Published by Simon & Schuster on October 1, 2007
Genres/Lists: #30Authors, Non-Fiction
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The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible by A.J. Jacobs was not on my radar until Rebecca at Love at First Book told me (repeatedly) that it was fantastic. I really enjoyed Good Without God by Greg Epstein, so I thought that an agnostic Jew’s year-long quest to follow the Bible literally would be pretty interesting. His journey, which began as a new father’s concern for his son’s upbringing, leans more heavily on the Old Testament than the New. Jacobs spreads out his time with Orthodox Jews, Fundamentalists and Creationists and navigates the waters with incredible ease. It sounds very serious, and the subject matter certainly is, but this book is flat-out hilarious. My husband, who hasn’t read the book, knows about 1/3 of what is in it because I kept reading passages to him out loud.
To give you a visual, Jacobs spends his year wearing all white (at one point donning a robe with a roped belt), using a walking stick (that opens into a stool so as to avoid the unclean), grows his beard and sidelocks (payot), won’t wear mixed fibers, plays a ten-string harp on the streets of NYC, attaches tassels to his clothing and literally wears the Ten Commandments around his wrist and head. He follows the Sabbath and prays three times a day, but also participates in rituals such as blowing a ram horn to signal the beginning of a new month, writing the Commandments on his door, and writing by olive oil lamp. To top it off, he visits a snake handler, Jerusalem, a creationist museum, a chicken sacrifice, and a Hasidic dance. And did I mention his quest to figure out how to land a second wife?
But while this book is flat-out hilarious, it is not purely entertainment. Along with struggling with the literalist interpretation, such as stoning adulterers and using a flexible rod to beat your child, he learns that religion is much more than a book that tells him what he can and can’t do. He is very candid about his liberal leanings on a personal level but makes a genuine effort to understand the more conservative side of religion and to fairly portray their insights. He points out that the religious aren’t afraid of atheists because, “It is hard to be passionate about a lack of belief,” and points out that the concept of ‘gleanings’ was the first welfare system. His emphasis on the importance of community in religion touches on how lonely his undertaking can be at times, but instead of feeling sorry for him, I was glad that he was going about *his* quest in his own way.
I recommend this book to everyone, even atheists. It is a fantastic birds-eye view of what it is like to live according to the Bible on a daily basis without having a pro or anti religious agenda. There’s nothing political about it (he avoids those aspects) and Jacobs isn’t attempting to portray anything but his experiences. In short, it’s brilliant.