A very interesting article. The comments are telling as well. I think the author’s chief obstacle is his own privatism (he hints at it). And if he created the subtitle (rather than his editor) that’s then another piece of the problem (i.e., without God, to make a better man of himself). The question remains: can one live biblically without faith? That he assumes living biblically will make him better is also riveting. Read the original here.
As Christmas looms, an agnostic, tries to make a better man of himself by living as the rules of the Bible demand. The results surprise him
: December 23, 2007, Times Online
I am standing in London’s Oxford Street, which is packed with Christmas shoppers. Hundreds of people walk past me every minute. I try to catch the eye of the ones who come closest. But they look right through me.
This could be because I’m holding up a sign that reads “Thou Shalt Not Covet”.
The 10th commandment is the one that most of us break most frequently. Indeed, the modern economy, which depends on constant growth, requires us to covet more or less ceaselessly. Christmas is peak coveting season – which is why I have brought my sign to the West End, the belly of the beast.
After 10 minutes, my nose and fingers having turned to ice, I finally get a response to my biblical injunction. A man wearing a raincoat mutters through the side of his mouth as he passes close by: “Well done, mate.”
It’s not much, but it helps. The life of a biblical prophet is hard and lonely. Just ask Jeremiah, who walked the streets with a yoke across his shoulders to signify enslavement to the Babylonians. Or Isaiah, who walked naked and barefoot for three years.
As a latterday prophet of only a few days’ standing, I can’t hope to match those two, so I decide to abandon prohibition in favour of something more constructive. I put away the 10th commandment and hold up a sign that reads “Love Thy Neighbour”.
This one proves much more acceptable to the shoppers. A woman stops in front of me and declares, “Oh, that’s nice.”
Nice, indeed. But what am I up to? Why aren’t I coveting like everyone else?
If it hadn’t been for A J Jacobs, an American writer, none of this valuable and spiritually enriching experience would have occurred to me.
Jacobs, a New Yorker, likes to live life to the extremes. A few years ago he read the Encyclopaedia Britannica all the way from A-Z and wrote a book about it. Then he impersonated a hot woman on an internet dating site – and wrote about it.
Perhaps in atonement, he has now devoted a year of his life to living by the Bible – after reading it to learn the rules. The resulting book, The Year of Living Biblically, was published by Simon & Schuster in the United States this autumn.
If he could do it, why not me? Well, for a start, there are 700 or so rules in the Old and New Testaments. Some are well known – the commandments , loving neighbours – others less so: the prohibition on wearing clothes made of mixed fibres, the stoning of blasphemers.
No problem over mixed fibres (I’m a 100% cotton type) – but stoning? On the other hand, Jacobs, an agnostic Jew, ended up sincerely grateful for the wisdom he gained by following the rules.
For instance, the Book of Proverbs tells us that smiling makes us happy. Psychologists agree: the theory of cognitive dissonance suggests that if you behave in a certain way, your beliefs will eventually change to conform to your behaviour.
This could be taken further, Jacobs suggests: if you act like you’re faithful and God-loving, you might actually turn out to be. That would be nice, particularly at Christmas, so I decided to give it a go.
Speaking biblically requires a total switch in the content of conversation: no lying, no complaining, no gossiping. For me, this is not a huge problem. I work at home, so there’s nobody to lie or complain to, most of the time, or to gossip about.
When it comes to swearing, I decided some time ago to say things like crikey and even cripes. This is now second nature and I really feel less angry as a result.
When it’s time for a spot of prayer, however, the words don’t come easily. I sing Morning Has Broken several times, hoping that I’m loud enough to bring cheer to my neighbours. Remembering school assemblies, I dig out my old treble recorder, which I’ve not played since I was about 10. Even without written music I’m able to remember the fingering. A miracle!
I am not the most obvious candidate for this task. I’ve not been confirmed, or even baptised. I have attended church, occasionally, for weddings and funerals; but my understanding of the Bible largely stems from studying English literature – and from the biblical dramas that used to appear on television at Easter and Christmas.
I did briefly flirt with religion as a child. It happened one rainy afternoon, when I was seven, after I’d watched a film about a nun. I formed a steeple with my hands and asked God to supply me immediately with a new toy – or some other outward sign of His existence. Nothing occurred.
My lack of faith, although common, is not entirely typical. Almost 5m British Christians attend church every week. That’s more than all the Hindus, Jews, Muslims and Sikhs in this country put together. A further 38m call themselves Christians but do not attend church regularly.
But these figures have had less impact on me than Professor Richard Dawkins. It’s almost entirely down to the atheist polemicist that I’ve been drawn to religion recently. I’ve become increasingly fed up with reading or listening to him bang on about God not existing.
Dawkins pretends that everybody religious is either an idiot or dangerous or both; but it’s bad science to ignore the evidence that most believers of whatever faith find religion a useful support in their efforts to be better people – and that most don’t wish to be suicide bombers.
I’m intellectually curious about religion as a moral crutch. But there are other reasons, if you want them, to follow the Bible’s teachings. Specifically, chapter 28 of Deuteronomy says that if you don’t, you shall be cursed in the city and in the field, cursed when you come in and cursed when you go out.
The Lord will send vexation, make the pestilence cleave unto you, smite you with a consumption and with the mildew. You shall not prosper. Locusts will consume the trees and fruit of your land. Your sons and daughters shall be given to another people and your eyes will fail with longing for them. You will fear day and night. You will become an astonishment, a proverb and a byword among all nations.
A bit risky to ignore that, isn’t it? (Try saying it out loud in Ian Paisley’s voice.) But what exactly does it mean to live biblically? I e-mailed an assortment of acquaintances to ask for tips.
Some seemed to think that avoiding modern conveniences would do the trick. “Write your e-mails in stone … by candlelight,” said one. Another drew up a long list of prohibitions. “No deodorants – you can spray frankincense if you get a bit whiffy. No potatoes. No underpants.”
Several thought it necessary to reenact biblical behaviour: “You could try insisting that your hosts at parties wash your feet when you arrive.” I have some friends coming at Christmas. I’ll offer to wash their feet instead.
Several suggested that I should try to sleep in a stable. West Hampstead police station, near my home, has stables. I phoned them to ask whether it might be possible to stay one night. The man who answered the telephone was extremely polite but said no.
Would it make a difference that the person in question promised to live biblically, so obviously wouldn’t be breaking any of the 10 commandments? Alas, the horses might break out and there were health and safety requirements to observe, because of the insurance.
“I understand the motivation,” he said, “and you have my sympathy” – but then the line went dead. I hoped that he’d not fallen into Satan’s hands.
One friend, in the diplomatic service, had little to offer in the way of advice, just this rather unbiblical boast: “By the way, I ain’t living biblically, I got loads of totty on me case doing the let’s-try-to-seduce-the-married-bloke thing; but I am doing what the FCO does in unclear situations … nothing.”
I was glad he was doing nothing, because if he committed adultery I might need to stone him.
Jacobs set out to stone adulterers in Manhattan but realised this would get him into trouble. His solution was to use small pebbles and drop them as if by accident on the adulterer’s shoe. It didn’t work. He encountered an elderly adulterer who, realising what Jacobs was up to, snatched his stones and hurled them back.
Elsewhere, Jacobs writes of the loneliness of not being allowed to touch his own wife for a week after she’s had her period. His wife is unimpressed. On learning that he is also not allowed to sit on chairs that she has sat on while she is “unclean”, she wilfully sits on every seat in the house.
More enjoyable was his attempt to keep the sabbath (a “school’s out for the summer” feeling every week). For the strictest keepers of the sabbath, 39 different types of work are off-limits, including cooking, combing and washing. “You can’t tear anything,” Jacobs explains, “so toilet paper must be preripped earlier in the week.”
Does writing for The Sunday Times break the sabbath? I hope not. My own work finishes before Sunday, but to cover myself I set aside half an hour to prerip loo paper.
Halfway through his project, Jacobs came to the conclusion that he was “trying to fly solo on a route that was specifically designed for a crowd”. He had missed out on the feeling of belonging, a key part of religion.
Not so very long ago, as it happens, I carried out my own experiment addressing exactly that feeling of belonging. I spent six months sampling a variety of different Christian denominations to see which, if any, might appeal to me.
The denominations I sampled were diverse: both with and without clergy, hymns, musical accompaniment, fine clothes, incense, a broad ethnic and social mix and transubstantiation – in short, a greater range of Christian experience than many practising believers try.
I worshipped with the Wee Frees in Scotland and the Church of England in Somerset. Then I tried London’s wide variety.
I threw myself into whatever was required: at a Pentecostal church I sang at the top of my voice, palms raised towards the ceiling as if to catch a beach ball. I even fluttered my finger tips like Al Jolson.
I was given huge encouragement by the many people I met. “Everything around us is designed to make us selfish and lie and think of ourselves first,” a Mormon bishop told me. “But we say, ‘No! I’m going to love my neighbour and look out for outcasts and the underprivileged’. As you do that, you become extremely happy.” He later put this to the test, inadvertently, by introducing me to a man whose hand, I noticed after shaking it, smelt of poo. I regret that I did not become extremely happy.
Another time I went out with a pair of Mormon “elders”, aged 20 and 24, as they tried to strike up conversations with strangers on the street and public transport.
They were almost constantly rebuffed. People usually turned away when they identified themselves as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints. “Around about the Jee of Jesus,” one said. But they didn’t seem the least bit sorry for themselves.
At St Etheldreda’s, a Catholic church in Holborn, central London, Father Kit Cunningham talked to me about original sin. The Mormons had been oppressively upbeat; this, to me, was going too far the other way. How about accentuating the positive?
Over coffee after a Quaker meeting, several people asked me how I’d liked it. To one, I said truthfully that I’d enjoyed it and would happily come again – as indeed I did – but that I didn’t believe in God. His answer surprised me: “Oh, well, that doesn’t necessarily matter.”
Confused, I turned back to the Bible. But this does not necessarily make things clearer. As Jacobs points out, it is a mixture of “ethically advanced rules” and “bizarre decrees” – sometimes on the same page.
“It’s not like the Bible has a section called, And Now for Some Crazy Laws,” he writes.
Worried that he was devoting too much attention to the weird parts and neglecting the goodness and justice, he took advice from a rabbi. “Try to make everything you do measure up to the moral standards of the prophets,” he was told.
Hoping to do that myself, and conscious of the need to love my neighbour, I collared the vicar at my local church after the candle-lit carol service last Sunday. I asked him if I could join the board of the old people’s home at the end of my garden. It was a busy week for vicars: he promised to make the arrangements in January.
And what about prayer? I’d been avoiding this, or pretending that singing or playing the recorder was sufficient. Seeking guidance, I called some of the big churches and told them that I was living biblically.
Perhaps not surprisingly a spokeswoman for the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster failed to recommend any of the more outlandish stuff as a passport to successful prayer: she said nothing about foregoing deodorant, or potatoes, or underpants.
“It’s not about eating locusts but looking at your heart. That is what makes you happy. You won’t want to stop after a week. This gives you a deep sense of peace and happiness in the long term.”
She said, gratifyingly, that Advent was the perfect time to carry out my project: “We are all looking at how we lead our lives, in preparation for Christ’s birth.
“The heart of the Christian life is to love God and your neighbour.”
In practice, this means setting aside time to worship, to say sorry for mistakes, thanks for the good stuff and ask for help for people who need it.
“You can pray on your own or in church. You don’t need to follow particular words. The heart of it is to talk to God and share what is on your mind. And listen.”
For what – a voice?
“Be open to the Lord’s nudging and guidance.”
As for loving my neighbour, she said, this means treating others as I would like them to treat me – the golden rule. Treat them with kindness and truth, particularly the poor and the suffering. But I should not be proud in my heart and think myself better than anybody.
If I do a good thing, I shouldn’t boast about it. I should focus my mind on the example of Jesus Christ, and if that isn’t enough I could think, too, of the Blessed Virgin Mary and my namesake the late Pope John Paul II. “He particularly respected the dignity of all people,” she said.
For balance, I found an Anglican website that provided a formula for prayer using our digits as prompts. The thumb reminds us to think of our closest friends and relations, the index finger points towards our teachers, the middle finger represents people with power, the ring finger reminds us of the powerless and the poor, and only finally with the little finger do we think of ourselves.
I had several goes at this, only rarely getting to the little finger to think of myself because I got so carried away thinking good thoughts for the teachers and people in power.
The person who came to mind most often was Richard Dawkins. I prayed for Dawkins a very great deal indeed. Always keeping in mind the golden rule, I prayed to God the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, to the prophets, to the Blessed Virgin Mary, to my namesake the late Pope. I called on them all to shower blessings on the professor and bring him a happy Christmas – whether he likes it or not.