The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible As Literally As Possible by A.J. Jacobs
rating: 3 of 5 stars
I finally finished this one, and I have to admit that it was interesting. However, I did not think it was that much of a big deal. Since I am a skeptical person, and not religious, a lot of this book simply confirmed that a lot of religious people simply pick and choose from the Bible (or their religious book of choice) the things they like or that suit their values, leaving the ones they dislike behind. It's the cafeteria practice that fundamentalists decry that moderates do, even though fundamentalists do it as well. This is a point that Jacobs himself makes in the book towards the end. He goes on to write: "This year showed me beyond a doubt that everyone practices cafeteria religion. It's not just the moderates. Fundamentalists do it too. They can't heap everything on their plate" (328). Jacobs comes on the side of saying that you can get some good meals from a cafeteria (he is using the food metaphor). For me, it is not that easy, and it is mostly because I do have a problem with people who pick and choose from their religion, then decide to judge others who don't pick the same stuff on their plates (to keep using the food metaphor). If I want pizza on my plate, and I want to sit next to my gay friend, and your book says to eat only oatmeal and sit next to the people who dress in black, that is fine, just don't try to take my pizza away. Man, this food metaphor can be useful. And this also leads to my other problem with the book: he tries to be a little too reconciliatory. For a skeptic like me, that is not necessarily an option. That did not work for me, but if you like an ending that is somewhat "feel good," then it may work better for you.
One of the best parts of the book is when he goes to visit religious experts or goes to congregations and communities. He goes there as a learner, so he goes with an open mind. I found myself learning a few things, and this makes the book valuable. From Hasidim to Falwell's church (before Falwell died) to snake handlers in Appalachia. He even went to Israel. On the religious right, he makes an observation that not many people may realize: "That's the big secret: The radical wing of the Christian right is a lot more boring than its liberal detractors would have you believe" (262). But I don't think it is as simple as that. He pointed out how they can all be very friendly, but the reality is they are friendly as long as you meet their criteria. "I know that this friendliness has limits--and disturbing ones," Jacobs writes regarding his visit to Falwell's church.
There is some food for thought in this book. I think that for religious people, especially Jewish and Christian, they may be able to get a better understanding of why some things work out as they do in their religions. Also, we see that there are a lot of interpretations, and when I think about it, that may be why a lot of people practice cafeteria religion. But you also get a glimpse of the author as he comes to undertake a spiritual journey, albeit an imperfect one. You also learn a lot about context, which adds to an appreciation of the Bible.
The episodes I liked the least are the ones with his wife and kid. How his wife tolerates him at times is beyond me. There is some humor, but there were some times when I simply rolled my eyes when he tried to do something because it was prescribed even if it was not practical. Dude, just deal. And the fact he is so permissive with his kid simply grates at me; I am a parent, and we certainly had no problem or compunction disciplining our kid when needed (and we did not need the Bible nor the line about sparing the rod spoil the kid to do it). Moments like that did make him seem as a struggling human, which is fine, but he also come across as someone who is not quite the sharpest tool in the shed. And as a whole, his family runs the gamut from very Orthodox to very liberal, which added a nice tension touch.
So overall, if you have an interest in religion, this may be worth reading. If you have some background in the Bible (and I have read it cover to cover), you may get a better appreciation or at least learn more about some of the context for some of the writings. And if nothing else, you get to read about his attempts at herding sheep or keeping purity. Overall, an interesting book, but not a great one.
And by the way, he keeps making constant references to his previous book, The Know-It All. There is no need to have read that one to read this one, but I wish he could have left some of those references out. Yes, we know you read a whole encyclopedia and therefore you know a lot of trivia. Try not to brag about it as much. Besides, I did a similar thing when I was a kid (about 11 or 12); I read the Illustrated World Encyclopedia my parents got us. I did not write a book about it, but I learned a thing or two. Anyhow, I am curious about the other book, but I hope he does not spend part of it bragging about whatever previous project he had.
And there is my review.
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