The Year Of Living Biblically

By

My favorite book I’ve read this year was initially only a curiosity piece I perused while killing time in a Barnes & Noble. I had recently bought Unchristian – a book that offers an insightful look at how outsiders of the faith view the church – by David Kinnaman & Gabe Lyons, but decided I needed a mental break and started looking for something a little lighter. I’m not inclined to reach for humor books, but the cover of a book featuring a man dressed in Old Testament garb and looking earnestly heavenward with the ten commandments in one hand and a Starbucks cup in the other proved irresistible. I picked it up, thumbed through the pages and found myself laughing out loud in the aisle at Barnes & Noble – another uncharacteristic behavior for me.

Who knows? Maybe it was my tour induced exhaustion, or maybe it was the Vietnamese food I’d just had for lunch with a few friends, but for whatever reason I left the store with a hardcover of The Year Of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow The Bible As Literally As Possible by A.J. Jacobs tucked under my arm (after paying for it, of course – thou shalt not steal, you know).

A.J. Jacobs is the editor of Esquire Magazine and the author of Know It All: One Man’s Humble Attempt To Become The Smartest Man In The World, a book he wrote chronicling his experience of reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. He is also a self-proclaimed agnostic who decided the only worthy book to follow the Encyclopedia Britannica project would be the book of all books: the Good Book.

Much to the surprise (and concern!) of his friends and family, Jacobs set out to live according to the letter of the law of the bible for a full year. This would mean no lying, no wearing of mixed fibers, and no trimming his beard (among hundreds of other things). It also meant he would have to do things like stone adulterers. Yup, that’s right. Stone adulterers. As you can imagine, how he manages to fulfill his quest without being locked away makes for an amusing read.

There were a number of reasons he chose to embark on this adventure of biblical proportions. Jacobs, also a secular Jew, confesses that a part of him wanted to show how crazy religious people are, but another part of him was genuinely curious if immersing himself in the bible would help him as an agnostic finally encounter the God of the Hebrews and Christians that he’d never been able to bring himself to fully believe in. Also at play here is that as the father of a young boy, Jacobs began to question how to raise his child to be a good human being. Having children has a way of bringing into sharp focus the fact that faith has implications beyond being just a matter of personal belief.

And so Jacobs enters the world of the bible with excitement and a good share of fear, wondering if he’s putting himself at risk of becoming the kind of religious nut that he hoped in part to expose. What if he goes native?jacobs-777819.jpg

“It’s impossible to immerse yourself in religion for twelve months and emerge unaffected,” he writes. “Put it this way: If my former self and my current self met for coffee, they’d get along OK, but they’d both probably walk out of the Starbucks shaking their heads and saying to themselves, ‘That guy is kinda delusional.’”

He goes on to say “As with most biblical journeys, my year has taken me on detours I could never have predicted. I didn’t expect to herd sheep in Israel. Or fondle a pigeon egg. Or find solace in prayer. Or hear Amish jokes from the Amish. I didn’t expect to confront how absurdly flawed I am. I didn’t expect to find such strangeness in the bible. And I didn’t expect to, as the Psalmist says, take refuge in the bible and rejoice in it.”

What’s wonderful about this book is the purely outsider’s perspective you get of religious faith, but with no hint of a religion bashing agenda. I braced myself to be embarrassed or irritated by the religious people he would inevitably encounter and hoped that he wouldn’t find too many reasons to be hard on “us”. But Jacobs is surprisingly very gracious and seems almost sympathetic. I guess he kind of became one of “us” in this weird experiment, with his long beard and observance of commandments setting him apart, making him seem freakish to friends, family, and the average person who would stare at him on the street (that beard did get unruly).2007-10-29-jacobs-1.jpg

Even when he made his way down to Jerry Falwell’s church he was refreshingly fair and gracious – more so than I might have been in his shoes. In fact, the most moving part of the book is when he becomes friends with a Pentecostal snake handler in Tennessee. I won’t ruin it for you.

In fact, I don’t want to give too much away, so I’ll remain vague and only say a couple more things about insights the book offers (whether Jacobs intended it to or not).

One of the more faith affirming aspects of the book to me is how as an agnostic outsider he still comes to many of the same conclusions about the message of the bible that insiders do. For instance, not too far into his quest to follow the letter of Old Testament law, he says he begins to realize how absurdly flawed he is.

Of course Christians believe that this is what the Old Testament law was always intended to do – to lead people in the discovery that it is impossible for a person to be righteous on their own and thus set the stage for Christ.

Later, after months of observing rituals and the law as zealously as he could, he finds it incredibly hard to give these things up once it comes time to enter the New Testament. And isn’t this the truth of all of us? Of all the claims of the bible, grace is the hardest to give ourselves to. We’d much rather cling to our own efforts of righteousness than trust in Christ who came to be our righteous for us.

He also confronts the temptation that many of us face of reducing the bible into a mere self help book, a text intended to make us better people, to help us think of others and serve in soup kitchens instead of playing video games all day long. He realizes that to make it a self-help tome may be to miss the point entirely.

The Year Of Living Biblically is, of course as expected, very funny too – funny and poignant (the scene that finds him having to learn how to pray to a God he’s not sure he can believe in is as beautiful as it is hilarious). But I was grateful that the joke was never on “us”. If anything, the joke is on obsessive compulsiveness, since that’s exactly what it takes to observe mosaic law.

tdy_lauer_biblically_071008300w.jpgHis year is populated with delightful, infuriating, colorful and endearing characters, and there are moments in his journey when he begins to get caught up in the ecstasy of it all – his feet begin to leave the ground and it would take just the slightest nudge for him to go all the way and switch teams. But he continually bumps up against himself and though he can experience religious faith as an observer, it’s difficult for him to surrender to it completely. Of course the answers that he and anybody else are looking for in religious belief can only be accessed through surrender and trust as these are the keys that unlock the treasure box of faith. He gets close to the flame, but is too afraid of catching on fire. My wife remarked that for all his observation and study of the bible, he never really gains total access to it.

Towards the end you sense the conflict – his desire to jump in the deep end of faith at war with his profound reticence. Does he ever just surrender and give himself to it? Well, you’ll have to read the book to find out.

And you should read the book. I said earlier that I opted to read this book over UnChristian, but in a lot of ways it’s the same book. However, it not only offers a view of our world through the eyes of an outsider, but introduces this familiar world to us in ways that will refresh and surprise. It’s a little like meeting your best friend or spouse again as if for the first time, given a chance to be reminded of what you fell in love with in the first place.

The chief virtue of the book, though, is that it made me laugh – laugh at myself and my own flawed attempts of living biblically; laugh at how absurd the bold claims of Judeo/Christian faith look not only to outsiders but insiders, too, half the time; and most of all laugh with God at the high and holy joke of how He uses the least likely and most unexpected people to reveal who He is. Of course, that means you, me, and even the editor of Esquire magazine.

And this kind of laughter, as the writer of Proverbs might say, is good medicine.

One final thought: It occurs to me that the beautiful irony – the holy punchline if you will – of Jacobs, an agnostic outsider to faith, stepping into another world of people he suspects of being charlatans and fools, remarkably mirrors the very bible responsible for bringing him there and it’s story of the One who left His world to come to ours in order that we might have a high priest who understands us.


20 Comments

  1. Tony Heringer

    Jason, thanks for the post. So many books, so little time.

    Here’s a link to an interview that Steve Brown did with A.J.

    http://stevebrownetc.com/podcasts/steve-brown-etc/the-year-of-living-biblically-aj-jacobs-on-sbe/

    If you liked this book, then you’ll probably also enjoy “Rapture Ready! Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture.” by A.J.’s friend Daniel Radosh. Or just enjoy hearing from them both. Here’s another link to a show Steve did with Daniel: http://stevebrownetc.com/podcasts/steve-brown-etc/rapture-ready-daniel-radosh-on-sbe/

    Both are fun interviews and also very thought provoking.

  2. Micah

    I too picked this book up at random in B&N, and it took my girlfriend’s convincing that I didn’t have any money to keep me from walking out with it under my arm. As a student at Liberty University I was very interested in his visit to Jerry Falwell’s church. Jason I would be highly interested in hearing why you seemed to have negative feelings toward Dr. Falwell. (Don’t worry I’m not a huge Jerry fan myself, but I do think people have the entirely wrong idea about the man.)

  3. Taya Gray

    This book is every bit as enticing as Jason makes it sound. A word of warning though (and a small warning, at that) – there are parts where he talks about his interactions with his very young son, and his approach to parenting – these parts are, to say the least, frustrating. He takes a very liberal, no-spanking, non-disciplinary approach. This plays out in a disappointing array of interactions as he won’t discipline his naughty son, has a few passive-aggressive temper tantrums of his own, and though it has little to do with the afore-mentioned philosophy, only allows his son to watch TV during mealtimes.

    Don’t let that keep you away, though! It’s a fabulous book . . . feel free to skim the parenting parts, though, you won’t be missing anything!

  4. Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    Hey Micah!

    I was wondering if that statement of mine would be misconstrued – thanks for an opportunity to clarify. I said Jacobs was more gracious than I would have been “in his shoes”. Falwell’s name carries some negative baggage in pop culture and all I meant was that I would have expected Jacobs to go looking for fault, but rather he did quite the opposite. I wasn’t impugning Falwell as much as I was talking about how I might have expected an agnostic editor of Espuire to be snarky.

    As for my feelings about him: was Falwell a good Christian man? I don’t doubt that. Did he sometimes say things that came off as outrageous and insensitive, fueling the culture wars and giving ammunition to cultured despisers of Christianity? I think so. Have I done the same kind of thing and sometimes failed to represent Christ perfectly? I’m sure of it. Thank God the media hasn’t gotten a hold of me! But still, I can’t help but feel that Falwell defines a brand of Christianity that I feel like I have to apologize for and distance myself from (though I know he’s done many wonderful things and some of his notoriety is attributable to unfair media representation. The media loves its religious straw men!). But I’m entirely willing to be wrong about the man.

    At any rate, I expected Jacobs to rip him apart (based on his view of who Falwell was that was shaped by the media) and was pleasantly surprised.

  5. Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    And yes to what Taya said! Jacobs is very much a “modern” urban man. The passages that have to do with his parenting are the annoying part of the book. But even in this his biblical year calls this into question in his life – and isn’t that just what the bible does for all of us!

  6. Taylor Sandlin

    Jason, thanks for the post. This is a great book and I, also, recommend it to anyone (I even talked the ladies book club of the church I pastor into reading it). The quandaries that arise as Jacobs attempts to avoid contact with unclean people in N.Y. City, including sometimes his own wife, provide some of the funniest moments in the whole book. After reading all that his wife went through in putting up with Jacobs’ project, I’m amazed she didn’t kill him before it was complete (to keep it Biblical she could have borrowed from Judges 4). The book did more than make me laugh. It also softened my heart to the journey that folks must walk from unbelief to faith. It is not an easy journey, which is a truth that I, who grew up in the faith, often overlook.

  7. Lauren

    Jason, what a great article! I would have to agree that this is an amazing read and that everyone should read it.

    The part the really stood out to me in the book was when he had to dive into the “new law.” (Maybe he shouldve listened to Derek Webb.) For the first time in my life I felt sorry for the Pharisees of the Bible. They had grown up in a culture that is a rule/tradition following culture, and could not let go of that. How many times do we read about the Pharisees in the Bible and it just makes our stomachs turn or our hearts grow angry towards them because they could not get past the law. My heart now aches for them that they could not let go of that law. As i said earlier, they had grown up following all of these rules, and to have that one constant in their lives be turned upside down by one man had to have been a horrible moment in their lives. Im not saying that Jesus’ birth was a horrible moment, but the fact that He challenged their lifelong ideals was hard.

    I encourage everyone to read this book to gain a better appreciation for the God that we serve, and the Words that He has given us.

  8. Micah

    Jason,

    I was assuming you would say something along those lines. Thank you for clarifying. I almost didn’t come to Liberty because of Jerry’s reputation, but then I got to thinking about “the world will hate you like they hated me” and I stopped worrying about it.

    Anyways, now you’ve got me wanting to buy this book now when I should be focusing on overpriced textbooks for this semester.

  9. Tony Heringer

    Lauren,

    In relation to the Pharisees, you reminded me of Matthew 23:1-3. This passage floors me:

    Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.”

    Jesus didn’t want His followers to follow these “blind guides” but He did want them to submit to the Law they taught. In Jesus teaching times like the greatest commandment and the good Samartian the Jewish leaders seemed to understand the Law, they just didn’t live it out. Apart from the work of Christ in my life am I any different? Could be why Paul (prior to conversion a Pharisee) was a perfect missionary to the Gentiles.

  10. Cynthia Kepler-Karrer

    I got a chance to attend a book signing at a Jewish book festival in Austin where AJ Jacobs was speaking about this book and the changes in his life. One of the things I found interesting is [SPOILER ALERT] that despite the “leave things well enough” end of the book, he said that he and his family are attending synagogue now. I was really excited to hear that although he still hadn’t given himself over to any of it completely, that he was recognizing the need to be present to and with a community that might just be able to show him what it means to live with God daily. One of the things I found most profound about the book (although I laughed a lot too!) was his move from having only himself (basically) as a moral guide to having first a text and then a community which reads that text together. He makes a lot of other moves from individualism to community in the book as well.

  11. Jeff Cope

    I read an excerpt from this book awhile back in Relevant magazine, and it’s been on my “to read” list ever since. I’m just waiting for the trade paperback edition to be releasesd. It appears to be challenging and amusing.

  12. Don

    I saw this review and went right down to the library. So far I am loving it. It’s interesting to think how much I don’t follow the rules. Not to mention not even thinking about them often enough. Thanks for the tip Jason!

  13. Joseph Radosevich

    I picked up this book on your recommendation and just finished it. I loved it. My wife and I laughed our way through this one. It also made me think about faith and doubts. Thanks for the recommendation.

  14. Sheila DeChantal

    Excellent review. I have read Unchristian and I have this book, They Year of Living Biblically still on my shelf, not yet read. Now I too am in need for my next read to be a bit light so I am thinking maybe this may be the one?

    Thanks for an excellent review. I love your blog too, it is well done.

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