The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible
By A. J. Jacobs
New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007
Review by Carl McColman
Basically a one-joke book, this amusing but by turns insightful and surprisingly heartfelt memoir traces the efforts of A. J. Jacobs, a thoroughly secular and agnostic New York writer, to devote an entire year to adhering to Biblical teachings, mandates, and laws, as fully as possible. Anyone with even a casual knowledge of the Bible can quickly visualize the absurd scenarios that Jacobs finds himself in: not only does he embrace kosher dietary rules, but her turns his wardrobe inside out in an effort to adhere to Biblical norms; at one point he wanders around Central Park looking for adulterers to stone (cognizant that hurling rocks at people, even those who cheat on their spouse, is simply not the done thing anymore, the author compromises and tosses a pebble at the bemused person who admits to being unfaithful); while his efforts to adhere to the purity codes of Leviticus result in a variety of absurd situations, many involving his long-suffering wife. This book could go terribly wrong in a variety of ways, from collapsing in on its own seriousness to coming across as mean-spirited in its lampooning of religious devotion. Thankfully, Jacobs dodges those bullets, both because of his own dry and rather self-deprecating sense of humor, and thanks to how surprised he is to discover that, despite the obvious absurdity of his quest, he finds the Bible to become surprisingly meaningful in his life.
Jacobs is an entertainment writer for Esquire magazine, and so he’s comfortable with the conversational tone that keeps this book both pleasant and not too demanding. But while this is hardly a work of scholarship, the author does go to surprising lengths to make his Biblical experience as rich as possible: he visits fundamentalist Christians in Virginia, snake handlers in Tennessee, and orthodox Jews in Jerusalem as well as closer to home in New York and New Jersey. He tours a Creationism museum in Kentucky and attends a Bible study for gay Christians. Through it all, he comes across as rather nutty, but likeable, sincere and honest in both his criticism of the fundamentalist mind but also his willingness to acknowledge his own foibles as well as the way in which the Bible surprisingly touches him.
His odyssey lasts for more than a year, and although he is Jewish, both the Hebrew Scriptures (“Old Testament”) and the Christian New Testament figure in his zeal to follow the letter of the scriptural law. He never experiences a lightning flash of conversion or a dramatic reversal of his agnostic/secular self, but small changes in the way he looks at life nevertheless shape the course of his journey. As I read the book, I almost got the sense that Jacobs envies those whose faith enables them to accept the Bible for what it is — as if he had begun to see that the ironic, cynical, tragically hip perspective of postmodern urban secular agnosticism might not be the final word, after all.
The book has its flaws. While every chapter has its share of amusing anecdotes and occasional laugh-out-loud moments, it really is a one joke routine, so there’s not a lot of tension to pull the reader to the end. As a non-fundamentalist person of faith, I kept wishing he’d let go of the obvious goofiness of his quest and take a closer look at how Biblical faith manifests in today’s world in post-literal ways. Over the course of the year, he never joins a faith community and so never truly enters into one of the most powerful elements of religious life: vulnerability. He does a lot of funny and freaky things in his quest to “live Biblically,” but he never seems to step fully, completely, without-a-net outside of his comfort zone. No wonder he never quite shakes his detached inability to believe: he never allows himself to abandon control long enough to discover just how dangerous faith can be.
It’s a cute book, and certainly a silly one (and let’s keep in mind that the Germanic root for “silly” is selig, which also means “blessed”). But it’s not a necessary or important book either. I doubt it will convince anyone, either fundamentalist, secularist, or somewhere-in-between, to take a risk and shatter their world-view in favor of something new. Basically, it’s A. J. Jacobs, doing what he does best: writing about entertainment. It’s a pop culture take on the foibles of fundamentalism, with a dash of unexpected feel-good spirituality thrown in the mix to spice it up a bit. And while the more paranoid segments of the fundamentalist world may well take offense, for most of us this book is just a fun little diversion.
Not that that’s a bad thing.