The Year of Living Biblically

This book by A.J. Jacobs follows “One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible” as the sub-title says.   (When did sub-titles become such an omni-present thing??”)  Jacobs basically considered himself an agnostic who seemed to have a mild abhorrence for all things religious at the beginning of the project.  However, at the end of the project….he still basically considers himself an agnostic but with a greater respect for all things religious.

The first thing I found interesting about this book, besides the pictures of his big bushy Biblical beard, is the acknowledgement that the word “literal” means different things to different Bible believers across the Judeo-Christian religious spectrum.  He goes on to explore this concept by talking to various clergy, scholars, and sects from Lubavitcher Hasidic Jews to Appalachian Christian snake handlers and everyone in between.   He makes a good point that all denominations who claim to take the Bible literally, whether Jewish or Christian, tend to cling to certain Biblical rules and ignore others.  This is why Catholics feel that we need the Magisterium to use the oral tradition passed down from the Apostles to interpret the Bible correctly as well as flesh out concepts not actually in the Bible that were believed by the Apostles and other early Christians.

Since the Catholic Church does not use the Bible as its only authority and Jacobs’ experiment revolves about using the Bible as his only authority, the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox positions on various topics are largely missing.  Despite this, I enjoyed watching Jacobs discover some universal religious philosophical gems, like chukim.  In Judaism chukim refers to “biblical laws that come without explanation” or laws that don’t seem to make sense (p. 25).  Modern Logical Man tends to believe that he shouldn’t have to follow any law that doesn’t make sense to him (and hence with which he does not agree).  But Religious Whackos believe all sorts of things that don’t make logical sense.  Why do the poor dumb suckers do that?  Because maybe chukim make sense to God in ways that our limited human brains can’t fathom.  I personally have experienced the grace of chukim as I’ve embraced Church rules that I didn’t really agree with only to find blessings that I could have never expected.

Next is the issue of accountability.  Jacobs knows that he was a fairly good person from the beginning, but he begins to realize that God, through the Bible, calls us to be an exceptionally good person.  It’s like the old saying: “God is in the details”.  He starts to redefine things like lying and stealing in more specific ways than he ever had before.  He basically admits that it is easy to rationalize doing anything that you know is wrong when you don’t have a higher authority to whom you have to answer.  Some could argue that “rationalization” is the great modern day ethics code.  “It’s ok to do whatever you want as long as you have a good reason and it won’t hurt another person too much, or at least if you don’t/can’t see how it hurts someone else.”

Many people say they are “religious” but they don’t like “organized religion”.  Jacobs begins to realize that this is because as a society we are obsessed with “freedom of choice”.  Of course, from a religious standpoint “freedom of choice” is what gets us into most of our messes in the first place.  God’s greatest gift to us was free will.  We tend to forget, though, that just because we can doesn’t mean that we should.  And Jacobs also begins to understand that having too many choices can overwhelm the human brain, often leading to bad choices–like a two-year-old allowed to pick his outfit for the day from his entire wardrobe.  Religion often offers freedom  from choice, making our lives simpler and easier.

Besides a love of rationalization and an obsession with never being denied a choice, us humans are obsessed with “fairness”.  Of course, we are usually more obsessed about what is fair for ourselves rather than to other people; it is the root of sibling rivalry.  Look no farther to the parable of the Prodigal Son, the Bible story most likely to raise the hackles of every fair-minded person; never mind that the point of the story is about the relationship between the Father and the disobedient child, and not his whiny brother.  Fairness is also the root of the misguided (in my opinion) Prosperity Theology and abhorrance at its disowned cousin, “generational retribution theology”.

Jacobs begins to realize through his own life experiences that “generational retribution” in the Bible is not a curse from God but rather an observation of fact.  It’s like an early psychological observation about the cycle of abuse, that there are always at least six people in every marriage bed (the married couple and both sets of in-laws), or that nurture is often more important than nature.  Retribution on future generations is not usually a punishment from God for misbehavior but a natural result of bad habits being continually passed down from generation to generation.

I think Jacobs did really good job of balancing respectful religious discourse with being aware that there are some extreme interpretations out there (extreme being in the eye of the beholder obviously).  He could have easily made  a lampoon of his quest to live Biblically.  I really enjoyed his explanation of Jewish midrash and its role is Jewish Biblical interpretation.  I wish he would have discussed his trip to the Holy Land a bit more.  And I must admit feeling a nagging hole where Catholic interpretation could have shed new light on certain concepts, but I understand why Catholic interpretation was not included since it is not strictly Biblical (although it is not contrary to the Bible from a Catholic point of view).  I heartily recommend this book to anyone who wants a fair, funny, and throught-provoking look at Biblical teachings from someone discovering them for the first time.

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One Comment on “The Year of Living Biblically”

  1. Kelly Says:

    I’m so glad you posted this! I’ve been avoiding that book (which got a huge media push for some reason) because it seemed a “laugh at those stupid religious people” kind of book. Sounds if it may have started that way, but now I’ll have to give it a read.


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