Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Year of Living Biblically: as Literally as Possible

I just finished a book by A.J. Jacobs called The Year of Living Biblically (2007). My wife picked it up at the airport, and I borrowed it from her every time she put it down. Jacobs, an editor at Esquire magazine, dreamed up a project where he would attempt to do everything the Bible says someone should do or not do, taking the text as literally as possible for an entire year. Jacobs, who says that he is "Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant," (p. 6) wanted to explore biblical literalism. He wrote in the introduction:

Millions of Americans say they take the Bible literally...but my suspicion was that almost everyone’s literalism consisted of picking and choosing. People plucked out the parts that fit their agenda, whether that agenda was to the right or left. Not me. I thought, with some naïveté, I would peel away the layers of interpretation and find the true Bible underneath. I would do this by being the ultimate fundamentalist. I’d discover what’s great and timeless in the Bible and what is outdated. (p.7)

It was clear from the start of the book that Jacobs was expecting to journey into the Bible (both Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament) and expose literalists as agenda motivated, and come away with a funny book as well as a book critical one. In some sense, this happened, but so did other unexpected things.

The amazing thing for me was seeing Jacobs finding genuine humanity even within the most bizarre and the most closed people that he interviews. He keeps on meeting people with a sense of dread: that these people are particularly scary, or really exclusive, or flat-out wrong. While at times he comes away with a clear sense of “I don’t agree with this view,” he is constantly surprised to find the genuineness (and for the most part, gentleness) in religious people...something often missed in the quick overviews. He also encounters a level of respect from people that I think surprises him as well: people recognize that his journey is a biblical one, even if Jacobs didn’t realize it at the time.

Jacobs writes in the introduction:

Everyone---family, friends, coworkers---had the same concern: that I’d go native....In a sense, they were right to worry. It’s impossible to immerse yourself in religion for twelve months and emerge unaffected. At least it was for me. Put it this way: If my former self and my current self met for coffee, they’d get along OK, but they’d both probably walk out of the Starbucks shaking their heads and saying to themselves, “That guy is kinda delusional.”

As with most biblical journeys, my year has taken me on detours I could not have predicted. I didn’t expect to herd sheep in Israel. Or fondle a pigeon egg. Or find solace in prayer. Or hear Amish jokes from the Amish. I didn’t expect to discover such strangeness in the Bible. And I didn’t expect to, as the Psalmist says, take refuge in the Bible and rejoice in it. (p.7)

Highly recommended read!

(The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, by A.J. Jacobs, printed by Simon & Schuster, NY, NY, 2007)

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