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Perhaps the fact that it is catalogued under "Humor and Entertainment" should tell us how to rightly appreciate A. J. Jacobs's best-selling 2007 book, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. In the course of a fascinating year, Jacobs tries to obey literally the 700-plus commands he finds in the Bible—including stoning an adulterer, offering an animal sacrifice, and upholding all the jots and tittles of the Old Testament law. Clearly, taking the Bible literally does not always mean taking it seriously.

More recently, Christian blogger Rachel Held Evans undertook her own experiment in "living biblically" by following for a year all the Bible's passages about women's behavior. A Year of Biblical Womanhood is Evans's subversive way of revealing that no one—not even the most conservative Christian—takes the whole Bible literally, and that to do so is both impossible and silly.

Both books, while unfortunately mocking in their own ways, nonetheless underscore some persistent misunderstandings about the Bible:

How the Bible has come to us. Scripture is placed within the context of ancient cultures in the Middle East. It comes dressed in all the particularities of history and geography, which God took seriously when he spoke to us through various people who lived in them. To treat all of Scripture as if it were written directly into today's world is to imagine that God himself thought the world would never change and that we could just keep on obeying all the rules. That is absurd, as we shall see.

How laws function in society, then and now. Sometimes laws are like statutes—expressed in general principles. ...

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July/August 2013

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