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

  • Author: A. J. Jacobs
  • Publisher:  Simon & Schuster
  • Published: September, 2008
  • Pages: 416
  • Language: English
  • Format:  PDF, MOBI, EPUB

From the bestselling author of The Know-It-All comes a fascinating and timely exploration of religion and the Bible.

Raised in a secular family but increasingly interested in the relevance of faith in our modern world, A.J. Jacobs decides to dive in headfirst and attempt to obey the Bible as literally as possible for one full year. He vows to follow the Ten Commandments. To be fruitful and multiply. To love his neighbor. But also to obey the hundreds of less publicized rules: to avoid wearing clothes made of mixed fibers; to play a ten-string harp; to stone adulterers.

The resulting spiritual journey is at once funny and profound, reverent and irreverent, personal and universal and will make you see history’s most influential book with new eyes.

Jacobs’s quest transforms his life even more radically than the year spent reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica for The Know-It-All. His beard grows so unruly that he is regularly mistaken for a member of ZZ Top. He immerses himself in prayer, tends sheep in the Israeli desert, battles idolatry, and tells the absolute truth in all situations – much to his wife’s chagrin.

Throughout the book, Jacobs also embeds himself in a cross-section of communities that take the Bible literally. He tours a Kentucky-based creationist museum and sings hymns with Pennsylvania Amish. He dances with Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn and does Scripture study with Jehovah’s Witnesses. He discovers ancient biblical wisdom of startling relevance. And he wrestles with seemingly archaic rules that baffle the twenty-first-century brain.

Jacobs’s extraordinary undertaking yields unexpected epiphanies and challenges. A book that will charm readers both secular and religious, The Year of Living Biblically is part Cliff Notes to the Bible, part memoir, and part look into worlds unimaginable. Thou shalt not be able to put it down.

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Best of the Month, September 2007: Make no mistake: A.J. Jacobs is not a religious man. He describes himself as Jewish “in the same way the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant.” Yet his latest work, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, is an insightful and hilarious journey for readers of all faiths. Though no fatted calves were harmed in the making of this book, Jacobs chronicles 12 months living a remarkably strict Biblical life full of charity, chastity, and facial hair as impressive as anything found in The Lord of the Rings. Through it all, he manages to brilliantly keep things light, while avoiding the sinful eye of judgment. –Dave Callanan

Amazon.com

Subtitled: “One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible,” Jacobs, or A.J., as his two-year-old son calls him, does just that. It is likely that no one but A.J. Jacobs could have accomplished such a feat. After all, his last book, The Know-It-All, chronicles his reading of the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica, from A to Z. No one but a smart, witty, self-deprecating, nitpicky kinda guy would undertake two such daunting tasks, and complete them with grace, no pun intended.

Jacobs, a New York Jewish agnostic, decides to follow the laws and rules of the Bible, beginning with the Old Testament, for one year. (He actually adds some bonus days and makes it a 381-day year.) He starts by growing a beard and we are with him through every itchy moment. Jacobs is borderline OCD, at least as he describes himself; obsessing over possible dangers to his son, germs, literal interpretation of Bible verses, etc. He enlists the aid of counselors along the way; Jewish rabbis, Christians of every stripe, friends and neighbors.

In an open-minded way he also visits with atheists, Evangelicals Concerned (a gay group), Jerry Falwell, snake handlers, Red Letter Christians–those who adhere to the red letters in the Bible, those words spoken by Jesus Himself, and even takes a trip to Israel and meets Samaritans. Through it all, he keeps a healthy skepticism, but continues to pray and is open to the flowering of real faith. Jacobs is a knowledge junky, to be sure. He enjoys the lore he picks up along the way as much as any other aspect of his experiment. One of the ongoing schticks is his meeting with the shatnez tester, Mr. Berkowitz. He is the one who determines whether or not your clothes are made of mixed fibers, in keeping with the Biblical injunction not to wear wool and linen together. The two become friends and prayer partners, in only one of the unexpected results of this year.

In the end, he says, “I’m now a reverent agnostic. Which isn’t an oxymoron, I swear. I now believe that whether or not there’s a God, there is such a thing as sacredness. Life is sacred.” Not a bad outcome. –Valerie Ryan

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. What would it require for a person to live all the commandments of the Bible for an entire year? That is the question that animates this hilarious, quixotic, thought-provoking memoir from Jacobs (The Know-It-All). He didn’t just keep the Bible’s better-known moral laws (being honest, tithing to charity and trying to curb his lust), but also the obscure and unfathomable ones: not mixing wool with linen in his clothing; calling the days of the week by their ordinal numbers to avoid voicing the names of pagan gods; trying his hand at a 10-string harp; growing a ZZ Top beard; eating crickets; and paying the babysitter in cash at the end of each work day. (He considered some rules, such as killing magicians, too legally questionable to uphold.) In his attempts at living the Bible to the letter, Jacobs hits the road in highly entertaining fashion to meet other literalists, including Samaritans in Israel, snake handlers in Appalachia, Amish in Lancaster County, Pa., and biblical creationists in Kentucky. Throughout his journey, Jacobs comes across as a generous and thoughtful (and, yes, slightly neurotic) participant observer, lacing his story with absurdly funny cultural commentary as well as nuanced insights into the impossible task of biblical literalism. (Oct.) Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Bookmarks Magazine

A. J. Jacobs, an editor at large for Esquire and author of the best-selling The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Be the Smartest Person in the World (**1/2 Jan/Feb 2005), the book that required him to read the Encyclopedia Britannica from A to Z, has a reputation as a “stunt journalist.” In his latest effort, he offers a timely and, for the most part, engaging (if occasionally jumpy) memoir of his attempt at “living biblically.” Critics enjoyed the book more for the humor inherent in the situations that Jacobs creates (think of him as a low-key Borat on a sort of spiritual pilgrimage) than any epiphany that comes of those experiences during his year-long quest. In sum, Year is entertaining, though maybe not the book for readers who want to see such a transformation recounted with the fervor of the true believer. Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.

Most helpful reviews

Thou shalt read this book

By mrliteral

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 Encyclopedia 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 Encyclopedia 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.

A man’s journey, plumbing the depths of trying to live by the Bible

By David J. Huber

How can I rate or judge one person’s life story? Only by the way he writes about it. His story is his story, and deserves five stars simply for telling it. But I give this five stars because he wrote about it so compellingly. I had a difficult time setting the book down, always wanting to keep on reading and moving forward and see what he did next.

When humorous things happen, he writes about them in a way that led me to chuckle along. Times of seriousness were written poignantly enough to sometimes shed a tear, or feel my heart moved as well. I especially applaud him for including stories about his wife, and how she wasn’t always keen on what he was doing, and the difficulties they had while he went on this adventure. And I give him great credit for sticking with his goal for the whole year (and slightly beyond), and not giving up.

Jacobs is a wonderful writer! I will definitely be looking for more books by this guy, and will read his previous book.

And speaking as a Christian – and an ordained minister at that – I found his spiritual journey, and his insights into Judaism and Christianity as what was basically an outsider, to be very interesting to read about. Some of the things we take for granted or as base assumptions, he didn’t know – he had to find out, and he continually showed the courage to go find a scholar, a rabbi, a minister, or other person with the knowledge to help him out. Especially when he found a law to be silly, instead of writing it off, he sought out someone who could explain why it might be there, and what it meant historically and means to some in the context of 21st century earth. I learned things about Christianity and Judaism from him; and also I learned a few things about my own personal faith from him. Sometimes I was challenged to rethink myself, or to consider “Have I really thought about that enough?”, sometimes I was affirmed.

And as a non-fundamentalist, I applaud him most for showing – by being a living, tangible proof – that taking the Bible literally, and living everything in it literally, is impossible. For all the fundamentalist, biblical-literalists, follow-the-law Christians, this book serves as proof that their foundation is built entirely on sand, and that none of them are honest when they so arrogantly say they live “true to the Bible”. Of the great many people in the world, Jacobs is perhaps the only one who’s ever really tried to live by all the Bible’s teachings; and he showed it can’t be done.

My only complaint about Jacobs isn’t about the book, and so it doesn’t affect the rating, is that he didn’t enter into the community aspect of either Judaism or Christianity, both of which are highly communal; one could easily make the argument that neither one can be done without a community. But Jacobs did try to do it all alone. Though he brought in people when he had questions, he never entered into a worshiping community at a synagogue or a church, never entered into the life of a faith family. He missed a large part of both religious experiences by not doing so, and I think his book – and his experience – would have been far, far richer if he had done so.

Looking at faith through the lens of someone jumping straight into it from the outside, when written as well as Jacobs’ book, is a fantastic journey. Highly recommended, and I think this would be an excellent book to read in a church or synagogue education class.

Light-hearted but insightful look at a very serious subject

By A. Reid

Towards the end of this book, author AJ Jacobs speaks of the emptiness he experiences when he completes a project. I know the feeling. I have it now. I hate to put down his book.

This book is a travelogue, with Jacobs documenting his journey through terrain both strange and familiar. Throughout, he exhibits a self-deprecating wit that in no way undermines his insight. Laugh out loud funny? It is that. But even when he’s wagging his bushy beard at something absurd, Jacobs’ humor is neither cynical nor mean-spirited. His observations feel unflinchingly frank, but never superior–he is quick to acknowledge that he is as eccentric as anyone.

None of this is meant to imply that this book will be a comfortable fit for everyone. He is, after all, pointing out some of the more unusual and esoteric Biblical rules, trying them on, questioning them, looking at the people who follow them. I felt he handled the subject of Biblical literalism with meticulous respect, but some readers might be made uneasy at such scrutiny of sacred cows. And that would be a shame. Because while it’s easy to laugh at his humor, it’s equally important to reflect on his subtext. What are the psychological and social impacts of ritualism? There’s a lot to be learned from an outsider looking in.

Like any good tour guide, Jacobs has come to feel like a friend, and I’m going to miss him. Until next trip.

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