Review: 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

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I am not even sure how I was turned on to this little book but late this past fall, I added it to my reading list and was fortunate enough to receive it from my parents as a Christmas gift.  I love that I usually have time over the holidays to make it completely through a book.

Summary: The book is basically a journal through A.J. Jacobs’ religious experiment to obey the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, as literally as possible.  Those familiar with the Scriptures realize that there are a great number of, shall we say, “interesting” rules to be dealt with as you make your way through the Old Testament Law, e.g., stone adulterers, avoid wearing clothes made of mixed fibers, a number of unclean animals and various other things that shouldn’t even be touched, animal sacrifices, etc.  The book documents his experience over the full year (+ two weeks after) walking the reader through some of his encounters with the most interesting characters you might be able to find reflecting the full spectrum of religious perspective: the  fanatics down to the most liberal interpreters of Scripture.  He obviously admits that he won’t be perfect but he makes every attempt at being obedient to the minutest detail in the Scripture.

I knew going in that he was approaching this experiment as a secular Jew with little religious background especially with respect to the Bible.  I was correct in assuming that there would be a lot that I could gain for seeing someone’s outside perspective to a faithful life.  I, personally, was inspired by his initiative to read through the Bible in preparation documenting as many rules, laws, and commandments he could find.  He also gathered a significant number of religious advisors from both Jewish and Christian traditions, consulting them often throughout his experience.  He dealt with the challenge of updating many archaic restrictions to a modern world.  I was surprised to learn just how much information was already out there to be used in obeying the Jewish law in today’s society.  I, personally, have had virtually no exposure to Jewish tradition.

He split the year into two major components: the Old Testament (9 mos.) and the New Testament (3 mos.).  I was most intrigued by the Old Testament portion because of my lack of experience with Orthodox Jewish tradition.  I was most disappointed with his approach to the New Testament, however.  It is to be expected, since, as I believe, the whole New Testament is centered around the idea that we can’t be obedient enough to be holy and perfect.  We need grace, forgiveness, and salvation in order to experience the power of the New Testament.  We are freed from the law, though we remain obedient to the spirit of the law: To love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself.  But here’s the kicker for me: there is a lot of the Old Testament law that I am not required to obey, but a lot of it provides me step by step instruction on how to demonstrate that love to God and to my neighbor.  Even though we don’t live under the law anymore, there is a lot in there from which we can gain insight and many practices that will develop our intimacy with God.

The other point that he admittedly misses is that true religion is not an experiment.  It is not a cafeteria plan that you can try out what you like and then leave it all behind when it has helped you.  It is not about us, it is about God.  It is his desire to have us dedicate our entire selves to him and if you can give that up after a one year trial, then you didn’t truly surrender to him and experience what biblical living is all about.  Nevertheless, he does justice to the fact that religious people aren’t just a bunch a kooks.  Through the world’s eyes, faith is foolish, but when you see it up close and experience side by side with the faithful, you can begin to see what drew them there in the first place.  He helps the reader to see the genuinely faithful.

I really enjoyed the book and would recommend it greatly to anyone both inside and outside the faith.  Jacobs style of writing makes it hard to put the book down and easy to enjoy the experience as if you are there watch his beard grow longer everyday.

Here are some particularly important lessons and observations I have taken away from his book:

  • We should recognizing that the laws have some motivation behind them even if it is just to make us holy and special. There is GREAT value to our faith in obedience.
  • “When it comes to the bible, there is always – but always – some level of interpretation.”
  • At the end of third month he realizes that he is becoming pharisaical when he is so busy reading Ecclesiastes (his favorite book) that he misses a woman in need of his seat. Religious zeal can push us to missing the bigger picture.
  • One major theme of the year: “The outer affects the inner.”
  • Every adventure he undertakes that is seemingly ridiculous and absurd when looking from the outside in, (Serpent handlers, chicken sacrifice, etc.) doesn’t seem so strange when done with the devout and when seeing it through their eyes.
  • Lesson from one of his Jewish spiritual advisors:
    “Two men do their daily prayers while at work. One spends twenty minutes in his office behind a closed door and afterward he feels refreshed and uplifted, like he just had a therapy session. The other is so busy, he can squeeze in only a five minute prayer session between phone calls. He recites his prayers superfast in a supply closet.
    Who has done the better thing?”
    Rabbi Yossi answers the second: He was doing it only for God, sacrificing his time. There was no immediate benefit to him.
  • He realizes during his visit holy land the paradox of doing religion alone. It was originally intended as part of a group.

There’s a lot else, but I’ll keep them for myself.

My next read:

Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography
by David Michaelis

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