A.J. Jacob’s The Year of Living Biblically is one of the books I was “saving” for Lent, knowing that I’d enjoy it. In case you haven’t heard of it (and you probably have, because it’s getting a lot of hype), it’s Jacobs’ story of the year he spent trying to follow every precept and rule in the Bible as literally as he possibly could.
Now, if you know your Bible well, you know that he had to cut some corners. He didn’t kill anybody (which there’s plenty of Biblical injunctions to do) and he didn’t perform animal sacrifices (though he does attend a Hasidic ceremony in which a chicken is killed and it does come pretty close to the real thing). Some of his compromises are pretty lame, like tossing a few pebbles at an adulterer (to get around “stoning”) or leaving a plate of food out as an offering. The ones he got the most attention for were the obvious outward things, like wearing white clothes and leaving his hair and beard untrimmed for a year. Although Jacobs doesn’t just play the Bible for laughs, this is a very funny book and Jacobs is a witty, engaging and self-deprecating narrator (my favourite kind).
But the most life-changing aspects of the experience for Jacobs were not the wacky, inexplicable Biblical laws like not wearing clothes of mixed fibres, but the activities which actually caused him to re-evaluate things in his everyday life and forced him to brush up against the idea of God and take it seriously. Jacobs began the experiment as a secular, non-practising Jew with only average religious knowledge and background. Experiences like praying daily, observing Sabbath, tithing, and trying to refrain from lying or thinking immoral thoughts, really tested him. He ends the year, still not observant in a traditional way, but definitely much more open to spirituality and to at least some concept of God.
I doubt many of us would want to try taking the Bible as literally as Jacobs did — and in fact his experiment vividly illustrates that even those who claim to take it literally are always, to some extent, picking and choosing. But even as he wrestles with incomprehensible and unattractive things in Scripture, he also finds it changing him and making him re-evaluate his own life.
This is a highly entertaining but also thought-provoking read. I recommend it to everyone, without reservation.