Tuesday, July 29, 2008

AJ Jacobs on Fundamentalism...

My friends, this will probably be my next to last post on the TED talks, as enjoyable as they have been. There are a few that I didn’t really find particularly enthralling (like Billy Graham’s speech, which I found incredibly anti-climactic), so I just wont’ write on them. I’ve really liked this series. It’s given me direction, it’s given me a reason to want to blog, and it’s opened the door to the kind of discussion that I’ve always wanted to have on my site. So thanks, everyone. I’m going to be thinking hard for a while to find a new series. It will definitely have a lot to do with religion (I’m thinking something to do with Christianity in Springfield, which will surely be one messed up adventure).

On to TED.

AJ Jacobs recently wrote a bestselling book called A Year of Living Biblically. Jacobs was raised without religion, which makes his talk (found here) very interesting. He isn’t jaded or bitter about the way the Church treated him, he didn’t have preconceived notions about it all (since this was his first encounter with it), and he was very thorough. Illuminating even for Bible scholars, I think.

Jacobs studied the Bible thoroughly and spent an entire year abiding by every rule he could find, taking fundamentalism to its logical conclusion. He never wore clothes of mixed fabric, never sat on any object a menstruating woman had touched, and he even got the opportunity to stone an adulterer! My dad got the book for Christmas last year, and after hearing Jacobs speak I think I might have to make a trip home soon and take it from him. Be ready Dad.

In his talk, Jacobs outlined a new set of commandments which he developed during his year living Biblically. They are as follows:
1. Thou shalt not take the bible literally.
2. Thou shalt give thanks.
3. Thou shalt have reverence.
4. Thou shalt not stereotype.
5. Thou shalt not disregard the irrational.
6. Thou shalt pick and choose which of the Bible to follow.
I think Jacobs is dead-on on these commandments. What I think is very interesting is that when these are fleshed out, a new Christian ethic begins to appear which I’d really like to discuss.

I think commandments 1, 4, and 5 go together very well. Don’t take the Bible literally. Just don’t do it. It’s silly and it leads to a lot of strange conclusions. Also, nobody has an objective view of what the Bible is saying and exactly what it means when it does speak towards certain issues. That’s why there are so many different versions of Christianity. Even still, it’s easy to find groups of people who are participating in silly rituals or hold a set of beliefs we’ve worked through in a different way, coming to a different conclusion, and say “Oh man, those people are silly. They’ve got it all wrong.” They’re effectively dismissed in your mind. What we often forget is that we’re not dealing with an object. We’re dealing with a person who loves, enjoys, hurts, cries, and suffers just like the rest of us. Perhaps we shouldn’t dismiss silliness so quickly, you know? We can still love, enjoy, and grow with people who have come to different conclusions and believe different things than we do. In fact, it’s probably a better exercise in de-centering the ego and growing as a person than only hanging out with people who are exactly the same as we are.

The second commandment is pretty self explanatory. Give thanks. Give thanks in all things. Be thankful for your food. Be thankful for your bed. As hard as it is, be thankful for your trials. As a psychological exercise, you’re sure to become more optimistic and happy if you do so. It doesn’t have to have anything to do with any bigger plan or getting somewhere else in life. It’s just nice to be content in everything.

Panza, I think the third commandment speaks directly to you, especially how Jacobs explains it. Even if rituals have nothing to do with anything divine, being reverent towards them creates (among other things) a humble mind, a respect for life, a love of what you have. Confucius would be proud.

What I really wanted to talk about was the last commandment. “Thou shalt pick and choose” from the Bible. “The key,” says Jacobs, “is choosing the right parts.” Whoa. This is a big, bold statement. This is saying that ethics exists outside of the Bible for Christians. The Bible is not necessarily the be-all and end-all of what is right and wrong. We have to use our reason, our experiences, and our common sense to look into the Bible and figure out which messages we take out and which ones we leave. Again, I’m reminded of Confucianism. Do we follow the letter of the li or the spirit of the li? Clearly, Jacobs thinks that it’s the spirit of the li.

Of course, this isn’t necessarily a new notion. Augustine said that when reading the Bible, we should not move past a passage until we can find a compassionate way to read it. John Wesley, the founder of the denomination I grew up in, had four criteria for figuring out whether or not something was right, and scripture was only one of those criterion.

How do we do it, though? What is the proper method for what feels like plundering the Bible? I know for me, the ground floor will always be compassion and love. After studying religion and philosophy for two year, I feel like the only thing I can say I know for certain is that in every situation, loving others and finding a way to be compassionate towards them is always the right thing to do. Beyond that, who knows?

I agree with Jacobs that this is the right move. None of us can hear God speaking and telling us what is right and what is wrong directly, and as Jacobs’s experiment shows, following the Bible word for word leads to some very strange and often inconsistent conclusions. Loving your neighbor as yourself is simply not compatible with stoning adulterers and homosexuals to death. I don’t think most Christians think hard enough to develop their own ethical system outside of their holy book, though. It puts a lot of responsibility on those who wish to follow God to be more thoughtful, to strive more diligently, to be more humble, to study with abandon.

The point is that the Bible is a book. It was written by people and those people were all in different social contexts facing different problems. As Paul Tillich would put it, taking the Bible literally is idolatry. You’re not worshiping a living God, you’re worshiping a book. It’s a symbol pointing to something greater than itself. God does not exist in black and white in a book. If God exists, it’s surely way bigger, way crazier, and way cooler than a book. Dr. Ess, one of my favorite professors, told me that reading the Bible is like looking at a finger pointing at the moon. Most people stare at the finger and are finished looking. We are required, however, to go past it all and find the moon that the finger is pointing to.

By the way, I’ve thought of what I’m going to do for my next series, but I need a bit of help. I’m going to create a survey to send to every pastor in Springfield, MO. It will have a series of tough theological questions, asking for their positions on the resurrection of Jesus, the problem of evil, homosexuality, the death penalty, etc. The point is to try and get a grasp on who is leading the spiritual journey in my hometown (though admittedly, I’m not preparing myself to be impressed in any way. I’m preparing for a huge let down). I think if nothing else, it could be really fun and it will be even more fun to share the results and talk about them. So here’s what I need: I need everyone who reads to submit some questions to me, or at least issues they’d like to have Springfield pastors address. You can email me at jwalter@drury.edu or just leave a comment. I’d very much appreciate it, and I’ll get the ball rolling on this as soon as possible.


Anonymous said...

Hello Mr. Polo,
I just wanted to let you know that you have some very profound thoughts. I stumbled upon your blog and felt like reading it. You seem like a very interesting guy.

Anonymous said...

I did not get a chance to read and respond to your last post, so here it is.

Suffering brings the world together. Notice how united our country was after 9/11. These world problems are fixable by man IF WE are willing and compassionate. The bible laid out clear instructions about dealing with sickness.
If I were God, having given my instructions, I would not fix problems that people bring on themselves because that would enable them. I think I learned this from my parents who told me they would kick me out of the house instead of enabling me to stay a child.

On to this blog. Remember to ask for their answers to original sin and how we can be so terrible in the eyes of a loving God.

Ask why there are so many forms of Christianity and why they believe what they do.

Ask how the books of the bible were chosen. Why choose some books and not others?

Lastly, I would ask why so many people here forget to love the man or woman. The bible teaches compassion. We are to love one another, only hating the sin itself.

Things to think about.

lindsey said...

So you can comment, but not write on your own blog? Hmmm... ;-)
Surely you need a distraction from homework already.