The Year Of Living Biblically

Wednesday, April 8, 2009 7:20 | Filed in Books, Faith & Forteana, Reviews

The Year Of Living Biblically (amazon)

One of the things about being a blogger, and reviewing things here, is that it means that quite often when I am reading something, I find myself bookmarking various pages in the text because I think “if I decide to review this book for my blog, I’ll have to mention this”. After having found about a dozen things that I might quite like to mention in the first thirty pages alone, I realised that I would have to review A. J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically.

The premise is simple: he intends to spend a year following the instructions of the Bible, as literally as he can. He admits he’s not perfect, and won’t achieve them all, but he’s going to try his best to follow as many as he can in that period (nine months based on the Old Testament, and the final three months on the New).

I expected this to be a “let’s have a laugh at some of the daft things in the Bible” sort of a book. Or, possibly, at the very least, something which highlights how many of the things in the Bible which have been interpreted as ‘laws’ are not really appropriate to modern society. It does do this —

In the mid 1800s when anaesthesia was first introduced for women in labour, there was an uproar. Many felt it violated God’s pronouncement in Genesis 3:16: “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. If Julie and I ever have another child, would I dare get between her and the epidural needle? Not a chance.

A. J. Jacobs, The Year of Living Biblically

…but it doesn’t just do this. It does so respectfully, considering what the meaning of a particular law or rule would be where it can be considered — although in many cases they are not something to be explained, merely something to be obeyed — but it is also to some extent Jacobs’ quest to understand “spirituality”.

It’s obviously not something you can do without anyone noticing — firstly, he has to stop shaving his beard, and he is banned from wearing clothes made of two types of material. As you can imagine, even if there weren’t any more rules, these would be a little tricky to follow without people calling out “Gandalf” as you walk past.

He tithes 10% of his income to charity; he tries to avoid lying (not always successfully — he appears particularly bad at keeping this one); he tries to avoid gossip. He also tries to blow a ram’s horn every new moon

I sip a glass of water, part my lips, jut out my jaw, and blow the shofar again. It sounds like a dying fax machine. But, I remind myself, I still have eleven more months.

A. J. Jacobs, The Year of Living Biblically

There’s also the little problem of menstruation, and not being allowed to touch a woman, at all, during her time of impurity. Now, as you can imagine, if you’re trying to take this one seriously, you have two options. Firstly, you can ask each woman in a shop who tries to give you your change whether or not she is currently menstruating, or, once you’ve stemmed your own flow of blood, you might wish just to assume that any unknown woman could be and avoid touching them at all. Although Jacobs also discovers that a number of his wife’s friends are quite happy to send him details of their cycles in order to make life easier…

Some of the laws seem relatively easy to follow:

…”You are not to boil a young goat in the milk of its mother” (Exodus 23:19, NASB). If you take this literally, as I am trying to do, this is relatively easy. I think — with a little willpower and a safe distance from farms — I can make it for a year without boiling a baby goat in its mother’s milk [...]

But the rabbis have a far more elaborate interpretation. Exodus 23:19 actually means to separate milk and meat. Which is where you get the kisher rules banning cheeseburgers.

A. J. Jacobs, The Year of Living Biblically

Obviously you can’t follow all of these rules and commandments without it having some impact upon your own belief. Jacobs probably starts out as a staunch agnostic, and while by the end of the book he hasn’t changed his beliefs a lot, he describes his beliefs as wavering between his old comfortable agnosticism, a sense that there is something special or sacred about living things (a form of vitalism) and occasionally a sense that there may actually be a specific God who watches over and takes an interest in people’s lives.

Obviously when you get to the New Testament section, it’s a little different. A lot of Christians believe that Jesus’ sacrifice meant a lot of the Old Testament laws were no longer necessary, and differentiate between these ‘ritual laws’ (not eating bacon, blowing a ram’s horn) which no longer need to be followed and the ‘moral law’ (such as not murdering people) which are still believed to be worth keeping.

Jacobs struggles a little with living as a Christian, since obviously one of the main points of that is ‘accepting Jesus as Lord’, and as an agnostic Jew not only does he find this spiritually tricky, it would also feel to him as though he is betraying his culture. I don’t therefore feel he actually follows his self-declared path particularly well through this part, although the story is just as entertaining, and, never having particularly studied the Bible, I continued learning an awful lot…

For example, an awful lot of evangelical Christians (or at least the ones who seem to get the publicity) are fervent in their denounciations of homosexuality — particularly famous ‘clobber passages’ passages in Leviticus and in Romans. But some people would point out that not only did Jesus not say anything about homosexuality, but that these passages are being misinterpreted:

“In biblical times, there was no parity between men and women. Women and children were just a little bit above slaves. To lie with a man like a woman was to disgrace him. It’s what soldiers did to their conquered enemies, they raped them.”

A. J. Jacobs, The Year of Living Biblically

Jacobs points out is that the two things most often mentioned in the Bible are apparently avoiding idolatry and helping the poor, which both merit several thousand references. The so-called homosexuality ‘clobber’ passages number six, none of which were attributed to Jesus, apparently. Is it just a case of people interpreting the book in whichever way to satisfy their own moral agenda?

Well of course it bloody is. It was written for a different world, two thousand years ago, after all. However anyone chooses to interpret it is up to them, but it will no doubt reflect their own beliefs (or non-beliefs) and moral judgements. If you were to assume for one moment that it was ‘divinely inspired’, then you’d still have to accept there is no way of knowing now what was meant, or indeed whether if God had told the message to modern society he would have told it in the same way.

But I digress… Jacobs meets up with a number of different Christian groups — Jerry Falwell’s people, a gay evangelical group, the Red-letter Christians and the Appalachian snake-handlers. He also points out that for the most part, even those groups which do big ‘denouncements’ of whatever has upset them will, for the most part, just talk about ‘normal’ Bible stuff.

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.

A. J. Jacobs, The Year of Living Biblically

Then Jacobs steers into the territory of ‘miracles’ and whether or not some of the recorded miracles can be scientifically explained…

“This scientist says that it’s [Jesus walking on water] was because the conditions in the Meditteranean at the time caused ice floes on the Sea of Galillee.”

[...] But for me, such studies present a problem. The rivers of Egypt turning bloodred? It could have been red algae or volcanic ash [...]

I don’t need to hear scientific explanations of miracles. It plays too perfectly into my innate skepticism, which still runs deep.

A. J. Jacobs, The Year of Living Biblically

I was somewhat surprised that someone who had spent so much time trying to live Biblically, and treat stuff literally, could miss the point quite so comprehensively as this. A miracle is a miracle is a miracle. It doesn’t matter whether God used his big invisible hand to allow Jesus to walk on that, or whether the He ensured that the Sea of Galillee had big lumps of ice in it. The mechanism by which the miracle is achieved is irrelevant — if you assume God created the world, and the atmospheric climate system, why shouldn’t he use that to achieve His ends?

It kind of reminds me of that joke…

It had been raining for days and days, and a terrible flood had come over the land. The waters rose so high that one man was forced to climb onto the roof of his house.

As the waters rose higher and higher, a man in a rowboat appeared, and told him to get in. “No,” replied the man on the roof. “I have faith in the Lord; the Lord will save me.” So the man in the rowboat went away. The man on the roof prayed for God to save him.

The waters rose higher and higher, and suddenly a speedboat appeared. “Climb in!” shouted a man in the boat. “No,” replied the man on the roof. “I have faith in the Lord; the Lord will save me.” So the man in the speedboat went away. The man on the roof prayed for God to save him.

The waters continued to rise. A helicopter appeared and over the loudspeaker, the pilot announced he would lower a rope to the man on the roof. “No,” replied the man on the roof. “I have faith in the Lord; the Lord will save me.” So the helicopter went away. The man on the roof prayed for God to save him.

The waters rose higher and higher, and eventually they rose so high that the man on the roof was washed away, and alas, the poor man drowned.

Upon arriving in heaven, the man marched straight over to God. “Heavenly Father,” he said, “I had faith in you, I prayed to you to save me, and yet you did nothing. Why?” God gave him a puzzled look, and replied “I sent you two boats and a helicopter, what more did you expect?

…but that’s really my only complaint about this book. Well, that and the fact that he has his children circumcised more for cultural reasons than anything else. But my own discomfort at that is probably because it’s not a cultural thing for me, and therefore I find it somewhat odd, and indeed wrong, to go around lopping part of your child’s penis.

If you can live with that, and you like the idea of actually watching A. J. Jacobs follow as many Biblical rules as he can lay his hands on over the course of a year (and look at the photos of his beard growing to a rather impressive size), then you will probably find this book very entertaining. But don’t be surprised if you actually end up learning something about the Bible too..

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2 Comments to The Year Of Living Biblically

  1. Christophe Strobbe says:

    April 8th, 2009 at 5:33 pm

    “Adjudications found in that type of Holy Scripture that is essentially narrative in character have application in the circumstances, situation and historical context in which they originally arose but are not, without additional and compelling warrant, to be assumed to have subsequent universal application. Rulings that may have applied and been deemed valid at one time and in one specific circumstance need not necessarily retain that applicability and validity at another.”

    Richard Hooker (1554-1600) wrote this in “The Lawes of Ecclesiastical Polity”, over 400 years ago, but many “modern” readers of the Bible still don’t get it.

  2. JackP says:

    April 8th, 2009 at 5:42 pm

    I suspect the majority of modern readers haven’t even heard of Richard Hooker :-)

    Although it’s also fair to say that is his interpretation. Others may still believe that it is entirely the written word of an omnipotent God and therefore should be applied exactly as written.

    There’s also an argument as to which pars are ‘essentially narrative’ and which parts are deemed ‘law’. But unless God pops along to visit us all and explains exactly what He intended, these debates are unlikely to be cleared up!

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