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November 20, 2007 |

By Miscellaneous | Books | November 20, 2007 |

It seems like a form of torture to follow the Bible’s every rule (and I mean every rule) for an entire year, but considering our intrepid author has already made his way through the Encyclopaedia Britannica, one can tell he apparently enjoys self-inflicted torture. I suppose it also doesn’t hurt to have a book deal for your efforts. But live biblically for an entire year is exactly what A.J. Jacobs did, and what seemed torturous at first yielded surprising results. His chronicle of this period, The Year of Living Biblically, contains moments of both hilarity and solemnity as he navigates the murky water that is the Bible.

Jacobs begins his task by pouring over his source material (and, actually, every translation and version imaginable, as well as dozens of books written about the Bible) and typing “every rule, every guideline, every suggestion, every nugget of advice” he finds. The list is 72 pages long and contains over 700 rules. This is certainly a daunting task.

This would be a difficult job even if all of the rules made sense. There are, however, dozens and dozens of seemingly arbitrary rules, such as the ban on wearing clothes made of mixed fibers. No matter how bizarre the rule, however, Jacobs will follow them all. This is even more amusing when one remembers that Jacobs is both father and New Yorker. How on earth can a parent raise a toddler while strictly following the Bible? Try not lying, even the teeniest little bit, to your kid. Jacobs did, and boy did I have a good laugh at the sucker trying to talk sense to a toddler. I don’t think I can go a day without lying, and I don’t even have a kid. Oh, and try living in New York without being quick to anger. Isn’t it a requirement that New Yorkers give the finger to at least one person a day? At least, that’s what I’ve heard, anyway.

A self-proclaimed agnostic, Jacobs’ immediate motivation was, it’s true, rooted in a book deal; however, he is candid about his hope that living biblically would inspire an epiphany and result in real faith. Becoming a father prompted a shift in his values; before, belief in God was quaint, old-fashioned — not for a trendy New Yorker who writes for Esquire. After the birth of his son, Jacobs has come to see religion as a means to reconnect with his Jewish heritage while instilling some positive values in his son. As he writes midway through the book,

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…[but] I’d sacrifice some individuality for the knowledge my son will outlive me.

And so, his quest goes deeper than just intellectual curiosity. His spiritual life — as well as that of his son — is on the line. To help him in his journey, Jacobs meets with other strict followers of the Bible in an attempt to learn from them. He hears a joke from an Amish man (pretty funny, too … for an Amish guy) and even out-talks a Jehovah’s Witness. Now that’s funny.

He also meets with a bevy of religious advisors who advise him on how to interpret the Bible. And, man, are there ever interpretations. It seems that even the simplest verse prompts multiple readings and interpretations. In fact, when every “law” seems to have a direct opposite somewhere in the Bible (or, at least, a line that could be translated as such), it seems damn near impossible to find the true meaning of anything.

Because of this multiplicity of meaning, it seems that everyone is what Jacobs describes as a “cafeteria” follower. In essence, everyone — even those who follow the Bible “exactly” — picks and chooses what laws to follow. What, then, does it mean to live biblically, if the meaning of Bible shifts from reader to reader? This, perhaps, is the most relevant question one can ask in a country governed by devotees of the good book.

Somehow, Jacobs is able to stay adrift in this ocean of meaning, and he follows the Bible with such gusto that even I was inspired. I really hoped Jacobs would have the epiphany that he was searching for; as someone who can’t make up her mind regarding matters of faith, I was looking for some solace in the outcome of his quest. And while I won’t ruin the ending (did he find faith? will he continue to live biblically?), I will say that, after having finished the book, I was almost sorry there weren’t more rules for him to follow. Some rules were logical, others were just plain bizarre, but I think it’s safe to say he learned from them all. Even if you don’t agree with some of his conclusions, you’ll definitely enjoy the journey.

Bibliolatrist possesses extraordinary powers that enable her to read tall books in a single bound. As Jennifer McKeown, she spends her days as a mild-mannered English teacher living outside Philadelphia. She blogs over at Bibliolatry.

One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible

The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs / Jennifer McKeown

Books | November 20, 2007 |

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