Written by: Ron Bricker
About five years ago, an e-mail circulated the web that highlighted various passages of the Bible that felt, well, fabulous. Despite the “be straight or die” admonitions in Leviticus, there are plenty of passages that either hint at (or outright support) the idea that gay is great, and this old viral e-mail underlined those passages that the anti-gay wing of the religious right had been conveniently ignoring.
At the time, I thought the e-mail was good for a laugh, but looking back, I’m not sure what the point was. Was it just a smart-ass response to gay-bashing evangelicals, or was it really trying to mount a counter-argument to the cherry-picking style of faith that the religious right had fallen into? Did the author of the e-mail think, perhaps, that if he could just make gay-bashers notice that Leviticus bans shellfish and tattoos with the same wrath it bans gayness, that they would see the light, pun very much intended?
In any event, the e-mail posed an interesting question: How has America’s faithful become defined by a pick-and-choose religious mentality?
In The Year of Living Biblically, A.J. Jacobs embarks upon a quest to answer that very question. Jacobs decides the only way he could truly (or almost) find an answer would be to immerse himself in the life of a biblical literalist – for an entire year. Everything that the Bible explicitly suggests (save the obviously metaphorical), Jacobs must adhere by. If the Bible states that a man shall not shave his beard, Jacobs does not shave. If the Old Testament suggests that a noble man only wears white, Jacobs only wears white. Yadda Yadda Yadda. You get the idea.
Now, after seeing this book’s cover or reading its synopsis, you probably came to the same conclusion as me: The author is going to use this as an opportunity to point out all of the “ridiculous” passages in the Bible that were never meant to be taken literally; he’s going to perform those tasks to prove that they were never supposed done, and then, someway and somehow, by the end of the book he will undergo a profound change and he’ll realize that it was never really his job to judge in the first place (I’m not targeting Bruce Almighty).
But Jacobs doesn’t do this. He isn’t out to attack the fundamentalists. His intention isn’t to launch a campaign to embarrass the creationists. Through the words of the Bible and a group of spiritual leaders, Jacobs is actually curious to see whether this project will make a holy impact on his secular life. And he does so with humor, humility and honesty. When something is ridiculous (and this is relative to a man walking down the street with foot long beard, white robe and cane) he points out that it’s ridiculous. When an event is profound and endearing, Jacobs champions the efforts of those who lead it. When his faith is actually moved or when Jacobs can no longer hide behind his agnostic side he admits so. The humor and intriguing facts that Jacobs provides are what draw you into the book, but his bare honesty in every aspect of his journey is what makes the book so good.
The book is funny. You laugh out loud. He travels to an Amish farm and the most significant thing he notices is the Amish children’s fondness for weedwackers. He gets accused of groping a panhandler. He fights an elderly man who he accuses of being an adulterer. He takes extra precautions when touching women (telling them bluntly that they may be impure due to their menstruation cycle). And he actually herds sheep (describing them as “sheepish”).
What makes Jacobs’s effort sincere is that he’s not trying to achieve a final goal of total self-awareness, total unselfishness or total devotion; he’s genuinely trying to see if reading the Bible’s words every day makes him a better person on Earth. Now, the atheist is quick to point out the seemingly unrealistic goals the Bible sets forth – If he prays, forced or not, three times a day, does that mean that he has more of a chance he will spared on the apocalypse? If Jacobs does not touch his wife after she menstruates because the Bible states that she is impure, do his chances of ascending to Heaven rise exponentially? If he doesn’t stone an adulterer does he become one of them? Jacobs doesn’t really care. If a passage is murky or its advice seems twisted, he seeks guidance from one of his spiritual leaders in hopes of understand what the underlying theme might be. Jacobs realizes that if he performs the morals preached in the Bible, fearful imagery excluded, that he has a good chance of becoming a better person. A more caring person. A more generous person. For the benefit of his children (and his book deal), Jacobs doesn’t want to follow the Bible; he wants to understand its text.
While the book is thorough and funny and insightful, it lacked the intangibles that made Jacobs’ last book, The Know-It-All, so hard to put down. Admittedly this topic is a little more serious than reading the encyclopedia from front to back, but it seemed like the text was missing something. I kept waiting for Jacob’s playful prose when elaborating on an anecdote or the inevitable tie-in between the events that his project has forced and the events of his private life. But the reader is left teetering. The lessons never come to fruition. His narratives were thought-provoking and honest, but they didn’t draw you all the way in the way a memoir should. Instead of using his adventures as an opportunity to engulf the reader in his mindset and feelings, they acted as side notes to his overall quest.
However, Jacobs succeeds by focusing on the little things. Early on in his quest, he learns that the Bible doesn’t include writings to see if you will do them. It’s not a game of Dare or Dare. They are there to provide guidance, Jacobs argues. If you’re sacrificing a chicken; the focus should not be on the fact that you just severed a chicken’s neck with a machete. The ritual is performed to help you realize the value of life and the value of your own. If you’re purposely not touching your wife because she just had a period, you’re not doing it testing your marital boundaries; you’re doing it in remembrance of a lost life. These things might be hard, as Jacobs likes to explain, but the values that you are instilled with are worth it. By focusing on the little things (found in the Bible) Jacobs finds a new appreciation for the life around him.
I liked the book. I’m a sucker for stories about agnostic Jews going to Israel to herd sheep. I laugh. It’s funny. But I realized something after I was through. While on his quest, Jacobs succeeds in a goal – to write a compelling story. He learns and experiences all of the things you hope to experience when you set out on a mission to write a book, but I’m not really sure if he answers the grand question that he laid out – Why so many Americans find no fault in following one passage of the Bible verbatim and the let the next passage slide?
Well, after you let the anecdotes of impurity and coveting seep in, you realize he does. After spending a full year trying to follow the Bible as literally as possible, Jacobs comes to one conclusion as to why most religious Americans have a pick-and-choose mentality – It’s hard. It’s hard to remember everything. It’s hard to find an opportunity to complete all of the requirements that are laid out. It’s hard to devote your life to something besides yourself. But if you try, it can be funny, enlightening and, who knows, your soul just might get something out of it.