Thursday, June 10, 2010

Living Biblically: A.J. Jacobs and the Lincoln-Halter Race in Arkansas

A few days back, when blogged about the I-believe-everything-approach to Catholic orthodoxy, a reader of this blog (and friend of mine), Brad Caviness, logged in to recommend that I read A.J. Jacobs’s book The Year of Living Biblically (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2007).  I’ve now obtained a copy (my local library helpfully provided me with a LARGE PRINT EDITION that I had not requested, SO I GET THE POINT OF EACH SENTENCE IMMEDIATELY).  Jacobs’s book is a fascinating read from a number of standpoints, and I may well comment on it further when I’ve finished it (I’m about three-quarters way through the book now).

I’m learning a tremendous amount from this book, particularly about Judaism, but about various streams of Christianity as well, since Jacobs’s quest as he wrote this book was to follow as scrupulously as possible every commandment in the bible—both the Jewish and Christian scriptures—over the course of a year.  And then to write about the experience, if he lived through it.

Jacobs grew up as a non-observant Jew, a secular agnostic who nonetheless wants to make room for religion in the world at large—a point to which I will return below.  He enters the arcane world of I-believe-everything and I-practice-everything (both Jewish and Christian) with gusto and a saving sense of humor, a saving sense of humor he sorely needs as he begins to encounter the lunacy of the I-believe-everything world of Judaism and Christianity.  The book that results from his journey is fascinating and wryly instructive, particularly for those of us unschooled in each and every commandment of the Old and New Testament, no matter how arcane.

For instance, I’m interested to discover the Shulchan Aruch, the Set Table, which “gives practical instruction on everything you can think of: “eating, sleeping, praying, bathing, sex” (p. 244; but these page numbers are for the LARGE PRINT EDITION).  As Jacobs notes, some observant Jews seek to follow each and every direction of the Set Table, but following all of them would be darn-near impossible—e.g., the stipulation that, when going to the bathroom outside, one face north or south, but not east or west.  (Who carries a compass each time he/she uses the bathroom inside or outside?)

And then there are the chukim, the laws that seem downright crazy, that make no sense at all (p. 47).  Which have spawned a whole school of thought in Judaism that these are the laws that God wants us in particular to follow.  Because the Supreme Ruler of the universe likes absolute obedience in the face of the unreasonable.  God likes crazy, when His people manifest it in unthinking obedience to him.

Lest Christians feel superior to this way of reading divine commandments, I’d urge readers to take a gander at the Creation Museum of Petersburg, Kentucky, which Jacobs visited to get a handle on Christian biblical literalism of a pronounced counter-factual variety, and to which he devotes a chapter (pp. 97-109).  The Creation Museum, which depicts prehistoric people co-existing with dinosaurs (but there were no prehistoric people, the museum’s creators are quick to inform Jacobs, since the world is only 9,000 or so years old and its development has been documented from the beginning.) 

And the museum creators believe the mythic medieval dragon stories were documenting actual history, since dinosaurs continued to exist into the Middle Ages and flew around castles, don’t you know.  And Noah’s ark managed to hold one of every kind of animal in the world because Noah put teenaged dinosaurs onto the ark.

An answer for everything.  No question remains unanswered, and the more counter-factual—the more downright crazy—the answer, the more it has to be right in the eyes of God.  Since God does so love crazy.

And Catholics need not imagine that this mentality doesn’t exist among us, either.  It was to respond that mentality and its growing hold on the Catholic mind in the U.S. (or Catholic “mind” might be more apt here) that I wrote my posting about the I-believe-and-practice-everything approach to orthodoxy.  There are Catholics in the U.S. today who live by a Catholic clone of Protestant fundamentalism which has transferred all the absolute certainty of scripture to the catechism and to papal statements about any matter conceivable, no matter how rationally uncompelling those statements might be.

Echoing the sentiment of the 19th-century English Catholic writer William George Ward, who famously opined (according to his son Wilfrid) that he should like a bull to arrive at his breakfast table every morning along with his Times . . . .  A bull of the papal variety, you understand.  So that he could know what the church dictated he think and do that particular day, as the secular media vied for his attention . . . .

Yes, they’re everywhere, the (selective) literalists who think that it’s possible to compile a list of “everything” the church (or Torah) teaches, and that it’s equally possible to follow each and every item on that everything list.  And they often overlap, the Jewish and Christian literalists—as with the red-heifer movement, which Jacobs examines in detail.  He notes that Christian fundamentalists of a certain stripe are currently collaborating with strict-constructionist Jews of a similar apocalyptic-literalist bent to hasten the apocalypse by trying to breed a red heifer without spot or blemish, which is then to be burnt with cedar wood, its ashes mixed with water and sprinkled on the faithful with hyssop mixed into the solution.

At which time the Messiah will return (Jewish aspiration), ushering in the final battle between anti-Christ (Christian aspiration, since the Jewish Messiah will be a “false” one) and Christ, and the world will end . . . . Hence the collaborative search of one group of literalist Christians with another group of literalist Jews to breed a red heifer . . . .

And here’s the point I’m winding around to with all this preliminary expository analysis of Jacobs’s book: what fascinates me about Jacobs’s willingness to wend his way through all of this lunacy, and even to try it on for size for an entire year (even to the extent of stoning sinners [with tiny pebbles] because we’re commanded to so so) is that he says he did all of this for the sake of his son.

Here’s his reasoning: Jacobs does not want his young son to grow up in a world totally devoid of values.  An immoral world in which the only operative moral principle is getting as much as one can get, and stepping on anyone one can trample down as one seeks to rise to the top.

Though Jacobs himself can’t quite swallow the absurdity of many religious beliefs and practices, he wants some of us somewhere to believe, no matter how absurd the belief, and to practice, no matter how crazy the practice.  For the sake of his son.

This argument intrigues me.  It’s one I’ve met over and over in my interaction as a theologian with political thinkers and political activists.  Who want religion—preferably of a conservative variety—as a strong force in contemporary society, à la Durkheim, to shore up order and cement social bonds.

Who want a right-leaning religion they themselves do not practice and in which they do not believe to exist out there—somewhere, preferably at a remove from where those engaged in this analysis actually live—in order to assure that their children will grow up in a world normed by religiously-based moral values.

I can’t help reading Jacobs’s justification for his choice to spend a year living biblically right now without thinking of some recent commentary I’ve been reading about the heated political battle between Blanche Lincoln and Bill Halter for the Democratic senatorial nomination in my state.  In much of this analysis emanating from the beltway and the media power centers of the country, Lincoln was clearly the preferred candidate, because she stands for those solid old-time “centrist” values that include a conservative religious outlook.

Which centrist Democrats promoting Ms. Lincoln from the beltway and the media power centers of the country want to hold onto in the Democratic party—vs. progressive Democrats—because they’re important values to promote, in order to keep the party “balanced,” leaning to the center-right.

What strikes me about this commentary, and this ongoing strategy of the powerbrokers of the Democratic party in the U.S., who are intent on continually slapping the left wing of the Democratic party into its demeaned place, is that those glorifying the old-time religion represented by their favorite blue-dog Democrats don’t ever actually live among those of us most affected by said old-time religion.  They don’t have to put up with this form of religion and its effect on their daily lives, even as they glorify it—as a bulwark against the presumed moral decay of social institutions that progressives foster.

I’d like to extend a hearty invitation to the centrist powerbrokers of the Democratic party and the mainstream media gurus who collude with them to spend, say, a year living in a state like, say, Alabama, Arkansas, or South Carolina, and see at first-hand, close-up, what years of living biblically can do to a culture, when the meaning of “living biblically” is confined to the most conservative possible interpretations of the scripture.

I’d like them to live in these states, lose their jobs, and find out what it’s like to have no legal recourse at all, in a biblically-based right-to-work state.  And to find that, having lost their job and having no legal power to challenge their firing (since an employer can fire at will in a right-to-work state), then to discover that their new “biblically based” home offers those out of work no socioeconomic benefits at all.

I wonder if the current leaders of the Democratic party and the mainstream media who collude with them to slap progressive Democrats down would be so quick to taunt organized labo—as an unnamed White House source did after Lincoln bested Halter—if they lived in a place where there are no legal protections for workers and hardly any unions. If they lived in one of the “centrist” Democratic, biblically-based areas they are so eager to promote . . . .  Because they do not want progressive Democratic ideas to make inroads in their centrist Democratic way of doing business.

Reading Jacobs’s book right in the belly of the beast—as it were—as Ms. Lincoln has battled with and bested Mr. Halter, while unnamed White House sources jab sticks into the eye of the labor movement for supporting Halter, and while the mainstream media chuckles about yet another put-down for progressive Democrats, gives me a whole new perspective on his project of living biblically for a year.

The perspective I’m taking away from this book is that many of the liberals in the cultural, economic, and political power centers of the U.S., who hanker for that old-time religion to be lived somewhere—preferably at a safe distance from themselves—don’t really care a great deal about whether the truth claims of religion are valid.  About the truth claims of religion of any variety.  They don’t care a great deal about clarifying what the real moral mandates of religion are all about, properly understood.  

What they do care about is the utilitarian value of religion.  About its value in keeping some of us enchained and ignorant.

While they, the liberal power brokers, continue talking about hope, change, progress, and a society in which everyone should have a chance.  Without ever having to face the walking wounded produced by the unjust socioeconomic mechanisms they continue to defend, and then grabbed as fodder for religious groups with extremist apocalyptic goals, since these walking wounded are invisible to the liberals nattering on about hope, change, progress, and an inclusive society.

P.S. I don’t mean to imply that exploring the social utility of religion so that his son can live in world where someone, somewhere practices religion is all that A.J. Jacobs is onto in this book.  In fact, his year of living biblically led him to a quest for religious authenticity in general—for his own life.  I respect his respect for religion and for its practitioners, religion of all shapes and sizes.  I do also think that the different-strokes-for different-folks easy tolerance of liberals who value religion in general without making a commitment to it in particular ultimately demeans the importance of religious commitment in our society, and of passionate arguments about its meaning.  About which (with my statements of appreciation for Jacobs’s serious quest in this book, more later.