When the Southern Baptist Convention controversy was in full swing in the early 1980s, I was doing campus ministry in Marietta, Ga. The local newspaper, The Marietta Daily Journal, did a news story featuring two prominent pastors — Nelson Price of Roswell Street Baptist Church and Clark Hutchison of Eastside Baptist Church.
Both were supporters of the so-called Conservative Resurgence or Fundamentalist Takeover — depending on which lens you looked through. (I must add, with appreciation, that both were supportive of my ministry with students through the years.)
A photo with the story showed Clark and Nelson together, but they were apparently interviewed separately. Most interestingly, the two supporters of the same cause had different things to say about the Bible — the purported source of the battle.
While speaking of the need for a higher view of biblical authority among SBC leadership, one said: “The difference is we take the Bible literally and they do not.”
The other began with: “Of course, no one takes the Bible literally, but…”
Reading that news story back then reassured me that discussions about biblical authority usually lead to more heat than light. The widely defined term “biblical inerrancy” became the more common rallying cry.
But the father of the SBC takeover, W.A. Criswell, titled his book on the subject: Why I Preach the Bible Is Literally True.
We learned from reading Criswell and others of his persuasion, however, that they provide a lot of exemptions — for themselves, not those they quickly label as liberal — when it comes to biblical literalism.
My old Marietta friend who said he and other SBC “conservatives” take the Bible literally was wrong. The one that said no one takes the Bible literally was almost right.
At least now we have someone who tried.
While many have claimed to take the Bible literally, at least this one person actually gave it an honest effort and showed the multiple difficulties few would be willing to endure.
A.J. Jacobs (in before-and-after photos above) decided to take his best shot at a living according to the Bible — literally. He recounts his yearlong experience in the book, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, released this month by Simon & Shuster.
In an abbreviated account of his efforts, Jacobs tells readers of Christian Century how he fared.
“If the passage is unquestionably figurative, …I won’t obey it literally,” said the agnostic editor-at-large for Esquire, who grew up a secular Jew but felt the need for a spiritual quest. “But if there’s any doubt whatsoever — and most often there is — I will err on the side of being literal.”
So Jacobs set out to live without clothes of mixed fibers, any form of lying and the many other biblical prohibitions. His experiences are humorous, yet insightful.
Those with a constant need to prop up their fragile faith will find reasons to be offended, I’m sure. Some self-important “Christian leaders” will take him to task for belittling the Bible.
I just enjoyed the witty accounts of his efforts.
One of the more troubling experiences of complete obedience required stoning offenders guilty of sins like adultery, blasphemy, breaking the Sabbath, perjury, incest, witchcraft and more. Jacobs wrestled (pun intended) with how to fulfill this literal command without getting in too much trouble.
“The Hebrew scriptures prescribe a tremendous amount of capital punishment,” he noted. “Think Saudi Arabia, multiply by Texas, then triple that.”
Finally, the literalist picked up some small white pebbles in New York’s Central Park that he tossed at a pot-bellied man whom he had observed working both Saturday and Sunday for Avis — a sure sign of violating any form of Sabbath observance.
A second stoning subject — a grumpy, old confessed adulterer — threw back.
Some of the more difficult aspects of living literally are the ones we all must struggle with daily — keeping our tongues from evil (Psalms 34:13) and not despising a neighbor (Proverbs 14:21).
Jacobs seemed to take his year of living literally intently — without taking himself too seriously. It was encouraging to hear the agnostic say that he moved from dread to some pleasure when it came to prayer times.
One of the reasons Jacobs fulfilled this experiment — other than to write and sell a good book, I’m sure — was “to take legalism to its logical extreme and show that it leads to righteous idiocy.”
Good for him. I hope those tempted by legalism see the danger.
For those of us who hold the Bible as authoritative for faith and living, when rightly interpreted, we can benefit as well from the reminder that this collection of varied literary styles should not be reduced to an encyclopedia, a dictionary or a step-by-step handbook to health and wealth.
Our dishonesty about and misuse of the Bible — as well as our failure to follow its primary and indisputable teachings about how we should relate to God and one another — create our most failing witness.