Books: The Year of Living Biblically

I learned about this book from Renaissance Guy’s blog, back in April 2008. First I read A.J. Jacobs’ previous book, The Know-It-All, which I found interesting at first but tiresome after a while. I didn’t get around to finishing it before I had to return it to the library (unusual behavior for me), and I was in no great hurry to read Jacobs’ second book.

The Year of Living Biblically: Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible was much easier reading – or at any rate much more in line with my own interests. I have sometimes wondered whether I should be following certain biblical commandments, such as wearing a head covering, eating kosher food, or keeping the Sabbath. I have wondered how theologians determine which commandments are “moral laws” for all time, and which are ceremonial laws or civil laws which were only for the people of Israel while they lived in the land of Israel before the time of Jesus.

I remember, as a young Christian, seeing a man dressed in a Bible-times outfit (or at least how we typically picture them) outside the mall. I talked briefly with him, and he explained how he was following God by living without possessions, walking from place to place as Jesus did, telling people about him. I wasn’t convinced that his way was what God intended for all Christians – but I also wasn’t convinced it wasn’t.

Jacobs’ motive for taking on this project was hardly the most spiritual – he was, after all, an agnostic, no more Jewish (as he says) than the Olive Garden restaurant is Italian. He had some interest in learning more about spiritual things, but he also was doing it for the purpose of writing a book about the experience. And he specifically wanted to show that following the Bible absolutely literally leads to doing some pretty stupid things, and that no one really does.

I had wondered, knowing the idea of the book and his project, how he managed to follow the Bible even mostly for an entire year. I quickly learned that this was not about how he followed the Bible for a year, it was how he tried to. He was completely faithful in regards to not cutting his beard – the most obvious evidence of his quest over the course of the year. But he struggled quite a bit, especially in the early months, with Sabbath observance, and as for telling the truth – well, he is honest in the book about how often he lied.

His candor is a large part of what makes the book such interesting reading. He recounts his thought process regarding various issues, discussions he had with various spiritual advisors whom he consulted with over the course of the year, and experiences he had with family, friends, and strangers as he tried – in sometimes very unconventional ways – to obey commands both great and small from the Bible. (Sometimes I wondered how those people felt about being written about, but in a note at the end of the book he explains that names and identifying details were sometimes changed.)

Jacobs wanted to learn from a wide variety of Jewish and Christian traditions, so he visited the Amish, celebrated (and sacrificed chickens) with Hasidim, traveled to Israel, visited Jerry Falwell’s church, visited a church where they do snake handling, and went to Bible studies (including one for gay men). He had his clothing inspected to see if it contained mixed fibers. He purchased (among other things) myrrh to use for incense, a ten-string harp to use in praising God, and an item of clothing with pre-made tassels so that he didn’t have to pin on his homemade tassels.

He came to enjoy his times of prayer – which were primarily prayers of thanksgiving, as he did not feel very comfortable with other types of prayer. Even at the end of the year, when being thankful for all sorts of things had become a welcome habit, he remained agnostic about the existence of a personal God. But he also told about a conversation with a rabbi who warned him that using prayer as a means of improving himself was “skating on thin ice,” because that was using God rather than glorifying God. (That sounds a lot like that book I read recently, The Pressure’s Off!)

Some of his efforts to obey commandments seem frankly silly. Because the Bible commands that wages be paid on the day work is done, he insisted on paying the babysitter in cash each day. But then because a paper trail was needed for tax purposes, he made her return the cash at the end of the week and he paid her by check. (Couldn’t he have paid with a check each day, or written out a receipt for her to sign, as I used to do with the woman who did daycare for me?)

He wanted to make a “sacrifice” in gratitude to God for his wife’s pregnancy (they had been trying a long time and finally used IVF – resulting in twins). So he “put some olives and dates on a platform of stones and left them there as an offering to God” – in Union Square in New York City (where he lives). During his visit to Israel, he wanted to tithe some produce (a commandment that apparently the Jews consider only relevant to life in Israel), so he bought an orange, and tried to find someone in the street to give a tenth of it to. (He would have done much better to buy ten oranges and give away one.)

He wrestles with the questions that so many people do, about why God required so much killing, not only of animals but of people who believed in other gods. In the Bible God sometimes is shown as a God of mercy, but other times He seems so harsh.  The reason for some commands seems clear enough, but others seem very puzzling. (One of his examples of the latter is the “red heifer” in Numbers 19.)

My reactions to his account are mixed. On the one hand, he picks some ridiculous ways to try to fulfill some commands. The Bible says to stone people for offenses such as breaking the Sabbath, adultery, and witchcraft (and quite a few others). So he finds a man – whom he knows has worked on both Saturday and Sunday – sitting on a park bench, and drops a pebble on his shoe. Then he feels a need to apologize for it. (When he tries to have a more satisfying encounter, he nearly gets in a fist fight with a septuagenarian adulterer.)

Yet Jacobs is also trying to take the Bible as it is, unfiltered by tradition, and simply follow it, rather than justify picking and choosing what parts to follow. He doesn’t like having to follow the rules about avoiding touching his wife (or anything she has sat on) during her menstrual cycle, but he doesn’t feel he can very well let that one slide just because it’s very inconvenient. He really does try to cut back on his white lies, and to do a better job with disciplining his toddler. He becomes more aware of his self-centered reactions and thoughts. He comes to see wisdom and beauty in what he once thought was archaic foolishness.

I don’t think I’ve learned anything new that will help me in following the Bible (though I have learned some of the odd ways that some groups go about it). But reading through someone else’s thoughts and experiences about it is good food for thought – as well as enjoyable reading, in Jacobs’ case.

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