Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible

The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible
The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, by A.J. Jacobs

I finally got around to reading this book, one of the grand one-year experiments that I am fascinated by. (I actually first read the book that Jacobs' protege wrote, The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University.) After reading the entire encyclopedia from start to finish during one year, A.J. Jacobs spent a year of his life trying to follow as many biblical tenets as possible. As a secular Jew, he didn't really know much about the Bible, but this made him an especially objective participant in trying to follow the bible's many rules.

One of the first things I was delighted to discover, a few pages in, was that A.J. Jacobs consulted a number of biblical and theological experts during his journey...and one of the subject matter experts he consulted several times was Rev. Eldon Richards, a retired pastor who calls himself a "pastor out to pasture," and who happens to be the mentor and friend of my own Lutheran pastor. So that was very exciting! Pastor Eldon says all sorts of inspirational things such as (discussing that some people will not take him seriously in his quest, because he's not a practicing Jew or Christian): "You just have to tell them that you have a hunger and a thirst, and you may not sit at the same banquet table as them, but you have a hunger and a thirst. So they shouldn't judge you."

Jacobs focuses most of his year on the Old Testament, since it does have more rules, and only a few months on the New Testament. He cataloged a long list of archaic commandments and laws to follow. He stopped shaving his face and cutting his beard, resulting in this unruly hair growth:

He and his poor, long-suffering wife were trying to get pregnant again during this biblical year, and the task of being fruitful and multiplying was made more difficult by the fact that he couldn't touch her for several days after her menstrual period. (I think I would have gotten so fed up with him during that year that it would have taken any romance right out of the marriage!) He carried a little stool around everywhere he went so he wouldn't have to occupy the space where a menstruating woman had previously sat. One of the best anecdotes in the book was when he returned home one day to be informed that his (menstruating) wife had sat on every single sitting space in his apartment, just to annoy him! 

Jacobs in full biblical regalia
Some laws, of course, were impossible to follow (such as sacrificing animals and offspring!), although he gets as close as he can to doing these things. He (sort of) stones an adulterer, dresses all in white, writes the Ten Commandments on his door frame, gets a slave intern (the aforementioned protege, Kevin Roose), tries to discipline his son more effectively and honor his parents, does what he can to avoid lying, tries to stop coveting other people's things (a constant challenge), wears clothing without mixed fibers, changes his eating habits, circumcises his sons (not just because of the experiment, but mostly because of his Jewish heritage), tithes 1/10th of his income, visits the Holy Land, consults with many spiritual advisers, explores a wide variety of biblical rule-following traditions (Amish, hardcore creationists, polygamists, Orthodox Jews, Jehovah Witnesses, etc.), and prays and meditates, among other activities. 

At first it felt like he was just going along with the motions, but eventually he actually felt something when he would pray. He wasn't sure what exactly, but something: 

“I'm still agnostic. But in the words of Elton Richards, I'm now a reverent agnostic. Which isn't an oxymoron, I swear. I now believe that whether or not there's a God, there is such a thing as sacredness. Life is sacred. The Sabbath can be a sacred day. Prayer can be a sacred ritual. There is something transcendent, beyond the everyday. It's possible that humans created this sacredness ourselves, but that doesn't take away from its power or importance.” 

Throughout this experiment, Jacobs proves the point that you cannot really understand the true spirit of the Bible simply by following rules and laws. I felt that the focus on the New Testament was seriously lacking in this book...along with the words and actions of Jesus that instruct us to love our neighbors, practice radical compassion, care for the poor and downtrodden, and stand up for justice. 

Here's an example: one day he and his wife ran into an old college acquaintance of hers in a coffee shop. After they had caught up for several minutes, the woman mentioned getting the families together again in the future. Jacobs, called to be totally honest and not lie, flatly said he wasn't interested...he already had enough friends and he doesn't want any new ones. His wife, of course, was horrified and embarrassed. Part of me wished I had the guts and honesty to speak this kind of thing aloud (because I must admit that I have often thought this myself--I am very selective about my friendships!), but on the other hand, would this have been what Jesus would have done? No way. 

Even though Jacobs recognizes that life is sacred in the end, he doesn't really seem to grasp the prophecy of Jesus through his little experiment. But maybe that is the point after all. The bible, taken at face value and literally, is worthless without the spirit and grace flowing throughout it.

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