Thursday, November 8, 2018

Book 154: The Year of Living Biblically

"The Bible says thou shalt not steal; I stole my neighbor's wireless signal. And now I'm limping around the house with a bum knee."

Dates read: June 21-24, 2017

Rating: 6/10

I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a senior in high school and remember being shocked at how many n-bombs there were. I'd heard the word used by white people maybe a handful of times in my life to that point (not that there weren't racists in my very white town, there were plenty, but they kept that kind of talk out of the public sphere) and here it was just all over this work of classic literature. The book tends to inspire challenges and protests for this very reason, and I'm definitely speaking from a place of privilege here, but I don't agree with campaigns to produce a version that has it censored out. All historical documents are a product of their time and place and working with that context is an important part of thinking critically about the world.

The Bible, for instance, is a historical document. The Old Testament dates back to hundreds of years before Christ, and the New Testament to within 100 years after his death. It's a holy book, but it's also the product of two distinct time periods, both very long ago. It's filled with rules, both specific and vague, that reflect the world of nomadic, desert-dwelling herding people rather than the world in which most Judeo-Christian people live today. Writer A.J. Jacobs decided to see what it would be like to actually try to live by these rules in the modern world in his book, The Year of Living Biblically. As Jacobs is a secular Jewish husband and father in New York City, wackiness ensues.

He's no stranger to offbeat projects...he'd previously written a book about his experience of reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. But when he was doing prep work for this book and realized that the Bible contains over 700 rules, ranging from very specific things like fiber-mixing and beard trimming prohibitions to very general things like restraining from covetousness, he decided to focus on the Ten Commandments first and tackle as many of the others as he could, because he knew he couldn't do all of them every day. He also seeks out people who are devoted to their religious beliefs in their own ways, leading to a visit to Amish Country, the Creation Museum, to see snakehandling Pentecostals, and even an overseas trip to Jerusalem. This on top of a regular job writing for Esquire, parenting a small son, and being a partner to his pregnant wife.

Jacobs is witty without being snarky, which is a good tone for this book. There's sometimes a tendency among secular types to get condescending about matters of religious faith and belief, which is counter-productive at best. He admits that since he's deeply agnostic, one of the hardest rules for him to follow is regular prayer, but he gamely tries anyways and is honest about both his initial discomfort and the ease that grows after months of practice. After having a hard time, in a hyperconnected world, retreating into the quiet of the Sabbath, he comes to look forward to that time to unwind and recharge. While he can't quite get into the harshness of parenting his son from a "spare the rod, spoil the child" perspective, he knows he needs to be better about discipline and he starts taking steps in the right direction.

I found this book enjoyable, if a little on the lightweight side. Although it's necessarily from Jacobs' perspective, I found myself really curious about how his wife felt about this particular experiment and what it was like to live with someone doing this. It's pretty clear from what Jacobs writes that his wife was often irritated by the project, and his frequent absences while leaving her with their son to handle while she was pregnant with twins had to be absolutely infuriating. Then again, that Jacobs seemed to simply expect her to shoulder the mental and emotional burden of dealing with his choices isn't really out of line with the very patriarchal culture in which the Bible was steeped. Recommended for people curious about religion and/or with a sense of humor about their own.

Tell me, blog you think it's valuable to look at books through their cultural context?

One year ago, I was reading: The Underground Railroad

Two years ago, I was reading: What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours

Three years ago, I was reading: Primitive Mythology


  1. Absolutely! I agree with you that old books should not be "prettied up" to suit modern sensibilities. The language tells us as much about the time as the other descriptions do.

  2. Exactly! It's a part of history and pretending it didn't happen that way doesn't help anyone