So here are some final things about this book.
I recall that AJ would admit how difficult it was for him to pray. Other parts of his project - wearing certain clothes, eating kosher foods - were fine, but as an agnostic, worshiping God when he didn't know if God existed felt weird. Yet the more he did it, the more he felt OK with it. As he gave thanks for food and drink and the fact that he made it to and from work safely, he realized how many things went right every day, how many good things there were in life. By giving thanks, AJ developed a more grateful attitude.
And I like this! When we focus on being thankful, we aren't moping about how bad life is and complaining and gossiping. So that's a good lesson!
One day as AJ was admiring an article he'd written for his work, he suddenly stopped short...
Here I am being prideful about creating an article in a midsize American magazine. But God -- if He exists -- He created the world. He created flamingos and supernovas and geysers and beetles and the stones for these steps I'm sitting on.
"Praise the Lord," I say out loud.
I'd always found the praising-God parts of the Bible and my prayer books awkward. The sentences about the all-powerful, almighty, all-knowing, the host of hosts, He who has greatness beyond our comprehension. I'm not used to talking like that. It's so over the top. I'm used to understatement and hedging and irony. And why would God need to be praised in the first place? God shouldn't be insecure. He's the ultimate being.
Now I can sort of see why. It's not for him. It's for us. It takes you out of yourself and your prideful little brain. (pg. 220)
And I like this! When we start focusing on God, we stop being proud and self-centered. We realize how insignificant the things we "create" really are so why should we go about thinking we are "all that" compared to the neighbor next door or someone in another culture?
During his year-long project AJ gets input from groups who follow the Bible - some more literally than others. He visits the Amish, Orthodox Jews, evangelical Christians, serpent handlers in Tennessee and a creationist museum in Kentucky. Even though he admits that he could never believe the creationist point of view since it's not based on science, he admits they did teach him that life isn't random and that we do have a place in this universe. Later in the book he notes, "My existence is not a meaningless collection of actions, so I should take seriously every decision." (pg. 275)
And I like this! The Bible says we are fearfully and wonderfully made! We aren't products of chance who have no purpose in life. While we should never have inflated pride in thinking we are better than others, we should realize our lives have meaning and we are here for a reason. Our decisions matter.
Lastly and most importantly...
On day 336 AJ mentioned that he'd had a "bit of a mental breakdown" the week before about his Bible project.
"In the final stretch, I've been frantically trying to read every single book on religion, trying to interview every religious leader, trying to figure out how to obey every rule. What if I miss an insight? What if I overlook a potential translation? I haven't paid God five shekels to redeem my first-born son. I haven't talked to a Seventh-day Adventist yet. What if they have the secret? I've barely made a dent in the Bible." (pg. 313)
I remember when I mentioned on Facebook that I was reading this book. I'd only read maybe 50 or 75 pages (out of more than 350) and my friend said that her husband was a bit frustrated with the author's fearfulness. At the time nothing had bothered me this way, but I said I'd look out for it. AJ had admitted he was a germophobe so I thought maybe that would come into play in an annoying way, but nothing like that bothered me. Then as I read further I realized maybe AJ's fear that bothered Josh was his inability to keep every rule, his list of 700-plus biblical rules were too many to keep up with! If he focused on food laws and eating kosher, he couldn't focus on praising God or avoiding lying so much. Not gossiping. Not lusting. Those were super-tough and AJ was honest in admitting this. Rather than this frustrating me, it made me note this Monday night as I finished the book: "his wanting to keep all the rules, striving, yet he cannot: that is THE POINT."
AJ (rather, using him as a metaphor for all those who take God seriously) was trying to earn God's favor by keeping every rule. By wearing his hair a certain way, by growing a beard, by not mixing fabrics, by eating certain foods and avoiding others, by not lying, by not coveting or lusting or stealing or murdering, by keeping no record of wrongs, by forgiving, by doing good just for the sake of doing good, by giving a tithe, by feeding the poor.
He realized it was exhausting. It caused a "bit of a mental breakdown"!
This is what is great about grace. The Law was there to show us we could never measure up to God. It was a tutor, a school teacher if you will. It taught us, there is no way I can keep myself pure. Even if I keep these rules, I still have to worry about ritual impurities almost constantly.
This is why Jesus is important. He made a way where we don't have to keep 700-plus rules in order to reach God. He is the bridge. We can rest in the work he did for us on the cross and fall on the mercy and grace of God.
"God, I can't keep all these rules! Trying to do everything right is driving me nuts! I cry out for your mercy in dealing with me. God, be merciful to me a sinner!"
And the wonderful thing is, God is merciful. God is full of grace. He abundantly pardons. He is the Savior.
And I love this! Enough said.