The Year of Living Biblically

The Year of Living Biblically Book Cover

Full Title: The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible
Author: A.J. Jacobs
New York Times Bestseller
Original Publication: 2007
Genre: Nonfiction, Autobiography, Memoir, Religion

I have been a fan of A.J. Jacobs since I read “The Know-It-All”, his book detailing his quest to become one of the smartest people in the world by reading Encyclopedia Brittanica cover to cover. In this story, Jacobs, who is admittedly “Jewish in the same way that The Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant”, decides that he needs to acquaint himself with the Bible. He proposes an experiment – for the entirety of one year, he will attempt to follow the Bible as literally as possible, without exception. He does this in part to make an attempt to understand which parts of the Bible are spiritually enriching for modern man and which are antiquated and even silly; and in part because he is a new father and is responsible for the religious education of his young son.

Jacobs begins from a position of agnosticism, and finds that the psychological theory of cognitive dissonance (behavior shapes belief) applies – the more he behaves as if he is deeply religious, the more he feels genuinely religious. He begins by reading the Bible in its entirety and making notes each time the Bible makes a reference to how people should live. In all, he ends up with more than seven hundred rules he is required to follow. Some are easy (you shall not murder) and some are baffling (you shall not wear clothes made of mixed fiber, you shall not touch your wife when she is in her time of uncleanliness.) All in all, he consults dozens of spiritual advisors, amasses over a hundred religious and spiritual guidebooks, and learns a lot about himself and the role that faith plays in the human experience.

Spending nine months strictly following the Old Testament and three months following the New Testament, Jacobs visits with Rabbis, Pastors, and a number of fringe groups who claim to adhere strictly to whichever portions of the Bible they follow. He makes trips to visit the Pennsylvania Amish, snake handlers in Tennessee who speak in tongues, attends a sermon at Jerry Falwell’s church, and even makes a pilgrimage to Israel to quite literally walk in the proverbial sandals of his forefathers. What I found particularly interesting was that Jacobs starts from a position of almost scoffing at religion, and makes the exceptionally valid point that EVERYONE who follows the Bible, or claims to, has cherry-picked the portions of the Bible that fit with their particular agendas. This, of course, makes little sense and is hypocritical. As the journey continues, however, Jacobs realizes that so much of the Bible is open to interpretation and seems to contradict itself that it is not possible to follow the scriptures literally to the letter.

Fun Fact: A.J. Jacobs is a regular columnist for Esquire magazine and Mental Floss, a trivia magazine. He lives in New York with his (sainted) wife and three sons.

Bother if: I thought that this was a wonderfully entertaining read and important socially – it is our responsibility as human beings to question why we do the things that we do. In the absence of scrutiny, the habits of the faithful mean nothing. It was fun to watch Jacobs reach mini-epiphanies about faith as he journeys. One passage which stuck with me was when he questions why God would need to be praised all of the time – if he is the greatest being in the universe, surely he doesn’t have a self-esteem problem which would require constant reassurance. Nevertheless, he presses on praying and praising God in his daily life, and at once it hits him – we don’t praise God for God’s sake, we praise God for our own sake. It’s a reminder to us that God is great and we are small, and it takes us out of our egos and humbles us. Jacobs also has a wonderful sense of humor and the book was well-written and very funny. He makes you wish that you were friends with him.

Don’t Bother if: If you’re the sort of person who has no interest at all in exploring the meaning behind religious tradition and faith or, conversely, the sort of person who does not believe that faith should be questioned, you might want to skip this one. I thought that it was important and interesting food for thought, however, and a very accessible and easy read for its potential to enrich your spirituality. Jacobs does an excellent job sparking the imagination and planting seeds of thought which may, ultimately, enhance your understanding of God and the nature of faith and religion. I didn’t think that the book was terribly irreverent or offensive at all, but it does question religious practices. There is also a passage while, not graphically depicted, a chicken is sacrificed in kosher tradition.

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