How can I rate or judge one person's life story? Only by the way he writes about it. His story is his story, and deserves five stars simply for telling it. But I give this five stars because he wrote about it so compellingly. I had a difficult time setting the book down, always wanting to keep on reading and moving forward and see what he did next.
When humorous things happen, he writes about them in a way that led me to chuckle along. Times of seriousness were written poignantly enough to sometimes shed a tear, or feel my heart moved as well. I especially applaud him for including stories about his wife, and how she wasn't always keen on what he was doing, and the difficulties they had while he went on this adventure. And I give him great credit for sticking with his goal for the whole year (and slightly beyond), and not giving up.
Jacobs is a wonderful writer! I will definitely be looking for more books by this guy, and will read his previous book.
And speaking as a Christian - and an ordained minister at that - I found his spiritual journey, and his insights into Judaism and Christianity as what was basically an outsider, to be very interesting to read about. Some of the things we take for granted or as base assumptions, he didn't know - he had to find out, and he continually showed the courage to go find a scholar, a rabbi, a minister, or other person with the knowledge to help him out. Especially when he found a law to be silly, instead of writing it off, he sought out someone who could explain why it might be there, and what it meant historically and means to some in the context of 21st century earth. I learned things about Christianity and Judaism from him; and also I learned a few things about my own personal faith from him. Sometimes I was challenged to rethink myself, or to consider "Have I really thought about that enough?", sometimes I was affirmed.
And as a non-fundamentalist, I applaud him most for showing - by being a living, tangible proof - that taking the Bible literally, and living everything in it literally, is impossible. For all the fundamentalist, biblical-literalists, follow-the-law Christians, this book serves as proof that their foundation is built entirely on sand, and that none of them are honest when they so arrogantly say they live "true to the Bible". Of the great many people in the world, Jacobs is perhaps the only one who's ever really tried to live by all the Bible's teachings; and he showed it can't be done.
My only complaint about Jacobs isn't about the book, and so it doesn't affect the rating, is that he didn't enter into the community aspect of either Judaism or Christianity, both of which are highly communal; one could easily make the argument that neither one can be done without a community. But Jacobs did try to do it all alone. Though he brought in people when he had questions, he never entered into a worshiping community at a synagogue or a church, never entered into the life of a faith family. He missed a large part of both religious experiences by not doing so, and I think his book - and his experience - would have been far, far richer if he had done so.
Looking at faith through the lens of someone jumping straight into it from the outside, when written as well as Jacobs' book, is a fantastic journey. Highly recommended, and I think this would be an excellent book to read in a church or synagogue education class.
on August 26, 2007
Around a year ago, I read my first book by A.J. Jacobs, The Know-It-All, a memoir of the author's quest to read the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica. As a follow-up to that top-notch book, he has taken on a shorter but more difficult book, The Bible. For a year, Jacobs intended to follow the commandments of the Bible as literally as possible: not just the well-known ones (like "Thou shalt not kill") but the obscure ones as well (such as wearing clothes of mixed fibers). It was to be, as the book title states, The Year of Living Biblically.
The first problem with undertaking such a task is that there are a lot of different Bibles out there and even more ways to interpret what's in them. While Jacobs seems to rely mostly on the Revised Standard Version, he consults other versions as well. Over the course of the year he will meet with a number of different religious groups and individuals representing a broad spectrum of interpretations.
The nice thing about the Encyclopaedia Britannica was it was pretty straightforward, with little wiggle room for misreading. But in the Bible, almost everything can be read at least two ways. Even the Ten Commandments are subject to multiple interpretations: Does the commandment against killing mean all killing? What about executions? It is this ambiguity that lets the Bible fit almost all agendas. Is the Bible pro- or anti-slavery? What is its views on abortion, homosexuality or the roles of women? As Jacobs finds during the year, there is no true agreement. (And if the Bible has a message that contradicts your ideals, do you reject your ideals or (at least in part) the Bible?)
Jacobs finds that truly living Biblically - adhering to all the restrictions - is virtually impossible, and he finds that even the most literal reader of the book engages in some picking and choosing. As a self-described secular Jew, there is much that he personally disagrees with, but he is respectful of every faith he meets. Many times, he even finds his preconceptions about certain groups to be different from reality. He also finds that for even the obscure commandments, there are experts who can assist him, such as the man who can tell you if your clothes do truly violate the stricture on mixed fibers.
As Jacobs goes through the year, he finds that he is personally changing: the act of living Biblically changes the very way he thinks. He doesn't become a religious fanatic, but his worldview is affected. Throughout, however, he keeps his sense of humor and there are plenty of funny moments in the book. Overall, this is a superb follow-up to The Know-It-All (I think it helps if you've read that one first, but it's not essential). For a look at the Bible that is illuminating and simultaneously reverent and irreverent, this book is the one to read.
Towards the end of this book, author AJ Jacobs speaks of the emptiness he experiences when he completes a project. I know the feeling. I have it now. I hate to put down his book.
This book is a travelogue, with Jacobs documenting his journey through terrain both strange and familiar. Throughout, he exhibits a self-deprecating wit that in no way undermines his insight. Laugh out loud funny? It is that. But even when he's wagging his bushy beard at something absurd, Jacobs' humor is neither cynical nor mean-spirited. His observations feel unflinchingly frank, but never superior--he is quick to acknowledge that he is as eccentric as anyone.
None of this is meant to imply that this book will be a comfortable fit for everyone. He is, after all, pointing out some of the more unusual and esoteric Biblical rules, trying them on, questioning them, looking at the people who follow them. I felt he handled the subject of Biblical literalism with meticulous respect, but some readers might be made uneasy at such scrutiny of sacred cows. And that would be a shame. Because while it's easy to laugh at his humor, it's equally important to reflect on his subtext. What are the psychological and social impacts of ritualism? There's a lot to be learned from an outsider looking in.
Like any good tour guide, Jacobs has come to feel like a friend, and I'm going to miss him. Until next trip.
I was less than three paragraphs into the introduction of `The Year of Living Biblically' when I came to the conclusion that I was going to love this book. A. J. Jacobs latest literary endeavor takes the reader on a delightful and insightful journey onto the highways, byways and a neglected side roads or two in search of an authentic expression of 21st century Biblically based spirituality. Relying on the Bible, both Old and New Testament, as his beginning and end to all decision making processes Jacobs provides us with a very personal, intelligent, humorous and thought-provoking look at man's modern day search for God.
Jacobs is an extremely talented wordsmith who knows exactly how to transfer his inner thoughts and outward events onto the printed page in such a manner as to make one feel as though they're engaged in an intimate conversation with a close friend. His ongoing interior dialogue shows his audience that he is definitely an individual of depth who knows and understands the religio/philosophical issues he's dealing with. His mental musings are coupled with a quirky slant on the oddities of faith making for an entertaining and hilarious reading as he deftly moves from the absurd to the sublime.
Long after the laughing stops and the book has been finished and put aside you will be left with numerous nuggets of profundity to crack open and digest at your leisure. The most important for me was his recognition that true belief must be accompanied by corresponding actions lived out in the real world every day, if not as an act of love, most certainly as an act of obedience to the rules. As the Bible says, "Faith without works is dead."
In this funny and knowing follow up to his first book, The Know-It-All, A. J. Jacobs, the man who read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, tries to find out what it would be like "To live the ultimate Biblical life. Or, more precisely, to follow the Bible as literally as possible." Although he acknowledges that doing so is a daunting and dangerous proposition, he decides to make a good faith attempt to do just that, living his life using the Bible as a guide while he explores some of the questions the good book and organized religion in general provoke. Thus resolved, he embarks on a spiritual journey that leads him to examine his life and beliefs more deeply than ever before.
Jacobs' 388 day odyssey is vastly entertaining. During that time, he kept a detailed journal of his biblical experiments and how they impacted his daily life. His musings on his experiences are both touching and amusing--Jacobs is a facile writer, blessed with the ability to shift easily from outrageous to heartfelt in the space of a few sentences. His easy, self-deprecating humor wins over readers within the first few pages, converting them into eager observers of this unique experiment.
Taken on its face, the book's premise sounds like some elaborate movie plot (indeed, the book has already been optioned for film). Here's the pitch: "A hapless husband and father vows to live according to impossible rules." Predictably, when you try conducting yourself according to absolutes, hijinks inevitably ensue. Thus, when Jacobs vows not to lie, his truth telling annoys his long suffering wife (the incredibly understanding Julie). When Jacobs tries to be fruitful and multiply, he annoys his long suffering wife. When Jacobs decides he can't shake hands with a woman because she might have just had her period and is therefore unclean, he annoys his long suffering wife. And, when Jacobs...well, you get the picture. Jacobs milks the tensions in his personal life and numerous other awkward social situations that develop for all they're worth, providing some genuinely hilarious moments. More importantly, he also takes time to reflect on the reasons for these rules he's promised to uphold.
Quite the character himself, Jacobs also recounts his experiences with dozens of colorful individuals, among them his spiritual advisors, his ex-Uncle Gil, shatnez tester Mr. Berkowitz, and snake handler Jimmy Morrow. He also meets with ultra-Orthodox Jews, Samaritans, and Christians of every ilk, including the Amish, Red Letter Christians, Black Letter Christians, and members of the Christian Right.
Although he quickly reverts back to "normal" at the end of his extraordinary undertaking, Jacobs did emerge from the experience a changed man. What did he discover, ultimately? Most importantly, he realized that we all need boundaries and rules. Through prayer, he learned to be grateful for the blessings in his life. And, totally unexpectedly, he learned "to take refuge in the Bible and rejoice in it." Highly recommended.
I must admit that I was pleasantly surprised by this book. I expected it to be funny, and it certainly is, but I also got a highly entertaining course on religion. There is so much interesting information in this book, that it does not matter whether you are a faithful of any religion, or a secular person. I guarantee you will find something revealing.
The author was raised in a non-practicing Jewish household, but in the last few years has become interested in religion. Therefore, in an effort to explore this topic, and write a book in the process, he decided to follow teachings of the Bible for a year. As you can probably imagine, this is not an easy feat. Not only does the author have to adjust to a complex set of rules, but his family also has to endure the results of this quest. A fairly simple rule, like not being able to shave his beard, leads to questions at airports, scared kids, and other uncomfortable situations. But think about the harder rules to follow, like the one dealing with stoning adulterers, or the protocol for interacting with women at "that time of the month".
When most non-religious people think about what "living Biblically" means, we relate to the Ten Commandments. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. After four weeks of reading the Bible, A.J. Jacobs came up with a list of 800 rules to follow. If you add to that the fact that there are 7,000 versions of the best selling book in history, then the issue becomes much more complicated. It is no surprise that an average person breaks many, many, many rules in our everyday life.
I was really impressed by the way in which Jacobs handled this balancing act. It is not easy to write about religion without upsetting a fair amount of people, especially if there is an element of humor added to the mix. I am glad to report that the treatment of the topic is as objective as one can expect. The humor is clever and present in the right amount. This results in a pleasant read, that is greatly informative to boot. In this book, I found many facts that I did not know, and I feel like I better understand various religious groups, including some less popular ones, such as the Amish, the Samaritans, the Falwell followers and the Red Letter Christians. Kudos to A.J. Jacobs for writing such a wonderful book!
I was initially skeptical of the premise of this book. As a religion professor who teaches courses on the biblical writings, I spend huge amounts of time helping my students to understand that NO ONE reads the Christian Bible literally. Moving to a more mature understanding of sacred texts requires that they find ways to move beyond a superficial reading of Scripture. Consequently, I was concerned that a book whose premise was spending a year following "the Bible as literally as possible" would only reinforce the shallow stereotypes that many people hold about what it means to be a person of faith.
Thankfully Jacobs does just the opposite. Although he does adopt a disciplined lifestyle that conforms as much as possible to a literal reading of Jewish and Christian sacred texts, that discipline is the beginning, not the end, of his journey. Over time, Jacobs comes to discover the powerful ways that the simple act of looking for the presence of holy God can shape the perspective of even a skeptical agnostic. He also learns how traditional spiritual disciplines, even ones that seem nonsensical can help attune us to the holy.
Speaking of the "nonsensical," Jacobs does a good job of introducing the reader to some of the more...challenging...passages to take seriously. He even notes in a passing way some of the questions raised by modern biblical scholarship. This material is not the focus of the book, but I am grateful to find it there. Many people of faith raise their Bibles in the air, loudly proclaiming them to be the verbatim "Word" of God, without bothering to realize all of the things they are claiming that God has said. I often think God would be mortified.
Although the cover of "The Year of Living Biblically" might cause you to think this is a silly and superficial book, it is not. Jacob's story is witty and honest, and it is a faithful accounting of the small and large ways in which our lives can change when we are willing to listen (without winking or crossing our fingers behind our backs) for what we can learn from the wisdom and faith of generations past.
Since most of the previous reviews have provided so much depth, I will note my personal impression. You have to admire the author's commitment to his goal of living a year Bibically. First off, there are so many versions of the Bible and AJ Jacobs addresses this issue as well as other ones he faces in this quest with thoughful consideration. Although there were a lot of sections that made me laugh (the growing of the beard, finding clothes to wear, etc.), it did give me a new appreciation for religious beliefs and the struggles one faces in trying to adhere to ANY religion in today's world. As you read on, you realize that although Jacobs is conducting a social experiment and not a scientific one, it seems clear that it's impossible to accomplish his goal. This book provided lots of discussion within my family about the role of religion and how important the "meaning" of the Bible was compared to the literal. Religion is a sensitive subject and the author struck just the right note of providing information without offending (well at least in my opinion). I was surprised to find a book that dealt with the Bible to be such an entertaining read. I commend this book for addressing such a serious subject in a lighhearted manner without trivializing the subject matter.
I found this book to be simultaneously amusing and quirky. I also hope that this book will show fundamentalist, evangelical, dominionist Christians just how much they do not live according to the faith they profess. This book shows the author's tribulations to live a biblical life and reveals the various questions and spiritual quandries that will arise when a person tries to live as close to the spiritual code of belief that a holy book dictates.
What I found most intriguing was how much A.J. Jacobs changed, becoming a different person for the year, but even afterwards not reverting right back to his previous self.
This book will provide humor and hope in a world that desperately needs it
on October 28, 2007
Basically a one-joke book, this amusing but by turns insightful and surprisingly heartfelt memoir traces the efforts of A. J. Jacobs, a thoroughly secular and agnostic New York writer, to devote an entire year to adhering to Biblical teachings, mandates, and laws, as fully as possible. Anyone with even a casual knowledge of the Bible can quickly visualize the absurd scenarios that Jacobs finds himself in: not only does he embrace kosher dietary rules, but he turns his wardrobe inside out in an effort to adhere to Biblical norms; at one point he wanders around Central Park looking for adulterers to stone (cognizant that hurling rocks at people, even those who cheat on their spouse, is simply not the done thing anymore, the author compromises and tosses a pebble at the bemused person who admits to being unfaithful); while his efforts to adhere to the purity codes of Leviticus result in a variety of absurd situations, many involving his long-suffering wife. This book could go terribly wrong in a variety of ways, from collapsing in on its own seriousness to coming across as mean-spirited in its lampooning of religious devotion. Thankfully, Jacobs dodges those bullets, both because of his own dry and rather self-deprecating sense of humor, and thanks to how surprised he is to discover that, despite the obvious absurdity of his quest, he finds the Bible to become surprisingly meaningful in his life.
Jacobs is an entertainment writer for Esquire magazine, and so he's comfortable with the conversational tone that keeps this book both pleasant and not too demanding. But while this is hardly a work of scholarship, the author does go to surprising lengths to make his Biblical experience as rich as possible: he visits fundamentalist Christians in Virginia, snake handlers in Tennessee, and orthodox Jews in Jerusalem as well as closer to home in New York and New Jersey. He tours a Creationism museum in Kentucky and attends a Bible study for gay Christians. Through it all, he comes across as rather nutty, but likeable, sincere and honest in both his criticism of the fundamentalist mind but also his willingness to acknowledge his own foibles as well as the way in which the Bible surprisingly touches him.
His odyssey lasts for more than a year, and although he is Jewish, both the Hebrew Scriptures ("Old Testament") and the Christian New Testament figure in his zeal to follow the letter of the scriptural law. He never experiences a lightning flash of conversion or a dramatic reversal of his agnostic/secular self, but small changes in the way he looks at life nevertheless shape the course of his journey. As I read the book, I almost got the sense that Jacobs envies those whose faith enables them to accept the Bible for what it is -- as if he had begun to see that the ironic, cynical, tragically hip perspective of postmodern urban secular agnosticism might not be the final word, after all.
The book has its flaws. While every chapter has its share of amusing anecdotes and occasional laugh-out-loud moments, it really is a one joke routine, so there's not a lot of tension to pull the reader to the end. As a non-fundamentalist person of faith, I kept wishing he'd let go of the obvious goofiness of his quest and take a closer look at how Biblical faith manifests in today's world in post-literal ways. Over the course of the year, he never joins a faith community and so never truly enters into one of the most powerful elements of religious life: vulnerability. He does a lot of funny and freaky things in his quest to "live Biblically," but he never seems to step fully, completely, without-a-net outside of his comfort zone. No wonder he never quite shakes his detached inability to believe: he never allows himself to abandon control long enough to discover just how dangerous faith can be.
It's a cute book, and certainly a silly one (and let's keep in mind that the Germanic root for "silly" is selig, which also means "blessed"). But it's not a necessary or important book either. I doubt it will convince anyone, either fundamentalist, secularist, or somewhere-in-between, to take a risk and shatter their world-view in favor of something new. Basically, it's A. J. Jacobs, doing what he does best: writing about entertainment. It's a pop culture take on the foibles of fundamentalism, with a dash of unexpected feel-good spirituality thrown in the mix to spice it up a bit. And while the more paranoid segments of the fundamentalist world may well take offense, for most of us this book is just a fun little diversion.
Not that that's a bad thing.