‘Year of Living Biblically’ not an easy one
“The Year of Living Biblically,” by A.J. Jacobs. Simon & Schuster. 388 pp. $25.By Elizabeth Cook
Take a look at the photos of author A.J. Jacobs in his latest book, “The Year of Living Biblically.” He morphs from cleancut urbanite to what looks like a shaggy vagabond ó or an adherent to Leviticus’ rule against rounding the corners of your head or your beard.
When you spend a year trying to obey every rule in the Bible, you explore a lot of extremes.
As Jacobs says in his introduction, the beard and hair were simply the most noticeable manifestations of his yearlong journey. He also morphed from agnostic to someone who can, as the Psalmist says, “take refuge in the Bible and rejoice in it.”
For a non-believer, that’s a big transformation ó one worth reading about.
For believers and non-believers, “A Year of Living Biblically” is both insightful and entertaining. Jacobs walks a fine line, applying wit and reason to his struggles without showing irreverence toward the Bible itself. His is an open mind ó or an open heart.
“If I had what they called a God-shaped hole in my heart, this quest would allow me to fill it,” he says at the outset. “… If I wanted to understand my forefathers, this year would let me live like they did, with less leprosy.”
Jacobs, who is Jewish (“in the same way the Olive Garden is Italian,” he says), tackled his Bible project much as he approached a previous project that led to a book: reading an entire set of encyclopedias for “The Know-It-All.”
Judging from the newer book’s subtitle ó “One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible” ó Mr. Know-It-All found the Bible-inspired life a deeper, more challenging exercise than the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Ten Commandments? No problem. Love thy neighbor and tithe? Sometimes challenging, but not impossible.
However, Jacobs also tries to obey rules that all but strictly orthodox Jews consider archaic or arcane ó such as the wearing of fringes or tassels on the corners of garments, binding money to your hands, shunning clothes made of mixed fibers (no linen-wool blends), not eating the fruit of a tree that’s been planted less than five years ago. This is a challenge.
A Newsweek poll once found that 55 percent of people say they take the Bible literally. Few, however, take it as literally as Jacobs does during his yearlong project.
For instance, he struggles with the idea of stoning those who break the Sabbath. Jacobs works up the nerve to drop a pebble on someone’s shoe and later throws a small stone at a cranky senior citizen who calls him names ó after the old guy fires the first volley.
Yet the Bible says people should be stoned to death for myriad offenses. Jacobs says even those who say they take the Bible literally must be picking and choosing among its more than 700 rules.
Jacobs’ wife and son become peripherally involved in his project, trying to accommodate his new consciousness without walking the same path themselves. Son Jasper, for example, gets his first spanking during this year, with a Wiffle bat ó in keeping with the “spare the rod” rule. The toddler laughs hysterically and tries to hit back.
“The rod is a fiasco,” Jacobs says, though he concludes that he does indeed need to practice more tough love.
“Right now, I’m out of whack; I’m 10 percent justice and 90 percent mercy. If I had been in charge of the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve would have gotten three strikes, then a fourth, then a stern warning, then had their bedtime moved up 20 minutes. God, as you know, kicked them out.”
Between the amusing moments there are times of real spiritual struggle. When Jacobs first tries to pray, he feels like an imposter. His mind wanders. He feels silly. But he starts by reciting some of the Psalms, and later grows into his own lengthy prayers of thanksgiving. By forcing himself to pray each day, he finds himself finally meaning what he says to God and feeling closer to believers than non-believers.
“How can you not think about the Big Questions all the time?” his alter ego Jacob thinks as he views the secular world. “How can you put so much energy into caring about earthly matters, like basketball games or … the divorce proceedings of TV actresses?”
How, indeed. Maybe trivialities are easier to handle.
Jacobs’ treatment of the New Testament seems brief by comparison; he admits that embracing Christianity is a much bigger stretch for him than abiding by the Hebrew Bible. The gospels and all that comes after them get quick treatment, considering their importance to millions of people around the world.
Jacobs struggles with the question of whether he should continue following the rules of the Old Testament once he delves into the New Testament. Many Christians say Jesus overrode all the old laws. So a man on a mission to abide by rules, as Jacobs is doing, finds little material in the concept of grace.
Perhaps Jacobs’ struggle with the New Testament proves how ingrained religion can be, even for a man who claims to be agnostic. He may have grown up in a secular household, but Jacobs’ Jewish roots prove stronger than he expected.
To fill the void of his own belief, Jacobs visits a variety of Christians, including Jerry Falwell, a snake handler and a group of Red-Letter Christians (who focus solely on the words of Christ). He seems disappointed to find Falwell overwhelmingly bland. On the other hand, the snake handler proves to be an amiable guy.
This book would make great fodder for study by a Sunday school class ó Jewish or Christian. It is rich with information and insight, and its humor is not inappropriate. For those who enjoy books about faith and scripture, this would make a delightful, unique addition to their collection.
Contact Elizabeth Cook at 704-797-4244 or editor@ salisburypost.com.