The Year of Living Biblically
by A. J. Jacobs
A. J. Jacobs, an editor for Esquire magazines, decides to tackle a year-long project to follow the laws and teaching found in the Bible in a quest to develop a stronger spiritual life. Although born into a Jewish family, Jacobs had a pretty secular upbringing, so this is the first time he’s seriously sought any religion. He hopes that what he learns will help him raise his children, make him a better person, and experience the divine spark, if it’s out there. When he reads the Bible cover-to-cover, he creates a list of over seven hundred rules and guidelines, and for the next three hundred and sixty-five days he does his best to implement and follow a properly Biblical life.
It was a little hard to tell how Jacobs was approaching the book. Was he just trying to tell a funny story? It sure seemed that way. He had a tendency to “wuss” out or half-ass some of the rules. For example, since he thought the Bible commanded physical discipline of children – against Jacobs’ personal belief that hitting or spanking children was wrong – he would use a Nerf bat to spank his son. Thus, the kid didn’t take his punishments particularly seriously, and why would he? A Nerf bat? On another day, he set out to stone an adulterer…by carrying pebbles in his pocket. When he found someone who was an adulterer, he lobbed one of the pebbles at the man’s shoe. I’m not saying he should have been smacking his child around with a big wooden paddle, or chucking baseball-sized stones at strangers’ heads…but his ‘solutions’ certainly didn’t make his quest seem like a serious attempt to learn understand the religions. It seemed more like performance art.
But the man clearly did his research. The book is peppered with interviews with rabbis, pastors, and spiritually-inclined people from all walks of life. Amongst many others, Jacobs talks to an Amish man, a former cult leader, and one of the pastors from Jerry Falwell’s megachurch. I actually learned a lot about modern Judaism and Christianity. I’d always wondered why Jews don’t do sacrifices anymore, even in the most conservative, fundamentalist groups. Why, because there isn’t a temple, and the sacrifices were meant to be done in God’s temple. It’s a simple, obvious answer, and yet I’ve never heard it before. More disturbingly, Jacobs describes a coalition between some fundamentalist Christians and Jews to genetically manipulate a perfect red heifer into existence, so that the End Times prophecies can be fulfilled. Creepy stuff.
Ultimately, Jacobs comes off as a bit of a Biblical tourist. He’s aware at all times that his trip into religion is a finite one, and since he isn’t making any lifelong commitments he only superficially fulfills his list of rules and doesn’t commit to the experience in his heart. I don’t think he did much to really experience the community of joining a church or synagogue (although perhaps I’m just forgetting this detail; if he did join a religious house he rarely spoke about it) which is an important component of all Abrahamic religions.
The Year of Living Biblically has some very funny moments in it. I laughed a lot. I definitely think that if A. J. Jacobs was trying to really gain ‘religion’ in his life, he went about it the wrong way, because it’s not just about adopting certain practices and abstaining from others. But he also made some great points about how contradictory the Bible’s teachings can be, and how hypocritical most of the people claiming to be strict Biblical literalists really are...and he did this in a funny way.
3.5 out of 5 stars