Saturday, April 19, 2008

Book review: The Year of Living Biblically

Title The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible
Jacobs, A. J.
A. J. Jacobs
Rating *****
Tags bible, judaism, christianity, literalism

This is a really terrific book. Jacobs is a good writer, first of all, engaging, witty, and deep by turns.

He is a Jew who grew up in a secular family that were rather embarrassed by this religion thing . He is a professional writer, and while looking for ideas for his next book, hit upon the idea of taking the Bible literally. It would allow him to get to know the best-selling book of all time, to open the door to spirituality and see if anything developed for him, and to explore the concept of biblical literalism. "But my suspicion was that almost everyone's literalism consisted of picking and choosing. People plucked out the parts that fit their agenda, whether that agenda was to the right or left. Not me. I thought, with some naivete, I would peel away the layers of interpretation and find the true Bible underneath. i would do this by being the ultimate fundamentalist. I'd be fearless. I would do exactly what the Bible said, and in so doing, I'd discover what's great and timeless in the Bible and what is outdated." (p. 6-7)

So he bought a variety of versions of the Bible as well as other books about the Bible and read them all. He decided to devote 8 months to the Old Testament and 4 months to the New. He made a list of the rules in the Bible and carried it with him, sometimes binding a copy to his forehead and his arm. He came up with a list of what seemed to him the most bizarre rules in the Bible and investigated some of them early on. For instance, the prohibition against mixing cloth. He figured that no one was actually following this rule, but found that, on the contrary, there are people who are shatnez (mixed fiber) testers. He found one named Mr. Berkowitz who came and inspected his clothes for forbidden cloth... turns out the rule is about mixing linen and wool. Mr. Berkowitz found one suspicious garment which Jacobs put away for the rest of the year. Mr. Berkowitz becomes one of Jacob's mentors into Judaism. He is firmly of the belief that one doesn't need to understand all the rules in the Bible, but simply practice them, and by doing so draw nearer to God.

Jacobs has several mentors in his year, both rabbis and ministers. He visits representatives of all sorts of religious groups, everywhere along the path from rigid literalists to those who see the Bible more in terms of metaphor. He visits the Creationist Museum, Jerry Falwell's church, snake handlers, gay evangelicals, and of course Israel. Many of those he expected to dislike he found he did like, even when he didn't agree with them.

Some things he followed seem pretty silly. There's a funny scene where he decided he needed to stone someone, as it was the most common form in the Bible of capital punishment, and prescribed for numerous sins. So Jacobs gathered up some pebbles and went in search of sinners. He finds an angry old man who wants to know why he is dressed so queer, and he says he is stoning sinners. The old man says he is an adulterer, and Jacobs shows him the pebbles, the old man throws one at him, and he throws one back, and they part.

Other things Jacobs tries have a profound effect on him. He begins praying every day at the beginning of the year, and at first it leaves him feeling empty. Yet by the end of the year he finds himself praying spontaneously, for his son's protection, for instance, or small frequent prayers of gratitude for the small sweet things in life for which he had not before thought to be grateful.

His summary of the year on pages 327-329 worth the price of the book. He, who starts he year as an agnostic, ends the year as still an agnostic... but a reverent one: "I now believe that whether or not their's a God, there is such a thing as sacredness. Life is sacred. The Sabbath can be a sacred day. Prayer can be a sacred ritual. There is something transcendent, beyond the everyday. It's possible that humans created this sacredness ourselves, but that doesn't take away from its power or importance."

As for the Bible himself, he comes away with two ideas from two of his mentors. One is: "Try thinking of the Bible as a snapshot of something divine. It may not be a perfect picture. It may have flaws; a thumb on the lens, faded colors in the corners. But it still helps to visualize." The other idea is that if one sees the Bible as the ending point of our relationship with God, one is using the Bible as an idol, worshiping the words rather than the spirit.

As a librarian, I tend to notice the bibliographic extras: the book has a great set of notes, an excellent bibliography that puts together books written from all viewpoints about Judaism and Christianity, and a detailed index.

Highly recommended.

Publication Simon & Schuster (2007), Edition: 1, Hardcover, 400 pages
Publication date 2007
ISBN 0743291476 / 9780743291477

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