So you've devoted an entire year to reading the Encyclopedia Britannica in its entirety and writing about the experience. What do you do for an encore? Sticking with the book theme, it seems almost natural to turn your attention to the most important book ever written. So it is that A.J. Jacob devotes another full year of his life to the Bible - not only does he set out to read the Good Book, he makes plans to follow its teachings as literally as possible. Raised in a secular Jewish family, he is curious to know if his year of living biblically will change him into a religious person. In my opinion, however, what he describes in this book is an intellectual journey, not a spiritual one.
Jacobs goes all out, trying to follow even the most obscure laws and prescriptions he can find in the Bible. It's a lot more work than just following the Ten Commandments. He chooses to follow the Old Testament for the first eight months, then devote the last four months to the New Testament. Apart from his own reading and research, he calls upon a number of different religious figures to help him understand all of the teachings and rituals. He grows a beard, takes to wearing white clothes consisting of no mixed fibers, blows a ram's horn at the start of each month, attaches fringes to his garments, paints words of scripture around his door frame, performs many more little rituals that have no real significance for him at all, etc. It causes many a hardship to him and his family (a wife, a two-year-old son, and as the months pass, a set of twins on the way) - especially his long-suffering wife (being treated as unclean the week following Aunt Flo's monthly visit is not too popular with the women these days, for example). Over the course of the year, he has a number of unique experiences, travels to Israel, and seeks out guidance from both liberal and conservative followers of Judaism and Christianity. He learns a lot about himself in the process, but the key question is whether or not he will emerge from this grand experiment a changed man.
Inevitably, one's views of this book will greatly depend upon one's own religious beliefs. Atheists and agnostics will probably delight in all of the crazy Old Testament instructions he follows, while Jews and Christians will have their own interpretations, running the gamut from liberalism to fundamentalism. As a fundamentalist Southern Baptist (one religious affiliation Jacobs did not consult), it bothers me that Jacobs and many other individuals paint religious conservatism with such a wide brush of pre-judgment. We're not monsters; we just happen to interpret the Bible literally rather than picking and choosing the things we find convenient for our lifestyles and habits. We're slandered for believing we alone are right in our beliefs, yet that faith is what defines us. I don't believe Jacobs was completely open-minded in his approach, having to some degree prejudged Christian fundamentalists from the start.
From my perspective, if Jacobs really wanted to find God, he went about it exactly the wrong way. He can follow every rule he finds in the Bible, but it avails him nothing in the end because he never really seeks a personal connection with God, even in his approach to prayer. That is why I do not consider his journey to be a spiritual one at all. Jacobs doesn't even attend church on a weekly basis, although he does spend time with a number of different religious groups and leaders. Furthermore, his four months spent following the New Testament are nowhere near as intensive as the eight months he spent immersed in the Old Testament. In modern terms, Jesus makes little more than a cameo appearance in these pages, and the heart of the Gospel message itself is rather neglected.
The Year of Living Biblically is certainly interesting and entertaining, but I do not consider it very enlightening. Jacobs does gain some understanding of the religious experiences and beliefs of several groups of believers (some of which surprise him), but he never makes an effort to approach God in a personal, soul-searching way. Instead, he adopts this technical image of a Biblical lifestyle, a decidedly outward approach, and periodically wonders if it is working any changes in his internal, spiritual life. On the whole, I find the whole thing little more than a sociology project, dealing primarily with the reactions of friends, family, and strangers to his project and, in turn, his reactions to their reactions. Jacobs learns a lot about himself over the course of the year, but I do not think he succeeded in finding anything remotely profound.
on April 18, 2014
This book is an extremely well-written account of a spiritual journey that was fully and carefully researched, and included consultation with a wide spectrum of advisors before the writer set out on his quest. The book could have been a mere stunt: “look at me; aren’t I funny? Aren’t these fundamentalist interpretations of the scripture both quaint and ridiculous? And aren’t those who adhere to them either stupid or wilfully blind?”
Instead, while the author has written a book that is indeed often very funny (cf. stoning an adulterer), it is written with such humility and generosity that it never becomes condescending or patronizing to those whose views the author cannot share (i.e. creationists, Hasidic Jews.) He is somewhat less generous, and rightfully so, to those who exploit the credulity of other to enrich themselves--the Jerry Fallwells of this world.
A. J. Jacobs is Jewish but what he has to say is relevant to any person struggling with belief. A wise man told him not to expect to be the same person at the end of his year as he was at the beginning, and a note at the end of a later book about carrying out various projects,) which I also enjoyed, confirms that. He describes himself now as “a reverent agnostic”. Not a bad place to be--but probably, considering his relative youth, his inquisitive nature, and the moments of transcendence he experienced as a child and adolescent, not his final position.
As a practicing (I’m still learning) liberal Episcopalian, I’ve been recommending this book to many members of the parish to which I belong.
on August 17, 2010
This book, without a doubt, delivers exactly what you're looking for when purchasing a memoir from a humourist. There is absolutely nothing lacking...except more pages.
I've read all books available from Mr. Jacobs. This was my first, then I read The Know-It-All (which, by the way, is a home-run as well).
When reading this, you feel as though you are becoming personally acquainted with him, from the minutia of everyday life to the more grand and wider scoping ideas and musings we normally save for our nearest and dearest. I'm not one who is radically interested in celebrities of any sort beit singer, actor, writer, artist - but if I saw AJ Jacobs out and about (which would be unlikely since I live in Northwestern Ontario), I would immediately ask him where his wife Julie is and could she join me for dinner...I feel like I've got my fill of him through his book(s) but with his wife who is more than a secondary character...she's the backbeat of it all...I feel like I want to know her because she'd be as entertaining as hell (just like her hubby).
on January 4, 2013
"The Year of Living Biblically" is A.J. Jacobs' documentation of his adventure with religion. He lives a year of his life trying to follow as many rules in the Bible as literally as possible. From not trimming the edges of his beard to attaching tassels to the edges of his clothing, Jacobs does a lot and learns a lot.
In this book, and his other ones, A.J. Jacobs says the year he lived his life according to the Bible shaped his life a lot. Although I can't say this book/his experiences changed MY life in any way, I have learned A LOT about religion. Before reading this book, I knew some things about religion/Catholicism/Judaism, but upon competition of "The Year of Living Biblically", I knew a lot more. I also find Jacobs' writing style humorous (in turn making it easy to follow, which sounds like it wouldn't fit for a book of this nature, but, in fact, compliments the content well, as you don't realizes you're learning anything until after you finish reading.
"The Year of Living Biblically" is my favourite book of all time and I feel it is a must-read for anyone, religious or not.
For slightly over a year, Jacobs, an editor for Esquire magazine, embarked on a mission to learn how the teachings of the Bible applied to his life through daily living. Jacobs' driving desire was to determine if it were possible for him to literally live out as a practicing Jew a number of key biblical precepts so that God would become more relevant to his life. While there is little that was academically rigorous about Jacobs' noble aspirations, he certainly tried very hard to practice in an experimental way many of the Old Testament peculiar commandments. The ones I found most amusing were his coming to grips with the enjoinments about inviting stranger in one's house, stoning adulterers, and writing words of spiritual wisdom on the doorjambs. For the time that Jacobs spent living up to the strange and daunting expectations that Yahweh had of his ancient people, he regularly consulted with other Christian and non-Christian groups as to how they interpreted the Word. While there seemed to be no common agreement as to how far one would have to go to observe the Bible in order to recognize and appreciate truth, Jacobs found ways to personally conform to its spiritual demands. Each day produced an intellectual challenge to come to grips with how he should dress, what he should eat, how he should treat his fellow human, how he should raise his children, what he should do on the Sabbath, and how he should view sin. What Jacobs discovered at the end of his journey through the Bible is that Yahweh or God, as a divinity, really cares about His people and expects only the highest devotion in return. Everything God demands of humans is to prevent them from going their own way and abandoning their dependence upon Him. While not becoming a Christian or a Jew because of this extended experience of grappling with how to apply the Bible, Jacobs concedes that he became a significantly more sensitive person to spiriual issues. He certainly sees himself as a better person for having tried to observe these heavenly commands than just sitting around thinking about them. While some of his decisions were controversial - such as having his twins circumcised - they were born out of a sincere need to test why God would make such an odd requests. Read the book to find out what he learned on this point and others. A very pleasant read with plenty of witty moments.
on April 17, 2009
As a pastor, I'm always trying to find my own path through the thicket of rules and commandments of the Bible and I was very grateful to my friend who suggested this book. I finished it yesterday and was both surprised and understanding when A.J. came to his final conclusions. I have long preached that there is a difference between rules ("religion") and faith ("relationship"), but I have also maintained that rules, be they found the Law or wherever, can lead one *to* a relationship so long as they are not being used in place of the relationship itself. The quest is not so much to follow the rules as to find God through and behind them, and I think that this became clearer as the year went on.
Read this book, and take something from it - not the fringes, not the beard (which my wife and daughter have also forbidden, incidentally), but the One one is seeking to approach through the practices and through the Word of God.
on January 4, 2008
Well done A.J.! I enjoyed every bit of your book which continually made me laugh and nod knowingly. My wife, on the other hand, gave me the dirtiest look when I told her about your 'impure' story from the delivery room...
I'm about to recommend this book to all of my pastoral interns.
Grace and Peace,
on January 8, 2012
I'm an atheist, so I probably wouldn't have been offended if AJ had been harder on and more ridiculing of all the rules he had to follow. But I'm glad he didn't. After finishing this book, I hope I can be more understanding of Jewish and Christian tradition -- I certainly learned a LOT about those traditions! I can also see how mean, petty and actually hacky it is to just constantly pick on the faithful. I'll still watch Bill Maher but I'll think more and laugh less. Nonetheless, there is also lots to laugh at in this book. I could totally relate to AJ's struggles with coveting and anger (he gives the finger to an ATM, I once gave it to a bee. A definite sign of temper issues!). Good lessons here for all of us.
on February 6, 2008
hi A.J. I figured I could address this to you because you obviously read the amazon reviews. So I loved your book, but I have to say unless you are religious, or are seeking religion it may not be such a good idea to read this book in public and on the bus.
Although I am very happy that people are interested in your book, and that they ask me how I am liking it, many have tried to convert me or show me the way to religion, as an athesist this is a little unsettling, so I would recomend to those who enjoy your insight but not the interferring of others, read this book at home or where people are less likly to try and convert you.
on October 12, 2012
As someone that has never read the bible, but considers themselves a believer nonetheless, I was simply amazed by the honesty and commitment that A.J. Jacobs showed to this project. Trying to live the bible literally for one year is a monumental task. But this man did it while maintaining a job and a family. While this certainly isn't a how-to book on religion, I appreciate the insight that Jacobs offers into the many different interpretations of the bible and religion. This book is complex, delightfully surprising, and definitely worth reading. I look forward to reading other works by this author.