Book Review: The Year of Living Biblically
Vail CO, Colorado
EDWARDS, Colorado ” Thou shalt readeth until thy hath fully completed.
Any future versions, translations, or editions of the Bible may want to amend the commandments to include that reference to A.J. Jacobs’ compulsively readable, entirely entertaining novel, “The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible,” for it is equally informative as it is enjoyable. And, frankly, it’s a totally necessary read regardless of what side of the religious fence you graze.
Jacobs, a full-fledged agnostic, sacrifices a year of his life to follow the Bible line by line. No exceptions, no excuses. He adheres to each law, principle, and mandate possible. His list fills 72 pages of rules to be exacted throughout 365 days. The results are, well, divine.
While the gimmick makes for plenty of laughs, Jacobs manages to create a crash course on the Bible, and organized religion, for the secular world. Sure, he mocks the Bible’s frequently archaic, contradictory, and ridiculous advice, yet simultaneously finds common ground as to why those primitive parables are still observed today, and why they existed, and meant something, in the time and place of the Bible’s origins.
In short, there is much to learn from this book, and it may very well be the most captivating thing you may read during 2007.
A controversial premise
From the outset, the book’s premise may spark controversy as Jacobs does overtly lampoon not so much the Bible, but those that cohere to its teachings, as well as pick and choose the parts they want to follow. He essentially denounces many followers as hypocrites for blatantly ignoring some teachings, while vehemently supporting others.
Then again, those who are chagrined by Jacobs most likely lack a sense of humor and rational thinking, and you’ll need those to make the journey from cover to cover.
The quest is launched by the utter divisiveness organized religion has created in modern society. Jacobs rationalizes that the convergence of politics, religion, and a limited world view have made God, the Bible, and all its permutations a taboo subject. He embarks to find out why.
Jacobs is certainly right. There’s no shortage of pro-atheist books and authors on the shelves as Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion,” Christopher Hitchens’ “God is Not Great,” and Sam Harris’ entire catalog have cashed in, and maybe converted many, on the notion that religion is poison. Likewise, the pro-Christianity sect (Lee Strobel’s “The Case for Christ” and Francis S. Collins’ “The Language of God”) have found equal success. The middle ground has all but evaporated, leaving a queasy sense of “you’re with us or against us” in terms of belief systems.
Perhaps therein lies the appeal of Jacobs’ quest. He tackles the sometimes caustic, confrontational notions of religion and atheism with a brevity and playfulness that’s a breath of fresh of air from the clinical, ultra-serious essayists.
He’s also remarkably poignant while making learning about the Bible and religious history ” wait for it ” FUN. Yes, capital letters. Those in the secular world, and even those who frequent church, will find Jacobs’ explanation and narrative take on biblical literature thoroughly engaging. Those searching for a spiritual or secular self, let this be your compass.
A fresh spin
The Bible becomes far more accessible and relatable through Jacobs, whose adventures through modern-day New York City while strictly being governed by ancient beliefs put a fresh spin on religion. That sterile, antiquated dialogue of King James is replaced by observational humor and self-deprecation at its finest. Nary a page turns without a laugh, or two, or three.
Jacobs manages to discuss and dissect so much of the Bible that the book trembles on overload at points. However, few books these days will have as high a re-read quotient.
Among the components of his quest, Jacobs refuses to cut his hair or shave, dons all-white garb of a singular fabric, strums a 10-string lyre daily, pilgrimages to Jerusalem, refuses to lie even a teeny-tiny bit, tithes to strangers, wishes upon the egg of a fowl, as all wrought by Him. His trip to a creationist museum in Kentucky and his night out with hard-drinking Hasidic Jewish men for the Simchas Torah vie for the most entertaining biblical analysis.
The myriad cast of characters Jacobs meets along the way manage to add several layers to Jacobs’ journey. There’s Mr. Berkowitz, the pious Jew who teeters on stalker-like levels; Julie, Jacobs’ skeptical wife; estranged Uncle Gil, whose been repeatedly born again; Yossi, the even-keeled religious guide; and Amos, the Amish patriarch with an indiscernible sense of humor.
Jacobs also manages to fortify his standing as the publishing world’s best stunt writer. Previous to “The Year of Living Biblically,” Jacobs attempted to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica in a calendar year for his book “The Know-It-All.” He also embedded himself in the culture of Radical Honesty, which is exactly what it sounds like.
For a visual representation of Jacobs’ biblical journey, visit http://www.ajjacobs.com for further evidence of his mission to be the Big Apple’s most pious man.
Not to play spoiler, but Jacobs is not converted by his sojourn’s end, yet he certainly undergoes a spiritual awakening. Although he won’t be in a place of worship each weekend, he finds that subscribing to some of the Bible’s core values and teachings make for a more refreshing, fulfilling day-to-day life. Thus, firmly re-establishing the religious/spiritual/agnostic middle ground in hilarious, educational fashion. And that’s a place we could all enjoy.
Stephen Bedford is an employee at The Bookworm in Edwards.