Wednesday, January 05, 2011

How to be Perfect by Daniel M. Harrell

How to be Perfect: One Church's Audacious Experiment in Living the Old Testament Book of Leviticus
by Daniel M. Harrell
Copyright 2011
FaithWords - Nonfiction/Christian
240 pages

Then come four finicky chapters on cleanness--everything from proper food preparation to proper skin care--which make the Lord sound terribly persnickety (apparently my mom was right; cleanliness is next to godliness). Following that are a couple of chapters devoted to festivals (Leviticus is the party book of the Old Testament), as well as two chapters prohibiting every type of incest and other sexual deviancy (making you wonder what the heck was going on back then). Interspersed throughout are various prohibitions against seed and threads and a few other wacky laws that have left even the best Bible scholars scratching their heads ever since.

-- from p. 7 of How to be Perfect, Uncorrected Advanced Reader's Copy. Some changes may have been made to the final published version

Journeying together toward holiness created a reliance on each other that drove us into a deeper experience of community than we would have otherwise enjoyed. Even so, Brandy worried that Leviticus might forbid salsa dancing. I assured her that Leviticus did not forbid any form of dancing. In fact, some parts of the Bible actually encourage it (Ps. 149:3).

--p. 23 of How to be Perfect, ARC

Hyperbole notwithstanding, Jesus allows that loving another is formidable. People who make a big deal of the "as yourself" clause (perhaps in an attempt to make loving another easier) imply that the Bible means you're supposed to take care of yourself first and then you can better love others (since you'll be in a better place to do so, psychologically speaking). But I seriously doubt that Leviticus has psychological well-being in mind.

--pp. 113-114 of How to be Perfect, ARC

. . . Lisa wondered, "Why is it that I see Christians holding signs with references to Leviticus as they protest gay marriage, but no one is doing the same on Wall Street with passages condemning greed?" There is a tendency among Christians to treat some sins as more sinful than others, often for what might be cultural or political reasons. Thomas, weighing the emphasis in Leviticus itself, added, "If we God-folk across the U.S. proportionally reflected the emphases of Leviticus--six or seven compulsions to care for the immigrant and the alien versus two condemnations of homosexuality--what a different debate we might be having about one or both of them in this country now. And how differently the church might be regarded."

p. 132 of How to be Perfect, ARC

These days, modesty and restraint are often relegated to the category of amusing curiosity, if not life-denying pathology. However, being a prude is not so awful. Prudish derives from the Latin word for wisdom, from whence also comes the English word prudent as in "good judgment" or "common sense." Many consider prudence the mother of all virtue, the only sure road to actual happiness. In American culture, the pursuit of happiness has been declared an inalienable right, but ironically, little has contributed more unhappiness than the futility of the pursuit.

p. 135 of How to be Perfect, ARC

After the experiment was over, our tribe of Levites-for-a-month generally agreed that obedience was no longer capitulating to a set of rules, but rather a pathway to relationship whereby the goodness, holiness, awesomeness, and joy of God came clear.

p. 203 of How to be Perfect, ARC

How to be Perfect is similar to the many "did it for a year" books that have been popping up in recent years, but in this case a group of people chose to follow the rules of Leviticus (one of the most rule-heavy books of the Bible) for a single month. When I realized the group was only planning the experiment for a month and they weren't even going to actually follow the same rules, instead cobbling together their own Levitical experiences by picking and choosing what they wanted to work on, I almost abandoned the book as my first DNF of the year.

But, then something happened and all of a sudden I was close to page 100. I think the reason I kept reading had to do with the fact that How to be Perfect is, at the very least, thought-provoking in the manner of a philosophy book. It touches on a lot of topics that are still relevant and which are obvious food for discussion.

I've read Leviticus (yawn) and it's a boring book but the author had a pretty good sense of humor and parts of his chatty description of the Levitical rules are not only funny but make you rethink what they might have meant then (their purpose; how they were followed) versus how they apply now. Even Jews don't apply absolutely every Levitical rule to their lives -- in America you can't. Animal sacrifice is out, for example, because it's against the law. But when author Harrell consulted with a rabbi, the rabbi expressed exactly what I was thinking: Torah is not a toy from which to pick and choose rules and play for a month.

Still, I liked the fact that the book made me think about how I've looked at those ancient rules in the past and whether or not any of them at all have relevance in our time and culture. In general, I've always thought they were worth ignoring because they were directed to the Israelites in an ancient time and -- even if I had a ranch with lambs, goats and bulls -- I would not go around sacrificing animals, mainly because Jesus was supposed to have been the ultimate sacrifice, negating the need to splash animal blood on altars. Ewww. There's plenty of talk about whether or not Jesus' death negated the entire book of Leviticus and it's pretty fascinating stuff.

Homosexuality is an excellent example of a current topic for which Christians in general are thought to have a strong (and mutual) opinion based on a single verse in Leviticus. In fact, none of the people in the group thought homosexuality, which was considered one of the deviant sexual practices for which people were executed in the days of Israelites wandering the desert, was something they could take in the literal Levitical sense. How could they tell their gay friends, "Sorry, you're unclean because of deviant sexual practices," and avoid them for a month? Nobody was willing to do that.

The bottom line:

There's an awful lot to think about and discuss in How to be Perfect. While it can be a little dry, at times, and it's probably a book that will interest Christians more than anyone else, I think non-Christians might also enjoy parts of it.

Personally speaking:

I don't necessarily agree with everything the author said. For example, that quote on loving others as yourself -- Harrell claims it's not about psychological health, but if you're a person who has put everyone else first in your life and not taken time to bother with your own needs, you know doing so can eventually have serious repercussions. It's not easy to love people when you haven't cared enough for yourself and you can, in fact, end up feeling used up and worn out before your time, if not angry at everyone you should love. There's a lot to be said for "loving yourself" if it means psychologically recharging.

Cover thoughts:

I don't know if the cover will remain the same but it's kind of dull. You can barely see the sheep in the middle of the cover, there's no color, nothing at all eye-catching about the book. I'd change that cover if I were in charge.

Notes on an important blog change for 2011:

I've never liked posting the free chapter "sneak peeks" on my blog because they're not original content but they're a requirement for those of us who occasionally review for FirstWild. From now on, I'll leave the free chapters up for 24 hours and then I'll move them a new blog site: Bookfool's Free Chapter Collection. I'll add a link to my review, each time, so that when I take down a free chapter, you'll still have a link that leads you to a copy of the same exact "sneak peek" post but which will be separate from my personal blog content. Here's the free chapter post for How to be Perfect.

©2011 Nancy Horner. All rights reserved. If you are reading this post at a site other than Bookfoolery and Babble or its RSS feed, you are viewing stolen content. Email for written permission to reproduce text or photos.


  1. Oh, interesting. I've often thought that if Leviticus really got a lot of emphasis I'd have to join PETA and Take Steps.

  2. Carrie,

    Well, no need for that. Pretty much everyone falls asleep trying to read Leviticus (or skims -- I have done both), near as I can tell!


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