For the last year, I have been working on a project to blog the Bible (and doing a terrible job of it for the last two months), so a book like The Year of Living Biblically struck a chord. Like A.J. Jacobs, I’ve also been trying to make sense of a book that is at once one of the founding pillars of my culture, and yet profoundly alien.
The Year of Living Biblically is, of course, a book of its genre: Stunt Journalism. Jacobs does kookie things like paint his door frames with lamb’s blood (or, rather, with lamb pan drippings) and throws pebbles at adulterers. And like any book in this genre, he concludes with his insights and feel-good message.
But in the midst of this formulaicism, I did find food for thought. There was a lot of discussion about what it really means to take the Bible literally, and how to deal with the application of the rules in a cultural context that is so foreign to any the Bible’s authors could have possibly envisioned.
One element I particularly enjoyed was Jacobs’s insistence on turning the Bible into a Self Help manual. Even when called out on this by a member of his “religious advisory council,” he goes right back to trying to draw life lessons!
One theme he kept coming back to is that everything happens for a reason. He explains early in the book that his wife believes this and part of his journey is coming to accept at least some version of this. Believing that there are reasons beyond chemical reactions and physical laws is, he declares, “certainly healthier.” This profound and far-reaching statement is given as a throw-away line in the middle of a broader discussion, and it never receives the serious discussion it deserves. Is it, truly, healthier to believe something that makes us feel good about ourselves without any evidence for it to be actually true?
Prior to reading The Year of Living Biblically, I’d heard complaints that it trivialises religion and makes it look bad. It’s all about legalism, and focuses on things like stoning adulterers rather than the broader moral teachings. But having now read the book, I haven’t found this to be the case at all. Jacobs gives a fair acknowledgement to the legalism of the Old Testament. The bulk of the book, however, is a discussion of the moral teachings and about the applicability and relevance of the book as a whole in a modern, North American cultural setting. Overall, I found his treatment of the Bible to be extremely respectful; perhaps, even, too respectful at times.
Jacobs has a very readable writing style and he’s generally quite good at finding the right balance between entertaining and provoking thought. I’d say it’s an important read for those who consider themselves to be Jewish or Christian, because it initiates a very important discussion that I think Western society really needs to have about what it means to be Judeo-Christian and what the Bible’s place should be in our culture.