Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs

In which A.J. Jacobs documents his attempt to live by the literal rules of the bible for one year.

I am really down on religion books, so this one sat on my to-read pile for nearly a year. I finally read it based on a recommendation and I am so glad I did! It was a really nice book. I got a lot of comments and looks while reading it, and noticed that most reactions from both sides of the religion aisle (pro- and anti-, I suppose) were scornful regarding this book. Turns out, the book does an amazing job of being neutral and unbiased. Before I started reading it I assumed it would be 300 pages of mocking the weird things the bible says but this didn't turn out to be true at all.

Jacobs is a non-religious columnist of Jewish heritage. He was looking for a writing project and (somewhat randomly) decided on this quest. He really tried hard to live by the bible as much as possible in speech, dress, behavior, even thought. He wrote about how this was affecting his life as well as sprinkling in research and interviews on interpretation of the bible. It's a very educational book, as well as being humorous and surprisingly uplifting.

I definitely laughed out loud a few times in this book. Jacobs is a very clever writer, but many of my giggles came from stuff his wife said or did. I felt sort of bad for her having to put up with his biblical laws to an extent for a year, so I felt like he deserved it when she used them against him. My favorite example was when she discovered he couldn't sit in a chair after a menstruating woman had been in it and sat in every single chair in their home! Awesome.

It was really interesting to me to think about the insight and value the bible actually offers. Turns out, parts that get brought up a lot in political contexts are a very small part of its content. Homosexuality? Not really a major theme. Abortion? Not addressed. Most of the bits Jacobs writes about are positive ways to live a better life. Lots of rules Jacobs followed would make for much nicer people and society.

A major take-away from this book for me was the impossibility of biblical literalism. Even the sects that proclaim to follow it exactly still pick and choose. It's inevitable. Not everything even translates in ways that are possible to follow. There are conflicting passages. So even the literalists are picking and choosing.

I really enjoyed this book more than I expected. It was humorous and edifying, but really uplifting too. Very positive. And Jacobs succeeded admirably in writing this in a disinterested way. It's impressive for that alone! I can't even do a 500 word book review without flaunting my various biases. I will end with my favorite quote from the whole book. It's from one of the many American religious leaders interviewed, Steven Greenberg.

Never blame a text from the Bible for your behavior. It's irresponsible. Anybody who says X, Y, and Z is in the Bible-it's as if one says, 'I have no role in evaulating this.'


  1. That sounds interesting! I think I'd read a positive review of it at some point, so maybe this is one I'll have to read at some point. I'd also like to read the book by that student from Brown who spent his year "abroad" at a super-Christian university.

  2. Oh yeah I just read about that kid on Jacobs' blog, I guess he was his intern. The book sounds somewhat similar.

    Want me to mail you this book?

  3. Nah, I'll track it down around here. The public library probably has it.


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