Friday, February 12, 2010

The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible

A.J. Jacobs
New York, Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 2007

Week 6 Religious and Spiritual

Not too many spiritual or religious books can be regarded as hilarious, but for the most part, this one is. A.J. Jacobs, or Jacob as his biblical alter-ego is named, set out to follow biblical precepts and laws for one year. His first couple of months were spent reading the Bible, listing rules and laws that he planned to follow and then read books about the Bible that helped him to understand why these rules and laws existed in the first place. And then he spent the rest of the year trying to keep the rules, journaling and expounding on the results. He wore biblical garments, grew his hair and beard long, and obsessed over the right way to greet the people (women particularly) that he met on a day to day basis.

A.J. tells us almost at the outset that he has obsessive-compulsive disorder, and that is obvious. Only someone with OCD could do the things that he has done and continues to do in his books. His first book was called The Know It All and concerned his year reading the Encyclopedia Britannica from cover to cover. In the book that has just come out, called The Guinea Pig Diaries, Jacobs immerses himself in a series of radical lifestyle experiments.

He calls himself Jewish in the same way that the Olive Garden is Italian. He believed himself to be an agnostic, but later, through the influence of a pastor (one of his advisers) he started calling himself a reverent agnostic. He found himself believing in the sacredness of life, in gratitude, and in openness to change.

One of the things that I particularly liked about his experiment is that A.J. had a group of advisers, who helped him understand the vagaries of the Bible, the somewhat arbitrary rules and laws, and the anxiety that comes from trying to follow some pretty weird stuff. He also sought out the people on the fringe, both Jewish and Christian, who have decided to follow certain precepts literally, people who eat bugs, people who handle snakes, and people who believe in biblical creationism, including the creators of the dinosaur/human museum in Kentucky. He journeys to Amish country, to Israel, and to Jerry Falwell’s ministry as well as groups of Christian evangelicals including groups of gay men in San Francisco and Hasidic Jews in New York.

That is what I liked about the book; Jacobs was fairly well rounded in his approach. His advisers helped him to find the most important followers and practitioners of certain rules and laws, so he never operated in a vacuum. Additionally, he really tried to understand the reasoning behind the rule, and why and how he would be able to follow it. The ones he found the hardest to follow are the ones we all have trouble with—coveting, gossiping, lying.

He gained the most ground personally in his ability to feel gratitude, to be thankful, and to value his life and the lives of those around him. "I'm now a reverent agnostic. Which isn't an oxymoron, I swear. I now believe that whether or not there's a God, there is such a thing as sacredness. Life is sacred." Even though he worked at making the book fun to read, he comes across as a genuine seeker, trying to understand what works and what doesn’t work for religion. He is respectful of people’s beliefs and doesn’t ridicule the followers of obscure rituals and laws. He remains a generous and thoughtful participant observer. The reader is left with nuanced insights into the impossibility of biblical literalism. If you are expecting Jacobs to have a revelation and become religious, that doesn’t happen. But, if you expect that such a year will provoke growth and new understanding, you will be pleasantly surprised as well as hugely amused. You will also learn some interesting information about the Bible.

The New York Times review says, “Jacobs begins the book by saying that if his new self met his old at a coffee shop they would think each other ‘delusional.’ I’m not sure he makes the case for that much of a transformation. But here and there, through some surprisingly poignant moments, he sees through to the other side, and he stumbles his way to a working definition of what it might mean to become a better person.” You can read the full review here:

A.J. admits at the outset that he had a book contract and a movie contract before he even began the project. He never makes excuses for what he does, and he acknowledges the ridiculous nature of some of the things that he does and some of the things he puts his family through. I would recommend this book. It’s a lot of fun—both religious and secular.

Here is Matt Lauer’s interview with A.J. Jacobs on the Today Show.

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