Faythe’s CBR-II Read #14: The Year of Living Biblically by A. J. Jacobs

A good friend of mine had recommended this book as a fun read. I was skeptical, since I am quite comfortable with my atheism and the knowledge that there are lots of strange and often contradictory rules in the Bible. I knew I wouldn’t read anything that would blow my mind and also cause me to change my opinion about religion, but when I saw this book at my local library I figured it couldn’t hurt anything to check it out, especially since it’d be free. I’ll read just about anything if it’s free!

A.J. spends the first 8 months of his year tracking down and trying to follow all the rules written in the Old Testament and the last 4 months following rules from the New Testament. Naturally there are funny bits, such as when he has the weakest, saddest stoning an adulterer experience I’ve ever heard of, and how having to follow certain rules about pious interactions with women affect his poor wife and all his female friends and business colleagues.

What it really comes down to is that this book implies that all Bible-based religions pick and choose the rules they think are the most important from the Bible, and conveniently ignore the rest. A.J. points this out particularly well on day 378 where he writes:

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 the 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…”–Corinthians 14:34) and boot out men for talking about the “Tennessee Titans” (“make no mention of the names of other gods…”–Exodus 23:13).

Overall, the book was a pleasant read. Again, it’s not going to change anyone’s minds about their religious beliefs, but it was definitely entertaining and you can walk away with a bunch of obscure facts about what’s written in the Bible memorized to recall later as interesting conversation starters.

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