Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Fair Minded Effort

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

Was not sure what to expect from this book, but it made my husband E. laugh out loud several times, so I picked it up at a moment when I needed some levity. However, I started reading it with a sort of defensive feeling. Jacobs is open about the fact that he is ethnically and culturally Jewish, but theologically an agnostic at best. That's his business, but I was a little apprehensive that the book would be a hatchet job, a "See, there are contradictions all over the place in the Bible, so how can you believe any of it?" kind of feeling. I'm of the mindset that people who do place their faith in scripture's authority can point out all the quirks and foibles and contradictions that they want to, but people who are not invested in the faith, who tear the Bible apart just to make Jews and Christians look dumb should take a hike. I was glad to see that the book was very open minded and respectful of people of all faiths.

Jacobs makes a really good-hearted and fair effort to take the Bible seriously and understand how the laws and regulations, no matter how absurd they seem, might have made sense at the time they developed. Because he comes from a Jewish background, he spent much more time in his biblical year absorbing and attempting to follow the Hebrew laws than the teachings of the Old Testament. That approach also made sense because there are so many very specific OT laws. Jacobs read a lot of biblical commentaries and theology books in his quest to understand the Bible at a deeper level, and he does a good job integrating the nuggets of information he picked up into the narrative of his year. It's very readable and funny, but there is not much new information for people who have been studying the Bible for years and years.

Jacobs soon discovered that there was no way he could follow ALL the laws ALL the time. There were simply too many to remember, and some of them canceled each other out. He does point out the places where the Bible contradicts itself, but he does so with good humor and genuine interest in figuring out what is the "right" thing to do. One of The Year...'s great strengths is that Jacobs weaves his biblical musings in with everyday things that he and his wife were struggling with at the time - parenting, infertility, finances, time management, etc. and shows how his increased reliance on the Bible's teachings influences decisions that he made in all these spheres of life.

Jacobs writes about how he decided to tithe his income for the year that he was "living biblically." Since he was not part of a faith community, he tithed to charities that he had carefully researched and believed were doing tremendous good in the world. He was surprised to find out how rewarding this part of the experiment was, and I love how he describes it:

"I settle on several organizations-Feed the Children and Save Darfur among them-and donate about two percent of my income-that's as much as I can do in one shot. When the email confirmations ping in, I feel good. There is a haunting line from the film Chariots of Fire. It's spoken by Eric Liddell, the most religious runner, who carries a Bible with him during his sprint. He says 'When I run, I feel God's pleasure.' I know-I'm agnostic. But I feel God's pleasure. It's a warm ember that starts at the back of my neck and spreads through my skull. I feel like I am doing something I should have been doing all my life."

Jacobs comes down to the place where many of us find ourselves - we realize that we cannot take all of the Bible 100% literally. We ALL pick and choose what we think applies and does not. Jacobs just asks us to be aware that we are doing it, and he points out that one does not have to take all the Bible literally to appreciate its beauty, sacredness, and truth. Many of us have heard that or said it before, but Jacobs says it very well.

Reverent Reader


At 11/13/08, 7:19 PM , Blogger Ruth said...

Thanks for this. I love the paragraph you quote about feeling God's pleasure. About your set-up for the review-- you are talking about the Bible the way you talk about your mother, or any beloved family member -- look, if you love them you can point out their flaws, in a good humored way, but don't you go dissin' my mom!


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