Wednesday, December 31, 2008
The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible (reviewed November 2007)
A.J. Jacobs, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible (2007) [***+]. This is a gimmick book by an author who writes gimmick books – I haven’t read his other one, The Know-It-All, about his year spent reading the encyclopedia from A to Z. The Year of Living Biblically’s gimmick seemed interesting enough to give it a try: in an effort to show the folly of literal interpretations of the Bible, Jacobs, a secular New York Jew with little religious up-bringing, spends a year trying, as closely as he can, to take the Bible literally. He gathers a group of “spiritual advisers” to help him understand what he’s reading, and decides to spend the first eight months of the year on the Hebrew Scriptures, and the rest of the year on the Christian Scriptures. Going into his experiment, he describes himself as agnostic, and coming out he’s become a “reverent” agnostic. His beliefs (or lack thereof) don’t change much, but he does come to have a greater appreciation for the ways that religion and religious practice can nurture humility, gratitude, and a sense of awe and connection. In particular, he finds that the practice of praying multiple times a day makes him more mindful and full of gratitude, even though he doesn’t believe in the God to whom he is praying. But mostly, this book is just funny – laugh-out-loud funny at times – and accomplishes its primary goal of poking gentle fun at literalism and fundamentalism in religion. I liked that the fun he pokes is not mean-spirited or snarky, and that he really does try to show respect whenever possible. And he is willing to poke fun equally at himself. One of my favorite scenes is when he comes home from work one day, and his wife warns him not to sit down on the sofa, because she is menstruating and has recently sat on the sofa herself. She is not entirely on board with the year of living Biblically, and is especially exasperated that her husband won’t touch her, or sleep in the same bed with her, or sit on any of the furniture she has sat on, during her period. (Her women friends, too, are offended that he won’t touch them -- or any woman other than his wife -- at all, since you never can tell where a woman is in her cycle; they take to giving him huge hugs in public and loudly reassuring him that they had their periods two weeks ago.) So anyway, the couch being sullied, he moves to the chair, but she says she sat in that too. He moves around the house and she keeps shaking her head; she has deliberately sat in almost every chair in the house, and he is reduced to his son’s little play chair. He ends up buying himself a little portable stool that folds up into a cane, and this actually suits his OCD, germ-phobic self quite well.