Brendan's Reviews > The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible

The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs
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's review
Feb 13, 2009

it was amazing
bookshelves: 2009, non-fiction, humor, philosophy-religion, memoir-autobio
Read in February, 2009

I read Jacobs’ previous book, The Know-It-All, with great delight, and was very excited when I heard about this book. Then, in the yearly “let’s give each other books” swap I do with a couple friends at Christmastime, I got it. Yay! (Thanks, Mike!)

Jacobs embarks on his journey because he is a lifelong secularist and agnostic. He recognizes that the bulk of human kind finds solace and inspiration in worship, and decides to explore the experience of religion not through faith, but through acts. One of his questions is whether acting a certain way will affect one’s perspective and beliefs. 10 thoughts, in honor of the commandments:

* Jacobs’ wife, Julie, deserves sainthood. While he was doing this experiment, she had to put up with a number of things, including a Bible command that women who are menstruating are “unclean” and may not be touched. One of the more obscure rules involving this “uncleanliness” is that a man cannot sit somewhere that an unclean woman has sat that day. One day he comes home and prepares to watch some T.V. when his wife warns him off the couch. And the chair. And every other sitting space in the house. Point, Julie.
* Jacobs takes a really balanced approach to the question, diving into the task with sincerity and honesty, and simultaneously keeping his skeptic’s perspective as well.
* I like the sections in which he discusses getting strange treatment because of his beard and garments.
* At one point, he tries to enact the part of the Bible that commands people to leave parts of their field unharvested so the poor can have the scraps. He decides that ATM machines are the closest thing to harvesting he does, so he tries just leaving some money in the ATM.
* He suggests that the commandment not to lie is very difficult and spends the most time wrestling with that one. In particular, he lies a bunch when he goes to visit Liberty University — mostly to keep from hurting their feelings or getting kicked out.
* I found lots of connections with Jacobs. My favorite is when he says he spent several minutes watching his two-year-old, Jasper, sleeping on his stomach, with his legs pulled up under him and his butt in the air. Avery sleeps that way and it’s both adorable and hilarious.
* I like the idea of some of the Bible’s commandments as serving a mind-calming purpose. Jacobs talks of being transformed by the strictures against swearing, thinking mean thoughts, and the call to “give thanks.” I can totally see this working.
* There are a couple times where Jacobs works with a specialist in New York who helps Orthodox Jews make sure they’re following all the rules. Like the ones not to mix fibers of cotton and wool in your clothes, or the one saying you have to take an egg from a bird’s nest. The man explains to Jacobs that keeping the less-rational commandments is actually more faithful than the obviously good ones. Doing something purely for faith rather than for reason.
* At one point, he has to build a shelter for himself. He isn’t allowed to do so on his roof, so he does it in his living room.
* In the end, Jacobs suggests that everyone compromises on the Bible. He writes,

There’s a phrase called “Cafeteria Christianity.” It’s a derisive term used by fundamentalist Christians to describe modern Christians. The idea is that the moderates pick and choose the parts of the Bible they want to follow. They take a nice helping of mercy and compassion. But the ban on homosexuality? They leave that on the countertop…. Their point is, the religious moderates are inconsistent. They’re just making the Bible conform to their own values.

The year showed me beyond a doubt that everyone practices cafeteria religion. It’s not just moderates. Fundamentalists do it too. They can’t heap everything on their plate. Otherwise they’d kick women out of church for saying hello (”the women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak….” 1 Corinthians 14:34) and book out men for talking about the “Tennessee Titans” (”make no mention of the names of other gods…” Exodus 23:13).

But the more important lesson was this: There’s nothing wrong with choosing.

The Year of Living Biblically is an enjoyable look at the place of faith in the modern world, and the multitude of ways reading the Bible can be done. The book speaks to a lot of the questions I have about religion myself, and it does so in a forthright, honest way.

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