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?
“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).
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.
His 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.