Friday, June 21, 2013

The next book i'm tackling is "The Year of Living Biblically", by A. J. Jacobs. A.J. is an extremely engaging writer, and his neuroses and anxieties are all too familiar. While this isn't a theological treatise or a spiritual reflection or anything like that, i'm still excited to add it to my spiritual reading list. After all, some of the books that have provided me with my greatest spiritual awakenings have been fiction, or poetry, or decidedly un-religious. God meets us where we are. And after spending the last couple of years frustrated and baffled by the large pockets of Christianity that insist on a "literal interpretation" and "straight reading" of the Bible, it's refreshing to see someone do exactly that. A.J.'s approach highlights some of the conflicts and difficulties (and absurdities) of this kind of scriptural understanding.

For example, when discussing the struggles that he and his wife had to conceive, he cites the command to "be fruitful and multiply". It's the first thing God tells Adam to do, the first commandment in the Bible.

"Now, if I were taking the Bible absolutely literally, I could be "fruitful" by loading up on peaches at Whole Foods Market and "multiply" by helping my niece with her algebra homework. I could scratch this commandment off my list in twenty minutes flat.
"This hammers home a simple but profound lesson: When it comes to the Bible, there is always -- but always -- some level of interpretation, even on the most seemingly basic rules."

There are a couple of things i want to point out here: first, because the phrase "be fruitful and multiply" is so old, and because the concept of fruitfulness has so long been tied to human fertility, and because the concept of increasing your family has been so important to so many cultures for so long, we forget that this is actually a metaphor. It's easy to see those words and read their meaning and forget that we are interpreting, but we absolutely are. It is not possible for a human being to literally be fruitful, although multiplication is certainly attainable.

Second, i'm neither a history buff nor a math whiz, so i may be wrong here, but i'm not sure that multiplication was invented when God said that. I'm not even sure it was invented whenever that passage was written. I think that the original word is probably more like "increase" than "multiply", which means that even if A.J. had done a few quick sums, he would still have failed at a perfect literal following of the text, because of a translation error. The Bible is full (like, bursting and exploding at the seams full) of translation errors and oddities, and probably tons of transcription errors that we don't even know about. What is the virtue of following the Bible literally if the words are not correct? Do you get points just for trying? And if so, why is it not okay to try to interpret the text? Do you not get points for trying to get closer to the meaning that the author actually intended?

A.J. also had some really great insights about prayer. This is something i've been struggling with a lot lately: why do we pray? How do we pray? When do we pray? What do we pray about? I won't ramble all of my thoughts here now, but i will leave you with A.J.'s:

"In Deuteronomy, the Bible says that we should thank the Lord when we've eaten our fill -- grace after meals, it's called . . .
"I'd like to thank God for the land that he provided so that this food might be grown . . .
"I'd like to thank the farmer who grew the chickpeas for this hummus. And the workers who picked the chickpeas. And the truckers who drove them to the store. And the old Italian lady who sold the hummus to me at Zingone's deli and told me 'Lots of love.' Thank you . . .
The prayers are helpful. They remind me that the food didn't spontaneously generate in my fridge. They make me feel more connected, more grateful, more aware of my place in this complicated hummus cycle. They remind me to taste the hummus instead of shoveling it into my maw like it's a nutrition pill. And they remind me that I'm lucky to have food at all. Basically, they help me get outside of my self-obsessed cranium."

I've been doing a lot of reading and writing and thinking lately (really, for most of my life, if i'm being honest) about food and food ethics and how i can consume more ethically and what is healthy for my body and what is healthy for my mind and heart and spirit and what is healthy for the bodies of others. So connecting that whole food conundrum to spirituality, and particularly to the prayer conundrum, was really eye-opening.

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