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Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible As Literally As Possible » User review

He Who Live by the Word Live by the Word!

  • Mar 8, 2008
Pros: Tells Biblical life in a straightforward manner

Cons: Can't think of any

The Bottom Line: Christians may tell Jacobs to burn in hell, but I don't believe in that

If there’s one thing The Year of Living Biblically proves, it’s that Biblical living can be a concept as confusing and broad as it is impossible.

Author AJ Jacobs is Jewish by nature, secular by rearing. As he puts it, he’s about as Jewish as the Olive Garden is Italian. As he observed the increasing religiosity of the world around him – or the country around him anyway – he came up with an experiment: For a whole year, he would live exactly as the Bible told him to. No cherry-picking or selective ignorance. Just turn himself into a real-world version of Ned Flanders. Jacobs wondered if following the Bible as literally as possible would make him more religious or at least more spiritual, and allow him an inner glimpse of why so many people live and die by the word of such a brutal, violent, immoral book.

It sounds like a simple concept, but one problem with Biblical literalists is so few people who refer to themselves as Biblical literalists have ever sat down and read the Bible, page by page, from one cover to the other. In preparation for his experiment, Jacobs goes on a marathon reading binge through the entire Bible, writing down not just all the rules, but everything which might simply be conceived as a rule. He also enlists the help of scholars who help him interpret some of the more vague passages, and experts who take the literalism of some passages to an extreme – like a person who literally handles snakes. (And here I thought that reference to snake handling on The Simpsons was an invention of Matt Groening.) Jacobs first decides to follow the rules in a one-rule, one-day format. But then he decides to go all-out in his literalism and try to follow all the rules at the same time, in as much as they can be followed at the same time.

Jacobs divides his Biblical literalism into two sections. He spends the first eight months of his year living by the Old Testament because it’s the bigger section, though his heritage might also have something to do with it. He then transfers to the New Testament for months nine through twelve. The New Testament appears to be the easier one for him to follow because he clearly doesn’t put the effort into writing about his New Testament misadventures as he did the Old. There are some funny, memorable stories out of his New Testament days – bits like the snake handler, a group of circumcised people who would like their foreskin back – but the New Testament generally is very lax compared to the Old. It’s the Old Testament section in which contains most of the stories you’ve probably heard about when The Year of Living Biblically was going through its advertising blitz: His attempt to stone people in Central Park, his visit to a creationist museum, his attempt to sacrifice an animal.

What makes The Year of Living Biblically so effective is that Jacobs takes the time to explain all the rules he’s trying to follow and the different ways in which they could be interpreted. For example, he suggests that in the modern, western society he lives in, stoning someone might also be translated as giving him pot until he gets high. The choices of how to follow all the rules is a constant theme throughout the book, and it shows pretty decisively why Biblical literalism may be a bad idea. Even if a Biblical literalist society were established, we would start coming to blows with each other on just what the Bible’s rules mean and how we should follow them.

There is a deeply spiritual element to The Year of Living Biblically. Jacobs wonders if he is getting more spiritual, and I think he does. He develops a Biblical alter ego named Jacob early on, and as the year goes on, AJ becomes Jacob more and more. He becomes more sensitive to the little Biblical laws like swearing and taking God’s name in vain. At one point, he meets a person who is proud of the fact that he doesn’t have choices and Jacobs says he can see where not having any choices might be comforting. His praying and many of his practices become automatic and Jacobs in general does seem to become more serene and understanding of where God might be coming from.

I thought The Year of Living Biblically would be a pure airline fluff book. But it goes a lot deeper than that. It may not get under the surface the way renowned religious scholars like Marcus Borg and Khalid Abou al-Fadl do, but it’s both thoughtful and accessible at the same time.


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Nicholas Croston ()
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About this book


Do not confuse this book with your standard Christian inspirational self-help books. A.J. Jacobs, a self-proclaimed secular Jew, follows up his Herculean reading of all 33 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica (a task he recounts in THE KNOW-IT-ALL: ONE MAN'S HUMBLE QUEST TO BECOME THE SMARTEST PERSON IN THE WORLD) with an even more difficult quest: to obey the dictates and rules of The Bible for an entire year. He refrains from shaving, he gives up shellfish ("an abomination" in the eyes of God), abandons clothing made from two types of fabric, and stops mentioning the blasphemous days of the week (named after pagan gods). Fortunately, he decides not to stone to death adulterers or murder any magicians. Additionally, he ventures out across the world to talk with other biblical literalists: Amish, snake handlers, and Samaritans. The result is a hilarious and fascinating journey, filled with comedy, hypocrisy, and surprising revelations into the bizarre texts on which faith is based.
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ISBN-13: 978-0743569972
Author: A. J. Jacobs
Genre: Humor
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Date Published: October 09, 2007
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