Every few weeks, I run out of books to read. This always strikes me as a terrible calamity, which I remedy immediately by running to the local used bookstore, or by checking out what's new at our tiny local library, or by falling back, if the crisis is acute, on old issues of The New Yorker.
But tonight it's too late to go searching for a new book to buy or borrow. In moments like this, I resort to thinking about books I've read about. Often these aren't books I would be inclined to read, or at least not all the way through - but something about them has piqued my interest.
One of these books is 'A Year of Living Biblically,' which is by some guy I've never read before who seems to want to have it both ways - on the one hand, to make a semi-serious attempt to live every one of the Bible's rules, and on the other, to make a book-length joke about the absurdity of the whole project. In some promo, he's on a New York street with a shepherd's crook, a Moses beard, and a live sheep. Profound, huh?
I know, the book's gotten some good reviews, but I can't help thinking that's because none of us knows what to think of religion anymore. Is it, after all, a joke? Is it - any of it - worth taking seriously?
I've had a project in mind - I brought it up with David a couple of years ago. I'd just finished a biography of St. Theresa of Lisieux, who was so intent on self-effacement that she put herself last in line for everything, even when it was her turn to be first. She asked for the most unpalatable food, took the worst chores, befriended the most unlikable of her fellow nuns. Perhaps there was something self-consciously showy about some of her sacrifices, but this last bit - seeking out the company of unpleasant people, of bores - was exactly what Jesus was talking about.
Could any of us do the same, even as a temporary experiment? David has always complained about a particularly tiresome co-worker of his, an incessant moper who is always regaling someone in the office with the details of his most recent crisis. A misery sponge - that's what people call him behind his back.
I asked David if he thought, even for one day, he could make a project of this guy - sit down and talk with him, laugh, commiserate, be a friend. Give him the attention he so obviously craves. Just out of ... love, I suppose. The word, of course, made David cringe. The project didn't appeal to him. He could be good in other ways, he thought - any other way. But not this one.
But, if any of us really feels like taking the Bible seriously (and given that we can't stop talking about this very decrepit book, I assume some of us do), then what else is there? You can dress up in shepherd's outfits all you want, but actual kindness - the kind that puts us out and makes us uncomfortable - is the only act that counts. It's the only one required.