There’s a bit of trepidation, reviewing a book that details a guy’s year-long attempt to follow the Bible as literally as possible. First, I know shit-all about the Bible. I have an excuse – Dad’s a semi-practicing Catholic, Mom’s a semi-practicing Jew, neither of them made any attempt to bring religion into the house (I think the only time we ever discussed God was in regards to George Burns; we all felt that George made an excellent Almighty). Second, my opinion of the Bible was and remains this: it’s about as valid as any other mythological text (Zeus v. Titans, The Great Green Arkleseizure). Third, if I were to attempt what A.J. Jacobs does in the book, I’d be out faster than Kramer dropped out of The Contest. I actually think I say “Goddammit” more than I say the word “and”. Who am I to judge him? (I think there’s a Bible quote about glass houses. Or maybe I’m thinking of Billy Joel.)
The Year of Living Biblically is just that – A.J. Jacobs, conquerer of the Encyclopedia Britannica, devotes a year (actually, a year and 13 days) to obeying as many of the tenets of the Bible as legally possible (yes, he has a “slave”; no, he does not stone his mother for working on Saturday). The challenges are immediate, and some a bit odd – one of the first rules A.J. comes up against is the banning of clothes of “mixed fibers” (shatnez, in Hebrew, refers to combining natural fibers like wool and linen), and enlists a snatnez tester (a Shatner?) to inspect his duds and make sure they’re up to Specs. He builds a hut – a sukkah – in the middle of his apartment and spends a week in it. He stops shaving, and his beard becomes a supporting character. And of course, on his quest he meets some fellow travelers, Biblical literalists – the people that those of us who hiss and recoil at the sight of a cross love to poke fun at – Amish, snake handlers, polygamists, and other dwellers on the Judeo-Christian fringe. Those readers looking to reinforce their opinion that the Good Book is an instruction manual for nutters will find ample fodder here. (I’ll be honest – I was hoping for a little more snark from A.J., especially towards some of the more odious members of the religious right. But after all, being mean isn’t very, well, Godly.)
Of course, it would be impossible to live the Bible for a year without having some sort of epiphany, and that’s where the book ultimately succeeds. Is it possible to be completely honest with everyone you meet? (A.J. tries hard not to lie, resulting in one hilarious passage – an encounter with an old friend of his wife’s – that wouldn’t seem out of place on an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.) Are you truly a charitable person? Do you truly respect your elders? How should we talk to our kids about religion? And perhaps most important, are having faith in a higher purpose and looking for deeper meaning in life really such silly things? It’s pretty easy to be cynical about religion – guilty as charged – and certainly it would have been easy to write a cynical book about the role of the Bible in today’s world. I won’t ruin the ending – ok, he doesn’t get crucified – but the final pages of the book (Month Twelve) provide some poignancy to a funny tale. The bottom line: good book, recommended for Bible-thumper and heathen/atheist alike, read it, amen.