catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 3 :: 2009.01.30 — 2009.02.13


To the letter

In this book A.J. Jacobs records his one-year project to take the Bible as literally as possible. He does this to make a point: every person who lives by the book practices “cafeteria style” religion. No one could possibly live out every Biblical command literally. One case in point is how Paul commanded women to be silent in church.  But he also explores more curious points, like a command not to utter the name of any false god; that means no Tennessee Titans. Well, no football period, since you’re dealing with pigskin-definitely an abomination. You get his point.

And Jacobs goes to the extreme: he wears all-white garments, with tassels and without mixed fibers. He attends a ritual animal killing by Hassidic Jews. He refuses to touch women because the law of Moses deems them unclean (this involves carrying around a little “handy-seat” so he has no risk of catching cooties in public spaces). He comes just short of stoning adulterers.

The book doesn’t do much to shed light on mystery texts, but it’s an easy-reading experience in literalist comedy. Comic, but never cruel, Jacobs remains an agnostic, but after submerging himself in the sacred, he is now a “reverent agnostic.”

His finest remark comes from religious advisor Elton Richards, who says this about Biblical authority: “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 loved this comment because Richards holds on to both ends: the human and the divine thumbprints on the Bible. The places where ancient culture warps truth-that’s a thumb in the shot. The parts where depth has been lost in translation-that’s the fading color. Regardless, there is something to be seen.   Richards adds this however thought:

I need something specific. 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’s a reason for me to fight racism.

Rabbi Robbie Harris, another advisor, gives an honest, but ambiguous, concluding idea. We can’t, he says, insist the Bible marks the end of our relationship with God. Basically, all of life is an adventure in interpretation: what does it all mean? The same questions we apply to life, we apply to the Bible. And how dare we insist that God revealed himself only at one time, in one place, using these discreet words. Hard words from a rabbi. And that’s as serious as Jacobs’ book got, which is serious enough.

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