Book Review: The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs


The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible (2007) by A.J. Jacobs follows 12 months of raised secular, agnostic writer for Esquire attempting the ultimate in Biblical literalism. While it is an exercise in participatory journalism, Jacobs is also a spiritual seeker and offers great insight on faith and religion.

For about 2/3’s of his year he sticks with the Jewish scriptures, and then about four months tackling the New Testament (something even more challenging since it’s not part of his heritage). He follows every rule from the scripture, those listed in the Pentateuch as well as many other direct commandments in books such as Proverbs, creating a list of over 700 rules. He illustrates just how difficult it is to follow each and every one of them not to mention simply remembering them all.

Then there’s the question of figurative language as even among Fundamentalist believers there is a difference of opinion on whether a particular passage should be accepted literally. Jacobs points out that even Christ teases those who take his teachings literally.It should be noted that this book is also very funny, but not in a mocking or detached ironic way. Instead there’s the humor of Jacobs grappling with the more perplexing Biblical commandments and the situations they land him in.

I learned a lot from this book too. I found myself growing very fond of Jacobs and appreciating his humility, open-mindedness and wisdom. He’s given a great gift by conducting this experiment and writing so eloquently about it.  I think whether you are religious or agnostic, conservative or liberal, there is something in this book for you.  This will definitely be one of my ten favorite books read in 2008.

I’ve decided…that the Wikipedia and the Bible have a lot in common. Hardcore believers say that the Bible emerged from God’s oven like a fully baked cake….The alternative is called the documentary hypothesis. This says that the Bible has many, many authors and editors….The passages have been chopped and pieced together by various editors. In short, the hypothesis says that the Bible has evolved, like humans themselves. Like a Wikipedia entry. – p. 200

My quest is a paradoxical one. I’m trying to fly solo on a route that was specifically designed for a crowd. As one of my spiritual advisers, David Bossman, a religion professor at Seton Hall University, told me: “The people of the Bible were ‘groupies.’ You did what the group did, you observed the customs of your group. Onely the crazy Europeans came up with the idea of individualism. So what you’re doing is a modern phenomenon.” – p. 213

I always found the praising-God parts of the Bible and my prayer books awkward. The sentence 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. – p. 220

Greenburg tells me, “Never blame a text from the Bible for your behavior. It’s irresponsible. Anybody who says X, Y, and Z is in the Bible — it’s as if one says, ‘I have no role in evaluating this.’ The idea that we can work with God to evolve the Bible’s meaning — it’s a thrilling idea…He says that just because you’re religious doesn’t mean you give up your responsibility to choose. You have to grapple with the Bible. – p. 268

This year showed me beyond a doubt that everyone practices cafeteria religion. It’s not just moderates…But the more important lesson is this: there’s nothing wrong with choosing. Cafeterias aren’t bad per se…The key is in choosing the right dishes. You need to pick the nurturing ones (compassion), the healthy ones (love thy neighbor), not the bitter ones. Religious leaders don’t know everything about every food, buy maybe the good ones can guide you to what is fresh. – p. 328

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