Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible

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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.

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