This book is last on my Lenten reading list because I spent almost all of Lent convincing myself not to buy it. Every time I went into Chapters I picked it up, leafed through it, and put it back. This was partly because I usually refuse to buy hardcovers, and it’s not out in paperback yet. Also, the design and packaging of the book made it look like a blatant attempt to copycat the success of A.J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically. (There’s a blurb from Jacobs on the front of My Jesus Year and a thanks to him in the Acknowledgements, so I’m not going to say there’s no connection — but I think the blatancy is probably more due to Benyamin Cohen’s publisher saying, “Hey, we can ride A.J. Jacobs’ coattails to sell this book!” rather than to any devious plan of Cohen’s own).
Finally I sat down in Chapters and read two chapters (smirk) and decided I should buy it. My resistance was probably weakened by the fact that I was mired in Tom Harpur’s The Pagan Christ at the time and I badly needed to end my Lenten reading with something light and faith-affirming (you’ll notice this pendulum swing from light to heavy reading throughout my Lenten journey, not just this year but every year since I’ve started doing it). Benyamin Cohen made me smile in the first two chapters, which was more than enough to make it worth the hefty hardcover price.
Comparisons to Jacobs are inevitable. Both are funny Jewish writers who set out on a clearly-defined one-year spiritual odyssey to explore new religious territory and see what effect it has on them. Their starting points are quite different, though, as Jacobs is a non-observant, secular Jew who knows little about his own religious heritage and discovers a great deal about Judaism on his year-long journey through Scripture. Benyamin Cohen, on the other hand, is the son of an Orthodox rabbi who knows his Judaism inside and out — and is disenchanted with it. He feels restricted by the rules of Judaism and feels he’s never made a personal connection with God in the midst of all that ritual. Intrigued and entranced by Christian worship, he decides to spend a year exploring Christian churches — not with a view to converting, but to see if he can learn something that will enhance his own Judaism.
My Jesus Year is both a lighter and a heavier memoir than The Year of Living Biblically. Lighter, because Cohen, while he has a pleasant, breezy style, is simply not as good a writer as Jacobs. Heavier, because he touches on some heavier personal stuff, particularly the death of his mother when he was thirteen and the effect that had on his life and his faith. Taken for what it is, without comparison to other writers, My Jesus Year is an entertaining and occasionally perceptive read.
Since Cohen lives in the southern United States, his visits to Christian churches are heavily weighted towards large Baptist, Pentecostal and independent mega-churches, both white and African-American. But he also visits an Episcopalian church, spends a day with Mormon missionaries, tours a Trappist monastery and fakes Catholicism in order to get one-on-one with a priest in a confessional. He also comes across as the world’s nicest, and most open-minded guy, because although he has occasional moments of mild cynicism (as when attending a faith-healing “seminar”), for the most part he comes away from every experience reflecting that these people are really sincere and their faith seems to be working for them.
He’s not much of a theologian; he reflects towards the end that “Jesus made [him] a better Jew,” but never spends any time really reflecting on Jesus, who he is or why Christians believe in him and Jews don’t. In fact, Cohen accepts his own Jewishness as a fact of life and never seems to consider converting to Christianity no matter how interested he is in it. He is really sampling not theology so much as worship styles in this book, and that’s OK. He visits a variety of Christian places of worship, likes some things and cringes at others, and comes away with a wish-list of ways Orthodox Judaism could liven up its services and get better at Jewish evangelism — not reaching outside Judaism for converts, but reaching out to secular Jews to encourage them to rediscover their faith.
Along the way, Cohen, who is anything but a secular Jew, does get his faith restored a little, and seems to be in a happier place with God than he was at the beginning. Best of all, in the last sentence of the Acknowledgements he thanks the reader for buying the book — so I feel like even if I caved and bought a book I didn’t intend to buy, at least the author was grateful.