Sunday, March 02, 2008

The Year of Living Biblically (A.J. Jacobs)

Last fall, Jim and I were at a Wisconsin Book Festival reading (our second choice after Rabbi Harold Kushner couldn't attend), when I saw a stack of The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible by A.J. Jacobs on a table in the back. Oh no, I thought, immediately. This reading includes the crazy bearded guy who followed the Bible literally for an entire year? His photograph (resembling a mug shot) in the festival program made me fear what may follow. But A.J. Jacobs turned out to clean up nicely (see the difference here) and was polite, quite personable, and hysterically funny. And the book is just as funny, if not more. And at the same time, it's incredibly sincere.

He describes his own personal religious background as follows: "I grew up in an extremely secular home in New York City. I am officially Jewish, but I'm Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant. Which is to say: not very." Jacobs went at this year-long experiment with full force, studying as many different versions of the Bible as he could (including a hip-hop Bible, with translations such as "The Lord is all that"). He had spiritual advisers from different faiths. He "stoned" a grumpy elderly man with tiny pebbles. He had an unpaid intern has his modern-day slave. When trying to curb his lying, he made a list of his "daily violations" including, "I lied to Julie about how much internet access at Starbucks costs. I told her eight dollars instead of ten, so she'd be 20 percent less annoyed." Julie, his wife, had to put up with a lot during the year, such as a certain time each month where he explained to her that he couldn't sit any place she had, as she was "impure" then. (She solved this problem by sitting in every single place in the apartment.)

He spent time with snake handlers, the Amish, orthodox Jews, and creationists, among others on the extreme edges of faith:

It makes me think of [Answers in Genesis] resident astrophysicist, Jason. Before I left, he wanted to make clear to me that he's not geocentric---he doesn't believe the earth is the center of the universe. "Does anyone anymore?" I asked. He said, yes, there is a group called "biblical astronomers"---they believe the earth is stationary because the Bible says the earth "shall never be moved" (Psalms 93:1). Jason considers them an embarrassment

That was something I hadn't expected: moderate creationists who view other creationists as too extreme. But it will turn out to be one of this year's big lessons: Moderation is a relative term.

Jim also read this book, and pointed out that there were plenty of really funny parts that I hadn't marked, and he was right. There were just too many to note them all. I highly recommend this book.