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Book Review - The Year of Living Biblically


The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible was written by A.J. Jacobs. As the name suggests, for a year, he attempted to live his life by following the Bible literally, from observing the Sabbath, to not wearing mixed fiber clothes, to stoning an adulterer (he threw a pebble), to all the other myriad rules. The first 3/4 of the year were dedicated to just the Old Testament, since Jacobs is (nominally) Jewish (he described himself as "Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant. Which is to say: not very."), and the latter part of the year to adding in the New Testament rules.

In the following paragraphs, I'll discuss quite a few things from the book where I disagree with Jacobs, but don't let that bias you from reading the book. This is a blog, so it's my duty to disagree and be vocal about it, so I've focused on the areas of the book that I disagree with the most. But overall, the book is very good, and very thoughtful.

Jacobs did seek advisors in his quest, people to help him understand the meaning of different passages. He explained in several parts what some of the more traditional, non-literal interpretations were of different passages (which, of course, he didn't follow, since his quest was to follow a literal interpretation). He also explained how people got around some the contradictions in the Bible, and a bit of the rationale many Christians use for no longer following Old Testament rules. It wasn't simply one long running joke about how silly Biblical literalism is - it was in many ways a sincere attempt to understand Judaism and Christianity.

I do question Jacobs' motivation somewhat. Consider this passage from when he went to Jerusalem.

As I wander over to a café near the hotel for a bagel, I realize something: Walking around Jerusalem in my bilbical persona is at once freeing and vaguely disappointing. In New York - even though it's home to the Naked Cowboy and gene Shalit - I'm still unusual enough to stand out. But in Israel I'm just one of the messianic crowd. A guy with strange outfits and eccentric facial hair? Big deal. Seen three dozen today. Jerusalem is like the Galápagos Islands of religion - you can't open your eyes without spotting an exotic creature.

It seems as if Jacobs relished in the attention he was getting, so I think that vanity might have had a bit to do with his quest, and not just attempting to understand the religious mindset.


There's almost always a church youth group at the soup kitchen. I have yet to see an atheists' youth group. Yeah, I know, religious people don't have a monopoly on doing good. I'm sure that there are many agnostics and atheists out there slinging mashed potatoes at other soup kitchens. I know the world is full of selfless secular groups like Doctors without Borders.

But I've got to say: It's a lot easier to do good if you put your faith in a book that requires you to do good.

Jacobs included the appropriate disclaimer, but doesn't seem to have really given it the weight it deserved. Us atheists and agnostics don't form atheist/agnostic charity groups because it's a bit superfluous. If you want to help feed people, you don't start an atheist soup kitchen, or an agnostic food drive. You start a plain old soup kitchen, or a plain old food drive. Or, more often, you go volunteer at one of the the charities that's already been founded.

As far as youth groups, hasn't Jacobs ever heard of the Scouts or Campfire? I know, technically Boy Scouts have to be religious, but it's mostly a secular organizations, with little focus on religion. I know that as a kid I did a lot more charity work with my Boy Scout troop than with my church youth group. My daughter is in Girl Scouts, which in their policy officially declares the organization to be secular ("Our movement is secular and is founded on American democratic principles, one of which is freedom of religion.") My daughter has done quite a bit of volunteer work through Girl Scouts.

As another anecdote, my wife and I volunteered a few times to go on a medical mission trip to Guatemala. And I'd say that 1/4 to 1/3 of the volunteers were non-believers, which is about what you'd expect if Christians and non-believers were helping equally (actually, us atheists were over represented compared to the general population, but that's not all that unexpected for such a small group size).

Jacobs can say that it seems easier to do good if you put faith in the Bible, but I'm not sure that reality agrees with him.


At one point, he described his reaction to attending an atheist meeting.

Ken has, in fact, boosted the group's membership and started some programs. But go to an atheist meeting, and you'll see why the religious lobby doesn't have to worry about the atheist lobby quite yet. You'll see why there are no soaring atheist cathedrals and why hotel room night stands don't come with a copy of Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell in the top drawer. It's hard to be passionate about a lack of belief.

Well, yeah. The only reason why atheists are so vocal is because of the pernicious influence of religion in our society. As soon as religion stops being such a problem (i.e. outlawing homosexual marriage, trying to get creationism taught in schools, the de facto requirement that political candidates are religious, etc.), we atheists won't have so much to complain about. Like Thomas Jefferson said, "It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

Now that I'm an atheist myself, I have no desire to go to a building just to celebrate my non-belief. I'd rather be productive. I like going to museums to learn more about the world, going to parties to enjoy time with my friends, going to my daughters school pageants. It seems silly to even think about atheist cathedrals.


In another section, he described his aunt and uncle becoming religious for the benefit it would give their children, and contemplated it for himself.

They explored several religions, including Hinduism, but ended up diving into Orthodox Judaism, since they were born Jewish.

They didn't become ultrareligious because of a charismatic leader or the truth of the Bible - they did it for the structure. And now their kids have grown up into responsible young adults...

Would I rather have Bart Simpson or one of the Flanders kids? A couple of years ago, I would have chosen the loveably spunky Bart. No question. But nowadays, now that I have my own three-dimensional son, I'm leaning toward the Flanders progeny. Yes, they may be a little creepy, they may sing loud songs about Noah's ark, but at least you know they won't spend their free time burning down the cafeteria or skateboarding off a canyon. I'd sacrifice some individuality for the knowledge that my son will outlive me.

Perhaps it's because I place such high value on truth and honesty, but this is one of the reasons I hate most for being religious. If you think God is real, and you believe all the consequences spelled out in the Bible, then it makes perfect sense to go to church and raise your children in that environment. But if you don't believe, why would you raise your kids to believe in falsehoods? It's such an intellectually dishonest position.

Besides, this is a false dichotomy. Not being religious doesn't mean behaving like Bart Simpson. You can raise your children to think about other people, and think about the consequences of their actions, without ever bringing up religion.


Attempting to follow all the rules of the Bible includes the first commandment. Jacobs tried to pray to God, which is understandably difficult for an agnostic. He had varying levels of success, depending on the day. In one passage discussing his prayer, Jacobs made a very good point.

I even find myself being skeptical of those times when my heart was near to God in the last few months. Perhaps it was an illusion. If I prayed to Apollo every day, would I start to feel a connection to Apollo?

This is a line of reasoning that I don't think enough people explore. I noticed it especially the last time I went to a mass - how much reinforcement there was to continue believing, and how hard it would be to break that cycle when you do it every week.


At the back of the book, there was an interview with Jacobs. I'm assuming that this interview was only in the paperback edition, and not the hardcover.

It was a life-changing and perspective-changing year. In the end, I became what a minister friend of mine calls a "reverent agnostic," which is a phrase I love. Because whether or not there's a God, I believe in the idea of sacredness - that rituals can be sacred, the Sabbath can be sacred, and there's great importance to them. So I'm still agnostic, but a deeply different kind of agnostic.

In some ways, I can appreciate this view. The universe is an awesome place, and we're such tiny parts of it. There are a great many things that inspire me, or fill me with a sense of reverence. However, you have to be careful when it comes to 'sacredness'. Too often, when people put something in the category of the sacred, it becomes beyond reproach, above criticism, unassailable. Nothing deserves that level of immunity, because it's possible that we could be wrong about anything.

It also risks taking those concepts to extremes. Jacobs may consider the Sabbath sacred, but others have taken it so far to where they worry about whether or not they can flip a light switch, and whether the spark that might happen should be considered lighting a fire.


As for lessons I learned, perhaps the biggest was 'Thou shalt not stereotype.' Every preconception I had was smashed when I actually spent time with these groups. I had some very narrow notions about evangelical Christians before the year. But I found it's such a varied movement that you can't make a sweeping gneralization about it. For instance, I met an evangelical group called the Red Letter Christians. Instead of focusing on, for instance, homosexuality, the Red Letter Christians stress the literal words of Jesus and his teachings on compassion and peace.

This is a very good lesson, I think, for two reasons. First, taking Jacobs at his word, it shows the dangers of stereotyping. I have friends with all different types of religious beliefs, from atheists like myself to young earth creationists. People can get so caught up in religion that they forget that it's just one aspect of our lives. There's so much more that we do, that defines who we are, that it's easy to get along with someone while still disagreeing over religion.

On a more cynical side, though, Jacobs' observation reveals how people who do bad things aren't the evil villains of comic books. He discussed his visit with Jerry Falwell, and how friendly the man was in person, and how mundane the church service was. But don't forget that Falwell founded Liberty University, and co-founded the Moral Majority. The people in those organizations may have good intentions, but look at all the harm they've caused. To quote a religiously themed cliche, "The road to Hell is paved with good intentions."


Q: Are you going to raise your sons differently?
AJ: After the year, my wife and I decided to join a synagogue in our neighborhood. Granted, it's a reform temple and we don't go very often. (But I do pay the annual fees. Which, from the letters they send, is a very important part). We're going to send our sons to Hebrew school. I don't care whether they become Hitchens-like atheists or believers. As long as they're good people, I'll be happy. But I thought it was a good idea to give them a basis in religion, so they'll know what they're accepting or rejecting.

I already discussed above why I don't think you should raise your children to be religious if you're not a believer yourself. It's dishonest. But that's not exactly what Jacobs is saying here. It sounds like he's trying to expose his children to religion so that they can make their own choice. But, as I'm sure is glaringly obvious to anybody reading what he wrote who isn't Jewish, he's given them a pretty limited view on religion by sending them to a Hebrew school. Why not send them to Catholic school, or a Protestant school, or a Hindu temple, or a madrasah? That's one of the problems I've noticed with many people. When they say they want to expose their children to religion so that their children can have their own choice, those people usually mean their own religion, or the religion of their ancestors if they're no longer particularly religious themselves. It's hardly ever meant to expose them to the full spectrum of religious views.

On the other hand, given how important religion is in contemporary society, it's probably not such a bad idea to expose children to it in some form, so that they'll have some type of understanding of that mindset.


So, after the whole year was over, what was Jacobs' conclusion on following the Bible literally?

Q: How did it change your view on religion? AJ: In several ways, I feel I better understand some of the great things about religion and have incorporated many of them into my life. I also learned that interpreting the Bible too literally can be dangerous. I learned that you can't follow every single rule in the Bible. There is a certain amount of picking and choosing. And fundamentalists call this cafeteria religion and they mean it as an insult. But I say: What's wrong with cafeterias? I've had some delicious meals at cafeterias. It's all about choosing the right parts of the Bible, the ones about compassion and helping your neighbor. I also learned that even the rules that seem crazy at first can have a deeper meaning.

So, after actually reading the entire Bible, and trying his best to follow it literally, he concluded that it just wasn't possible. I don't think that's much of a surprise to anyone else that's actually read the Bible.

His approach of picking the best parts sounds reasonable to anyone who's not religious themselves, but it kind of removes the whole authority of the Bible, doesn't it? Especially considering how he's contemplated using the Bible as a rulebook for his kids so that they grow up with some structure - how can you justify using it as an authoritative source when you throw out all the rules you don't like?

Anyway, as I said at the beginning of this review, I've focused on the parts of the book that I disagree with the most. Overall, it's an interesting look at just what it takes to follow the Bible literally, along with some thoughtful discussion on religion in general.


Further Reading:


2010-08-03 Made a few minor changes to wording that don't significantly affect the meaning, and corrected a typo in a quote from the book.

Comments

I always love when people use common sense, empathy and compassion to live a moral life, then give credit to the "good" parts of the bible (or whatever religious book). I wanted to read that book, but haven't gotten around to it yet. I also hate paying more for a digital copy than for a paperback. Really? it's cheaper to buy the printed one? The one that's printed from a digital copy?

I still haven't jumped into the digital book revolution. The up front cost is the main reason, especially considering, like in this case, that you don't save any money by buying the digital only copy. Plus, I tend to share books with family members. I know there are ways to get around the sharing, but it's so much easier to just hand someone the book they want to read.

How's the Kindle been working out for you? I'm assuming that you decided to buy one.

Michael Rood has earned his reputation as the Messianic matador who waves his tattered red cape in the face of the religious “bull” of his generation. Michael’s television series: “Prepare for A Rood Awakening! from Israel” has been heralded as the most energetic exposition of Scriptural truth to come out of Israel in over a millennium. Accused of "fishing with dynamite" Rood's 'no hold barred" approach to the biblical messianic teachings leaves the agnostic and atheist begging for relief.

AJ Jacobs’ book insults believing people everywhere with its dumb-show antics aping faith. If Jacobs had decided to spend a year as a cancer patient, if he’d written a cheery book describing how he’d hop into his hospital bed and act drained and uncomfortable, all done in front of people who are genuinely ill, the affront would not have been greater.
We can only hope Jacobs gains some kind of perspective on all this renown before he dashes into his next book, because The Year of Living Green would be boring where this book is sacrilegious, and The Year of Living Fat would be cruel where this book is trite, and The Year of Living Muslim might get him blown up in his car. This reviewer’s advice to our author: invest some of those bestseller profits, take a few years off from writing these silly, stupid books, and actually study something. It’s an unsettling experience at first, but you’ll get used to it.

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