I love the analogy that the Bible's conflicting rules are "like an M.C. Escher drawing. It hurts my brain" (143). Me too, Mr. Jacobs. Me too.

Now this is my favorite part of the book- the discussion (well, the section, anyway) about the sins of the father being visited upon the sons. I feel that I have been enlightened through this section, and that I now understand this more fully and can feel at peace about these seemingly-vengeful passages. So thank you, Mr. Jacobs. If you wonder whether your book actually did fulfilled any purpose aside from being a very interesting and stimulating experiment for readers to vicariously experience, please know that it has.

"perhaps in vitro fertilization is the same. It's ethically complicated, but maybe our child will be great. Or maybe I'm justifying like crazy here" (147). I recommend the movie Gattaca for a less-religious and very entertaining treatment of this subject.
"sometimes- the entire world takes on a glow of sacredness, like someone has flipped on a unfathomably huge halogen lamp and made the universe softer, fuller, less menacing. I spend a lot of time marveling...I feel like I just took my first bong hit. I feel like Wes Bentley rhapsodizing about that dancing plastic bag in American Beauty" (153). Whew. I thought I was the only one.

I too wonder about the importance of sacrifice in our lives, but since I'm Christian and I believe that Christ already died for my sins (and the rules of the Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures are no longer applied), I'm conveniently excused from worrying about it. It feels like a cop-out but I think the argument stands well enough for my current peace of mind.
"I know the rotisserie chicken I get at Boston Market did not die of natural causes. It did not drift off to eternal sleep in its old age surrounded by loved ones and grandchicks at a chicken hospice. It had its throat slit too. But modern society has done an excellent job of shielding me from this fact" (164). I understand completely, and I too am thankful that God has spared us this requirement.
"My hope had been to leave cucumber 'gleanings'" (166). A fantastic quote, whether in or out of context.
"When I strummed my harp during a recent stroll...a white-haired man near Rockefeller Center started yelling at me 'A ten-string harp? The Bible actually says an eight-string harp, not a ten-string harp!' He could have been playing with my mind, or he could have been your garden-variety crazy, hard to tell" (169).
"Why the food taboos? The Bible itself doesn't give a reason. I'd always though they developed as a primitive way to avoid trichinosis and other nasty diseases...The more popular theory nowadays is that the food bans were all about creating holiness and separation. The Isrealites wanted to keep themselves apart from other tribes such as the pork-loving Philistines. They were marking their territory with menus" (170). If so, this seems to me to be a rather unfortunate selection of convenient, delicious and easy-to-raise creatures (particularly rabbits and pork).
Another charming anecdote:
"'Do you know if the piecrust is made with lard?'
'I don't think so, but I'll check.'
'Thanks. I can't eat lard.'
'No, Leviticus.'
It's a conversation stopper, that one" (171).
"'Mr. Jacobs, Unfortunately there would not be any way for us to guarantee the age of the plants from which our suppliers pick the blackberries'" (172). Awesome.
"(My aunt Marti, the vegan and animal rights activist, found out about my honey eating and sent me a rebuking email. The subject header was 'The bitter truth about honey.' She listed all the ways the commercial honey industry mistreats bees. I won't repeat it here, but her description of artificial bee insemination was disturbingly graphic. She signed the not, 'Your eccentric aunt Marti.')" (173). I love it. Not the abuse, of course, but the eccentric aunt Marti.
I was delighted to learn about the unavoidable bug fragments in all commercially-produced foods (176), how the Bible can promote "solitaire version[s] of musical chairs" (177), that someone else has respect for the elderly beyond the moments when they're particularly vulnerable (178), that the Talmud bans walking constantly in a proud and non-humble posture (178), that kindness can be misinterpreted and get you into all kinds of peculiar trouble [although I too am familiar with the high that accompanies unrequired good deeds] (179), you shouldn't "round the corners of your heads. -Leviticus 19:27 (KJV)" which must be upsetting all those women who still subscribe to the hair styles of the 1980s (180), that a new set of tassels can really change your look (180), "Apparently the pagans cut and shaved the sides of their hair short, perhaps, says one commentator, to give it the shape of a 'celestial globe,' perhaps as some sort of mourning ritual" (what happened to the ban on rounding your head?) that is a challenging fact for those who are not "a robot or carton sponge" and whose heads are "reasonably ovoid" (182).
Furthermore, there are intricate rules about how to treat mother birds sitting on their eggs- which can be fulfilled in Manhatten apartment buildings, thankfully (185), but it's challenging to know when it's correct to follow the rules and when it's better "not to pester the pigeons with a high-wattage flashlight and a crazy dance" (188).
I am scarily familiar with the habit of retroactively and irrelevantly bargaining with God that is "a macabre game, and a waste of God's time" (189). I'm sad to say that a good portion of my childhood was spend playing games in my head such as "If my feet aren't touching the ground when the teacher stops talking, I'll get to go to the movies" and other such nonsense. Sometimes it was more sincere, but often it was simply compulsive and pretty OCD. I managed to quit it, but I'm glad to find out that I'm not the only one.
However, sometimes it seems to work. Apparently prayer can work in mysterious - and speedy- ways (190), but I'm hoping that the 'killer bionic hornets' don't end up being so directly successful (192).
And if Revelation was indeed referring to then-current political climates, I fear for how today would have been described (192).
It's an interesting theory about dedication and belief, but I'd be interested to hear if it's true that perhaps "spirituality attracts [one] for its novelty factor" (193). I wonder what the eventual determination on this issue was, and if the impact of having the commandments branded onto your consciousness continues to affect you in the distant future (197).
"I used to envy Jasper whenever I rolled him into a human burrito in his swaddling blanket" (199). I don't know which is my favorite phrase- "human burrito" or "swaddling"- but I love them both. Great mental images.
"'He who winks his eyes plans perverse things... -Proverbs 16:30'" (205). Oh man am I in trouble, although my winks are generally not of the creepy type [at least they're not intended to be], and I hope they don't invite the "winkee into being a part of [my] little cabal" (205).
It's also an interesting exercise to remember the difference between religion as a self-serving institution/set of practices and a way of pleasing God (208), and to think about the "Jerusalem syndrome" (209), which I have experienced in enough European churches to understand and sympathize with completely.
I love the story of the shepherd's rod (212), and the practice of throwing stones at wayward sheep to get them to return to the flock (212), which is a pretty adequate metaphor for a lot of parenting and teaching techniques.
I can believe that "only the crazy Europeans came up with the idea of individualism" (213), although I'm pretty glad I happened to have been born in a country that has embraced this idea.
It's nice to be "used to understatement and hedging and irony", and it is interesting to question the nature of God's desiring our praise (220). Although it's nice to know that your creations appreciate you- if you raise puppies, it's nice to see that they love you, and if you cook something it's nice to know that it tastes good. So I can see how God might appreciate praise from his creations, but it does feel strange to be prompted for this praise, because then its sincerity might legitimately be questioned.
My mother has always used the phrase "God willing" (236) completely sincerely every time she mentions something that hasn't already happened, and it's not only endearing, but has helped me to develop a more grateful attitude. When I get off a plane, I find myself thanking God that we've landed safely even if all the other passengers are moaning about how it was late or crowded. The little things seem more significant, and it's easier to appreciate the world when you realize how easily it could all be taken away, how fragile life is, and how important it is to "squeeze all I can out of that vapor" (237) of life.
I've always been interested by the story of Jacob and Esau, and I like the treatment this book gives to the subject (239) although like the author, I find the breadth of translation, meaning and interpretation to be daunting to say the least.
I was unaware of the impurity laws regarding other men (240), although I have to say that I'm comforted that women are not the only ones to suffer from being occasionally ostracized due to their bodily functions (as Jacobs points out on page 241).
I adore the fact that the author's father checks the Amazon ratings daily for his son's rankings, and always represses negative reviews, "which makes him want to hug [his father]- if [they] weren't both so repressed (242). I can relate to this in so many ways.
--> Here's a contraindication to the entire concept visited previously about the "sins of the father will be visited on the sons" concept. If indeed that is a warning to be a good person to perpetuate happy, healthy children rather than a curse on future generations, then what is this about? Does it imply that Ham's sons are suffering for having learned from their father's terrible ways, or is it actually indicating that their suffering is directly resulting from this sin? I don't really appreciate the ambiguity here, but since that's one main point of this entire experiment/book and something the author has suffered from excessively during this journey, I can't really complain.
I love the exchange of "'Oh, religious?' He puts his hands in the air and backs away. He looks flustered, like he just stepped on my cat's tail or got caught feeling up my wife. 'Leave it there, leave it there'" (243).
I also love the concept of having a "one and only rabid fan" (243), and I'm frankly kind of surprised that his intern accepted the proposal of being called a "slave" (245), not so much because it's demeaning- considering that I imagine being an intern would generally involve a LOT of demeaning elements beyond that- but because it makes you wonder what someone's second demand would be if their first one is to call you a slave. Although it does make perfect sense that the "closest thing to legal slavery in modern America" is an "unpaid internship" (245). I would have to completely agree.
From what I can tell, the most obviously dangerous ramification of confusing and conflicting Biblical advice is the possibility of misinterpretation- or even worse, deliberate manipulation of what's written (247) to correspond to your own wishes.
"Life isn't just a series of molecular reactions. There's a divine spark in there. The official term is 'vitalism'" (248), and it's nice to hear that there's an official term for it and I'm not the only one to subscribe to this idea.
Too much of faith is reduced to the "just in case" rationale (249), and it's too easy to get caught up in the mentality of preventing going to hell and just doing whatever is necessary to squeak your way into heaven. It's something I've experienced myself, and I can understand the perspective of agnostics and athiests when so much of religion is treated like an insurance policy against condemnation or eternal punishment.
"...this kindly old octogenarian woman tells me that she is worried about making it across Boradway's six lanes alone, and could I maybe help. I'd be glad to. Though actually ecstatic is a better word...I am so happy about the situation, I stay with her for another several blocks, which, oddly enough, doesn't creep her out" (249).
"'It's a different way of looking at the world. Your life isn't about rights. It's about responsibilities'" (251).
There's an interesting quote from Matthew 5:17-18 which describes that "till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished" (254). That does lend some credence to the ultralegalist camp, I suppose.
Then again, the contrasting concepts of Matthew 22:37-39 are just as profound, and I should probably examine the nature of Jesus' actions repudiating the Old Testament rules before I accept them wholeheartedly.
I sympathize with the feeling of connecting to one's roots/upbringing, and the idea that you should try to adhere to your own family beliefs. It must be interesting for people with committed parents of vastly differing heritages- I wonder if they end up conflicted, or just more open-minded than others?
In reference to Jerry Falwell, I find it encouraging that someone else recognizes that his "version of Christianity bears practically no relation to Jesus's message...'and in most cases, it's the exact opposite of Jesus's message. Jesus's message was one of inclusion. Theirs is of exclusion'" (258).
The references to Falwell's ideologies regarding homosexuality and pretty much every other element of humanity are distressing, but not surprising. Although I found it charming to say that "his magazine crowbarred poor purse-carrying Teletubby Tinky Winky out of the closet" (260).
"Sometimes you'll get a crazy 'Let's assassinate Hugo Chavez'-type comment" or information about "'age-defying protein pancakes'" but apparently "the radical wing of the Christian right is a lot more boring than its liberal detractors would have you believe"... although the mention of '"soul winners'" does smack of a daily life involving something other than cheerily spreading happiness and acceptance (262).
I love that in response to the "gay issue", one of Falwell's pastors, Tom, has "'a lot of gay friends'" who actually turn out to be "formerly gay people trying to overcome their gayness" (263). And I love the summary of the love-the-sinner, hate-the-sin concept as similar to "saying that we should love Jesse Jackson, except for the fact that he's black" (263). Ahh.. intolerance. All types of intolerance coalesce so nicely, don't they?
I find the arguments dispelling the anti-gay parts of the Bible to be tenuous at best.
In the same way that the Bible seems to denigrate women, I do think that the Bible shouldn't always necessarily be interpreted in the most friendly way possible, and I think the passages on homosexuality are pretty clear (266,267), particularly in passages not quoted in this book. The concept that Biblical homosexuality is a reference to disgrace rather than romance seems like re-contextualizing rather than contextualizing appropriately, and just as the Bible seems anti-female, I think it is legitimately anti-gay. (Since I myself am female, I don't say this with disregard for the significant impact the Bible's comments have had on gay people and their treatment in society; I simply feel that to summarily dismiss this as a misunderstanding of translation is overly -optimistic and not particularly sensible).
"I feel myself becoming an extremist--at least in some areas. Like with my obsession with gratefulness. I can't stop. Just now, I press the elevator button and am thankful that it arrives quickly. I get onto the elevator and am thankful that the elevator cable didn't snap and plummet met to the basement...thankful that Jasper is home and healthy and stuffing his face with pineapple wedges" (268). I occasionally fall into this spiral too.. it's kind of addicting, actually, especially in a life and culture where I am so legitimately blessed.
The matter of Biblical interpretation will never be adequately sorted out, and it's inevitable that different groups will choose different positions and irritate those with differing opinions, but sometimes I have to agree that perhaps we should be taking the directives of being peaceful, helping the poor, and loving one another more seriously (270).
I too am intensely distressed to see political and religious topics mangled up together- in the same way that some people equate war with America (as some people do), it's really concerning to see "'Fighter jets mixed up with the cross'" and God Bless America equated with religious dedication (271). This is such a terrible symptom of the way religion has been manipulated to promote all the wrong things, and eventually, xenophobia and hatred. It's no coincidence that America is increasingly hating non-America along with non-Christianity, and the increase of religious intolerance (such as anti-Muslim rhetoric, particularly in the wake of 9/11) is both astonishing and profoundly saddening to me.
Also, apparently "Christians should not seek political power but instead seek to have ''power under' others--winning people's hearts by sacrificing for those in need, as Jesus did.'" (271,272). What exactly about Rick Warren screams "sacrifice" or "avoidance of power"? Furthermore, doesn't it defeat the purpose of sacrifice and kindness to be secretly questing for "power under" the recipient?
I appreciated Jacobs' mention of the copyright symbol on Warren's work, even if he does tithe 90%. And I'm not sure whether I'd prefer that Pastor Warren not mention his donations (to increase the legitimately selfless and Christian nature of the giving) at all, although I like that it's in fine print. Of course this is a frivolous complaint, but since the entire book is about living by Christian principles I don't think it's an unreasonable thing to think about- especially considering Jesus teaches that "When you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men" (272).
I too tend to engage in conditional forgiveness, in which I mentally tabulate what is owed to me as a result of my kindness/compassion and I think I need to work on this - but at what point do you forgive things that perhaps shouldn't be forgiven or are still happening? Forgiveness is hailed as a cardinal virtue, but I don't know if it's unilaterally the most productive action to take in every situation (274).
Oddly enough, when I was young I also used to feel I was being secretly observed, although I wasn't hardcore enough to "brush my teeth in a rakishly nonchalent manner" to look "cool even when doing dental hygiene" (275). I think it was compounded by the awareness that God was always watching and judging (remember, I tend to focus on the judgement rather than the love).
I love how Jacobs applies these lessons to his parenting- in particularly astute fashion. "The best punishment should be a sacrifice--you sacrifice a pleasant afternoon, you sacrifice some in-the-moment affection, to give them a better future" (279). Along with all the times parents drug their kids with sugar, pacify them with toys or throw them in front of the TV to sedate them, I think one of the most frequent and terrible parenting techniques I see is parents who not only spare the rod but directly spoil the child for their own enjoyment. I can understand people desperately needing a break from their kids and trying to get one while the kid is occupied with games or TV, but it's quite a different thing to let your children do whatever they want and wreak holy hell as they "express themselves".
Finally, it drives me absolutely insane to see parents who don't adequately train their sons to be responsible adults. I have met so many boys- in all stages of life- who simply can't process the idea that communicating with their girlfriend, helping to do the dishes, mowing the lawn, occasionally giving her a break by volunteering to babysit the kids or make dinner. Their parents never taught them even the most basic rules of relationships, and boys seem to be raised these days just as manuals from the 1950s recommend. They're taught that they need to be strong, silent and the breadwinner, but they're not taught anything about how relationships work in today's society where women are often in the business world and are responsible for more than just housekeeping and being a subservient piece of decoration. Obviously not all women were like this in the '50s, but since the rise of feminism you would think that things would have changed somewhat. Clearly I'm biased- but I do feel that my argument is legitimate, and it does correspond well to the notion that a certain degree of discipline during childhood correlates to more responsible, balanced and happy adults (279).
It is remarkable how swearing can either be commonplace and seem completely normal, or can be a shocking and startling occurrence because you're not used to it (282). Even the basic censoring that we do depending on who we're around changes our attitude more than one would expect, and it's interesting to see how we can selectively manipulate this personal censorship.
I like the descriptions of the "status-quo motif and liberation motif" perspectives (284). At the moment I'm opting for obeying neither (to some extent), and so far it's been working fairly well.
I do find it peculiar that Jesus would say "seventy times seven" if he meant an infinite number (289), since humanity has enough to try and decipher from the Bible without having to make assumptions about even the most simple of directives.
At least God gives us an out by suggesting that we shouldn't be obsessed with taking everything literally (290), which is a gleaming ray of hope in the challenging quest to obey God and the Bible, in which we don't even understand all the words (307).
Sometimes I wish I had a preacher who punctuated his sentences with "huh" (297). Preaching is all too often solely a scholarly exercise with no attempt to invigorate, and it would be nice to occasionally have some real enthusiasm coming at me where religion is concerned.
I love the following: "'Humans are a fascinating species.' As if our struggles are all for his intellectual amusement" (276).
I have to say that I concur about the likelihood that the sexiest Soup Kitchen volunteers are consistently out front is intentional. As Peggy once put it on "Mad Men" when developing an ad campaign for popsicles, the "Catholic Church knows how to sell things". Do they EVER.
I think if someone offered me the chance to wash my feet (304), I'd probably take them up on it. But given that I'm constantly traipsing around in broken flip-flops, my feet are generally significantly dirtier than the bottom of most people's shoes, so I'd likely have to wash my feet with a lot of soap, RUNNING water, and some kind of drain to wash away the filth. And I definitely wouldn't let someone else wash my feet for me- I agree, it is a surprisingly intimate thing.
I find it unfortunate that a random passer-by felt the need to give you the finger just because of what you were wearing (305), but it doesn't surprise me that in an enormous metropolis like New York, the swirling anger and pent-up frustration is eventually expressed toward even the most inoffensive and peaceful inhabitants.
"'He who is glad at calamity will not go unpunished.'-Proverbs 17:5" (310). I don't know if I've just been brought up Biblically enough that I've incorporated this into my world view, but I've always been the kind of person who feels sad when toddlers fall over on America's Funniest Home Videos or when a hearse drives by. Maybe I'm just an "overly virtuous sap"... but I haven't yet watched Pay It Forward. Fingers crossed...
I'm counting on God's promise that we're not accountable for every tiny thing... although sometimes I think I'm missing some of the really important rules (314).
I find it really peculiar that Orthodox Jews are required to be absent while their wives give birth. If he was present for conception, I can't imagine that God would want the husband to leave his wife to go through something so traumatic alone (314)- especially since he's partly responsible, and he will be sharing in the benefits of having the children. It just seems odd to me that God would give men the role of impregnation but biologically, nothing beyond that.
Furthermore, I find the purity laws to be particularly troubling in cases like these. If a woman is impure for a week after giving birth, I can only imagine that it would necessarily deprive her of the comfort and enjoyment of her husband's closeness immediately after the birth (315). What happened to the beautiful, iconic image of the new parents snuggling around their new baby, a happy, close little family? These rules don't seem just strict but against the reasonable biological expectations of people in the most beautiful moments of their lives.
I find it sad that some circumcised men feel deprived (318), but it makes me think of intersex, hermaphrodite, and multiple-gendered people and how marginalized they are. As distressing as a lack of foreskin must be, it brings into sharp relief the magnitude of the struggle that people face when undergoing transgender operations-not to mention the sometimes-lifelong struggle for identity and the discovery of true inner identity. So I wish these men all the best with their re-circumcisions, but I'm fairly certain that regardless of modern medicine's advancement, nothing can ever reproduce what you would have had if you could go back in time to infancy and grow up with a naturally-developing genital area full of foreskin and happiness. There are very few surgeries that can actually restore sensation to any part of the human body, and I seriously doubt that even the most skilled surgeon could reconstruct something so fragile and sensitive to any degree that would resemble natural foreskin development.
As for the notion of "Cafeteria Christianity" (327), I think that what fundamentalists are missing is the fact that the Bible hasn't been selectively picked over and just accepted for the "nice parts". Instead, in keeping with Jesus' command that we live with compassion and practice love over the harsh judgement of the Old Testament, we need to recognize that God's love forgives more than his judgement condemns, and that the greatest thing is indeed love. Therefore any rules that contradict the love of God and Jesus (post-crucifixion and resurrection) are displaced in favor of the new canon of compassion established through Jesus's sacrifice. In other words- there is a rationale. Just not as judgmental and harsh one as fundamentalists might feel accountable to. It is important to remember that "no one is righteous--not even one" -Romans 3:10 and that without this compassion, NONE of us can uphold the law and none would be saved. Furthermore, we can't be obsessed with following the words of the Bible (329) at the expense of what God tells us directly in prayer and through our life experience, and it's this philosophy that provides the foundation for less-fundamental Christianity.
Although the photo-of-beardless-face-on-a-stick seems a little bit helmet (when it would be undoubtedly easier to just shave it off in two stages, even if only over the course of a single day), I find it endlessly charming and beyond adorable (330). You're bound to make some mistakes no matter what you do, and it's better to err on the side of love, compassion and caring.
"my beard has been with me for so long, it's taken on its own identity, almost become a living organism. I feel like I'm losing a pet rabbit" (330). Although if it gains your wife's approval, I'm sure it's well worth it.
I find it absurd that one Catholic argument against IVF is that it generally involves masturbation (or, as my favorite euphemism would put it, "self-abuse"). This is almost as absurd as the Church's argument against condoms (being that they "disturb the natural sex act"- similar to the fundamentalism in other areas where literalism and strictness is favored over rationality and the compassion of preventing AIDS, other transmittable diseases, and overpopulation in already-overburdened areas). The argument about "killing" fertilized eggs makes some sense, but surely the procedure could be refined to eliminate this problem- at least as far as it extends to pre-implanted eggs (337).
I've always found the issue of Onan wasting his seed to be rather odd (especially since God had smitten his brother for being disobedient/evil in the first place)- although not as peculiar as the rule that Onan be required to impregnate his ex sister-in-law in the first place. Then again, it's a rather odd reversal of evolutionary biological imperative (which doesn't work for some Christians anyway) that he would specifically not wish to have as many children as possible, even if they would be considered his brother's (338). I suppose it's essentially regarding the selfishness he showed in not sharing his seed although God had commanded him to, particularly since it would appear that this failure to produce a child would have resulted in Oman inheriting his brother's fortune that would otherwise have gone to his own biological child as his brother's legal heir ( Furthermore, as I recall, Tamar didn't notice him doing this repeatedly- even though she did want to have his children. I find that to be even more peculiar.
I think that the perspective of Revelation as a "short-term prophecy about the Roman Empire" (338) is very interesting, although I'm not sure if the facts are really historically compatible.
Perhaps the lamb's blood is supposed to be drained and then cooked out of the flesh. I suppose that with a combination of the two processes, the blood could be nearly eliminated (339).
I agree that Jesus having been married wouldn't have been particularly troubling theologically (340), but I find it really strange that everyone loves the idea of Mary Magdalene and Jesus being somehow involved, even if only marginally.
As I had expected, the book didn't seem to draw any real conclusions aside from the fact that participating in religion can perhaps help to enrich your life and even help you to become a better person (along with exposing some of the Bible's more ridiculous mandates and trying to make sense of them- and largely succeeding, in my opinion). Even so, I felt it was satisfying and interesting as a study of one man's journey to be in the world but not of it.

Finally.. if you happen to be reading this, A.J. Jacobs and you've managed to wade though this enormous blog post (or at least skipped to the end, hoping for a conclusive comment)... "If Noah were alive today, he wouldn't be wasting his time checking out what blogs said about him. He'd be down at Home Depot buying more lumber. Starting today, I'm going to be like Noah" (152). Now go out there and either hug your family or write another book for me to read! ;)

PS- Mr. Jacobs, if for some reason you don't like me quoting so excessively from your book online, I'd be happy to take this post (or just the portions from your book) off the blog. I keep this as much for my own recollection/records as I do for blogging purposes, and I in no way wish to infringe either on your copyright or your comfort level. I won't be offended by such a request, either, so please mention it and I'll remove it immediately.

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