Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Year of Living Biblically

The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, by A.J. Jacobs, 2007, 332 pages

I surprised myself: I liked this book.
Judged by its cover – and, OK, its premise – it’s the last book I would want to pick up. An Esquire editor decides he’s going to obey the Bible as literally as possible for a year. And then write a book about it. The cover of the book features a picture of him posing in front of the NYC skyline, dressed in a Moseslike costume, two small stone tablets in one hand and a latte in the other, eyes rolled crazily skyward. Since I bought the 2008 edition, there are five pages of promotional blurbs in the front, in which the most common word is “funny.” Great. A “funny” book about the Bible, written by a secular journalist as a career stunt. It will surely be annoying and repellant, consisting of mockery, misunderstanding, and boring secularist clichés.
But I was wrong. Jacobs, while he doesn’t become a believer, takes the Bible much more seriously than I expected him to. The following passage is a good example of his attitude:
Day 91 … One of the reasons that I embarked on this experiment was to take legalism to its logical extreme and show that it leads to righteous idiocy. What better way to demonstrate the absurdity of Jewish and Christian fundamentalism? If you actually follow all the rules, you’ll spend your days acting like a crazy person. I still believe that. And I still plan on making a complete fool of myself to get this point across. But as with everything involving religion, my project has become much more complicated. The spiritual journey now takes up far more of my time. My friend Roger was right. It’s not like studying Sumo wrestling in Japan. It’s more like wrestling itself. This opponent of mine is sometimes beautiful, sometimes cruel, sometimes ancient, sometimes crazily relevant. I can’t get a handle on it. (page 119)
Jacobs doesn’t believe in the creation, the flood, the inspiration of the Bible, or the deity of Christ. But he displays none of the dismissive contempt that we’ve come to expect from secularist unbelievers. He is actually interested in the Bible – interested enough to spend a year not just researching it, but, well, doing it.
Most things are best understood when you actually live them. Some things are only understood this way, and this is particularly true of virtue. Jacobs recognizes that behavior can influence feelings and even beliefs. He is willing to be transformed by his experiment, even to the point of believing in God, though he recognizes that the transformation will be limited by his prior beliefs and values. He may be willing to grow a beard, wear a robe, and “stone” strangers in the park, but he will not spank his two-year-old, except once with a Nerf bat. (His son laughs, grabs the bat, and whacks him back with it.)
As Christians, our prior loyalty to Christ severely limits our ability to learn about other belief systems by “living” them. I cannot offer incense to Vishnu, or say “there is no God but Allah and Mohammed is His prophet.” I cannot spend a year working for Planned Parenthood. Due to the respective natures of secularism and Judeo-Christianity, Jacobs has more freedom to participate on an experimental basis. It’s fun – and informative – to watch him dive in.

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