Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Year of Missing the Point of the Bible

A. J. Jacobs has written a memior--his second--called The Year of Living Biblically. He previously wrote a book on reading the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica. The book is not yet out, but he gave an interview to Newsweek.

A less informed and more stunt-oriented performance cannot be conceived. He reads and tries to apply everything in a wooden way: not cutting his beard, building a "hut" (for the feast of booths?), etc. He claims it was difficult to not covet, lie, and so on. But his year of living biblically is over, and he is back to the world of endless American choices. This shows he did not obey the most important biblical commands of all:

1. "God now commands everyone everywhere to repent"--Acts 17:30 (Apostle Paul).
2. "Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest"--Matthew 11:28 (Jesus)
3. "Jesus answered, "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent."--John 6:29.
4. "Repent and be baptized" (throughout The Book of Acts).

Jacobs missed the very heart of the Bible: Through the works of the law no one shall be saved. Faith in God's work for us in Christ is the door to true freedom. Postmodern fabulists can make even the Bible into an autobiographical spectacle. God help us.


JPS said...

The link goes to Amazon instead of Newsweek.

Sounds like a pretty interesting book to me. And, I'm sure, funny and well-written.

evagrius said...

He could have gone to a monstery for a year.

Lots of Psalmody and Bible reading. Communal prayer. Silent prayer. Work. Repentance.

See "Into Great Silence" for pointers.

Brian Jones said...

I've been looking forward to Jacobs' book for two reasons.

One, he is a funny writer. Read about his experience outsourcing his life to India here:

More importantly, by trying to live "biblically," Jacobs has proved the point of the Law (Rom 3:20). As he put it in the Newsweek interview: "I miss my sin-free life, but I guess I was never sin free. I was able to cut down on my coveting maybe 40 percent, but I was still a coveter."

Here we have a confessed unbeliever trying to live by the Law. I think there are going to be many conversation points in this book for us as believers to have with unbelievers. There will probably be some that we believers can have with each other about hermeneutics, too.

So, when I learned of this book last week, I pre-ordered it on Amazon. And, I can't wait to read it.

Sarah Scott said...

Dr. Groothuis,

I had never heard of this guy. Thanks for the post!

This book (based on the interview), however anthropologically interesting, creates an incorrect picture of the Word of God. The reason is that it focuses on law 1) outside of context and 2) apart from the fulfillment of that law (Jesus). What we arrive at is a misconstrued view of the Bible (a purely legalistic view). The undiscerning reader
sadly takes away a view that the Bible is merely a harmless, "respectable" book, but nothing more.

Humor can be wonderful, but certain things for the sake of mere humor should be avoided.

Doug Groothuis said...


You are on the mark with respect to BJ. Given a fully biblical perspective, we can appreciate that "through the works of the law shall no one be justified" (Paul). But Jacobs never mentions this. I wonder if his book will speak to the gospel at all?!

evagrius said...

Perhaps it's because the Bible is usually used as an excuse to pound people over the head with moralism.

Doug Groothuis said...

It isn't, usually. Most simply ignore it, including Christians. But one must preach law for anyone to understand grace. It is a both/and.

Bjorn said...

It is a bit dangerous to talk about a book one hasn’t read. I am basing my opinion on Jacobs’ own description of his project and on the introduction of his book which can both be found on his homepage (

True, most people ignore the Bible completely. That’s exactly why we should be glad if an agnostic does not only read the Bible but even tries to live by it. Isn’t Jacobs’ approach preferable to simply rejecting the Bible based on the prejudice that it is old-fashioned or outdated?

I agree that from a Christian point of view he misses the heart of the Bible. But he is not Christian and he does not claim that his book is an accurate portrayal of the Christian faith (nor of the Jewish faith). Of course, this peculiar way of "living biblically” is not the way of salvation. But this may not have been what he was looking for.
You have to start your spiritual journey from where you are. Jacobs describes himself as an agnostic of Jewish descendant who “always assumed religion would just wither away and we’d live in a neo-Enlightenment world”. Now he sets out to “explore religion” and it is quite consistent that he tries to do this on his own terms.
And although his method may seem peculiar or even silly to us, it is still the Word of God he is trying to live by. That alone may not save his soul. But however poor his hermeneutical skills may be it is still better than living by the standard of postmodern hedonism. We also may not forget that God’s ways are mysterious. And He can make something good come out of this experiment. In fact, Jacobs mentions that his experiment did no leave him unchanged. That may be a first step towards his salvation.

It is true that Jacobs didn’t do all this just for spiritual purposes. He admits quite frankly that one of his reasons was to come up with a new book. And trying to sell this book he is going to put emphasis on the spectacular or funny aspects of his experiment. But from all I have read it doesn’t seem like he is trying to ridicule the Bible or Christianity. (He may be ridiculing certain types of fundamentalism, but that is hard to judge without reading the entire book). Therefore I disagree with Sarah that Jacobs’ experiment creates a wrong picture of the Word of God. Jacobs does not insist that he uncovered the true meaning of the Bible. On the contrary, he writes “By taking fundamentalism extreme, I found that literalism is not the best way to interpret the Bible.”
If anything, he creates a wrong picture of biblical literalism. But I think Jacobs points to a serious problem here. One of the reasons why he came up with his own version of biblical literalism was his suspicion, “that almost everyone’s literalism consisted of picking and choosing. People plucked out the parts that fit their agenda, whether that agenda was to the right or left.” And this seems to be a pretty accurate description of the picture that Christianity presents when viewed from an outside perspective: a lot of different groups with different readings of the Bible. And whatever reasons are offered for these different readings this must seem rather arbitrary from the outside.

Brian Jones said...
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Brian Jones said...

Sarah, thanks for your thoughtful response to my comments. I agree with the points you make, though not the response you seem to advocate.

The book is coming whether we like it or not. We can't stop it. We can ignore it, condemn it out of hand, or engage. Which of those three do you advocate?

To me, when an unbeliever (recall from the interview that Jacobs is a professed agnostic) wants to talk about the Bible and especially about hermeneutics, then I think we need to represent Christ in that conversation. So, I choose to engage.

Furthermore, I agree with your point about the "undiscerning reader." It is another reason to engage! As a pastor and teacher of the Bible, my job is to be there for the undiscerning and help them think their way through unbiblical assertions and worldviews. I'm not giving my Sunday preaching to refutation of this or any other book. The Bible, of course, is the only book for the church, But to let unbelievers speak of the Bible in a way that may catch on in our culture and let it stand without comment from Christians..., well, I think I would be missing an opportunity (Eph. 5:16). The Internet is a good forum for this kind of thing, and it is one reason why I blog.

Look, I'm certain that part of Jacobs' thought here is to attack Christianity through a selective, overly literal approach. It's an old strategy, or perhaps strategies--part reductio ad absurdum, part ad hominem. These are not difficult to deal with. In the process, however, Jacobs is going to provide us with abundant proof that he is a sinner and that his attempts at self-righteousness fail miserably. Yes, there may not be any gospel in the book. It is almost certain there won't be any. So, let us be there to preach the gospel to those who read the book! We should show them that the major themes of Scripture--God is holy, we are sinful, we can't do anything to fix it--are all demonstrated by Jacobs' "biblical" life. That's why Jesus came: to do what Jacobs, and I, cannot do for ourselves.

We can cluck our tongues at chances like this, or we can use them to speak Christ. We can pick up where Jacobs' leaves off and, yes, we can refute the incorrect conclusions he makes from his experience. So, let's eagerly anticipate the opportunity, not condemn it before we even read what the man says.

Sorry, to post such a long comment in response. I don't mean to try to be a troll here on your turf, Dr. Groothuis. I just believe that this is the kind of thing that everyday apologetics should be about. Maybe God will such witness to bring his elect into the fold. Or, be pleased to close the mouth of the skeptic and undermine his reckless self-confidence. Isn't this the work of the apologist?

Peter M. Head said...

I agree with Brian - there are plenty of positives to engage with here. E.g.:
"There’s a lot about gratefulness in the Bible, and I would say I’m more thankful."
"One thing I learned is that the outside affects the inside, your behavior shapes your thoughts."
"The Bible project was a lot more difficult than the encyclopedia project. The Bible affected every single part of my life ..."
"One of the lessons of the book is, there is some picking and choosing in following the Bible ... You want to take a heaping serving of the parts about compassion, mercy and gratefulness—instead of the parts about hatred and intolerance."

Bob Andelman said...

If you'd like to hear A.J. Jacobs talk about his new book, "The Year of Living Biblically," check out this audio interview link.