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The Year Of Living Biblically

April 6, 2010

A couple of months ago, I posted about A.J Jacobs’ The Know-it-All, where Jacobs read the Encyclopedia in a year. After enjoying that one so much, I decided to try out his next book, The Year of Living Biblically. This time, Jacobs spent a year trying to follow the Bible as closely as possible. Honoring the ten commandments went without saying, of course, but he also practiced some of the lesser-known or upheld rules like not shaving his beard (the timeline of self-portraits is hilarious), not wearing mixed fibers or not touching women in the fear of them being impure. In order to make sure he gets things right, he consults a number of religious experts from his cult-leader ex-Uncle Gil in Israel to a gay Bible study group in New York to the owners of the Creationist Museum in the South. The experiment leads to anecdotes that are often humorous, always interesting, sometimes scary and, at times, unexpectedly moving. Between the gimmicks, however, is a more personal quest to come to an understanding about religion. What results is an honest portrayal of the everyman’s relationship to religion that I would highly recommend to anyone, no matter what their stance on the matter is.

Living Biblically was what I had hoped Bill Maher’s Religulous would be. While the film was somewhat entertaining, it had Maher’s attitude smothering the message. It was too condescending, cynical and all-too-often cruel. Jacobs’ book served a similar purpose, but I think it represents a more accurate mindset. Both men came from basically the same place, one of doubt and concern, but still full of wonder and curiosity. Many of us can relate to this “I’m spiritual-but-not-religious” frame of mind, but if we were to go on a similar journey, it would likely mirror Jacobs’ more closely. He had his criticisms of religion, but went into it with a relatively open mind, one that allowed to explore all parts of the spectrum that being religious has to offer. He touched on his fair share of negative aspects, but he was also sure to include the positive outcomes of his new outlook. His struggles, epiphanies and misgivings were touching in their honesty and, I think, incredibly relatable.

As with The Know-it-All, where the reader came away with a sort of Cliff’s Notes for the Encylopedia, Living Biblically is valuable for its educational component as well. Not only do you get a bit of Bible-Lite, Jacobs presents some fascinating discussions about the vast interpretations of the Bible and illuminates the practices and faiths that these varying followers have created because of it. What I really appreciated about this book was that Jacobs rarely, if ever, portrays any of his findings for simple shock-value before dropping it and promptly moving on to the next discovery that proclaims “Religion: Ain’t It Crazy?!” I always felt that he took the time to try and actually understand these people, rules and traditions. Yeah, many a joke was cracked at their expense, but underneath that he treats the subject matter with the respect that it deserves.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed accompanying Jacobs on his journey. It’s a laugh-out-loud read but also a book that forces you to think about those big questions, sparking thoughts that you carry with you throughout the day, long after you’ve put the book down. Whether you’re devoutly religious or devoutly atheist, Living Biblically is worth the read.

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