Monday, February 22, 2010

The Year of Living Biblically

The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible As Literally As Possible
© 2007 A.J. Jacobs
388 pages

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Day 111. When I'm jotting down tips on how to land a second wife, it's clear that the pendulum has swung too far into the Bible's crazy territory.  (p. 138)


I began this blog in May 2007 with A.J. Jacob’s Know-It-All, in which he records his experience reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. I enjoyed the book immensely, and so jumped at the chance to read another work of Jacobs’. In A Year of Living Biblically,  he tasks himself with following every rule and suggestion in the Judeo-Christian bible as literally as possible in an effort to understand what religious beliefs and practices do for people. He intends to honor the various commandments’ literal meaning, rather than their specific expression*, and establishes references to help him along the way. Not only does he convene a panel of religious leaders to help him navigate the maze of translations and cross-interpretations, but he begins to build a library of biblically-focused works for his own research. He also commits to spending time with other biblical literalists (the Amish,  Mormons, and Young-Earthers) and making “pilgrimages” to Jerusalem and the Creationist site in Kentucky.

Jacobs’ initial steps onto this new religious path are bumpy indeed, as he attempts to adjust to a confusing new regimen. Jacobs isn’t content to take the bible’s ethical mandates seriously: not only does he begin living the Golden Rule, but he lets his beard grow out, attaches tassels to his clothing, avoids his wife during her period, and begins each month by blowing a shofar. He thus strives to fulfill its ritualistic laws as well. He also attempts to follow the Bible’s advice for punishing others for their sins, but breaks no laws in the process: he does stone adulterers, but does so with pebbles. As the months pass, Jacobs immerses himself in the life, becoming the sort of person others cross the street to avoid coming near. So intrusive are the biblical laws that Jacobs fears he is being absorbed by a newborn alter-ego -- the long-bearded, staff-toting, moralistic “Jacob”.  Jacobs fights to maintain his sanity, even though he obviously enjoys the journey in part. When the time comes for him to leave the Hebrew scriptures for the Christian, he is reluctant to abandon his beard and horn-blowing.

Although Jacobs intended to follow both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, his attempts to live a Christian life are stymied by the fact that he can’t accept Jesus as the Messiah: beyond that, all the New Testament contains are a few ethical rules already covered by the Hebrews. Thus, he spends his three Christian months visiting Christian churches. This causes a bit of a stir given his beard and fondness for robes. Humorously, Jacob’s year-long research into the Bible causes him to take issue with the way Christians like Jerry Falwell misuse the Hebrew scriptures, robbing them of their context.  Speaking of Falwell, Jacobs finds out that despite the man’s ability to vomit sound bytes, his actual sermons are dull.

When the year-long journey ends, Jacobs seems conflicted. Although he’s relieved of the burden of following so many rules, he enjoyed the structure they gave his life.  He especially enjoyed the group activities, like dancing with drunken Hasidic Jews on a night designated for revelry. He feels as though he has benefited from the experience overall, having gained a reverence for life while remaining agnostic. I enjoyed watching him grapple with the life, and I recommend the book to both religious and nonreligious audiences. It will allow us -- particularly the nonreligious -- to understand our fellows better. Religious audiences may glean the same, but not so much if Jacobs happened to subscribe to his own life stance. In any case, both audiences are sure to be amused by Jacobs’ constant reacting to what is expected of him. This was an exceptional read, one I'm sure to remember with fondness.

The inside cover includes pictures that track the growth of Jacobs' beard and hair over the course of a year. You may view it here.


*“Those who piss against the wall” could be taken literally to mean hobos and drunken college students, for instance, but its literal meaning would be males. Females would be hard-pressed to pee against a wall.

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