Review of The Year of Living Biblically by A. J. Jacobs

A. J. Jacobs previously wrote a book called The Know-It-All. He spent a year reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, and wrote a book about the experience. The book sold very well and he was hunting around for a followup project. After some fumbling around, he hit upon the idea of spending a year trying to follow the Bible as literally as possible, and writing about that experience. From these facts alone you can already surmise (correctly) that the author has a rather quirky and geeky personality, and so you might be dubious about the value of the book. Your skepticism might increase when I tell you that the author began the project as an agnostic and was, among other things, trying to prove that there isn’t such a thing as pure biblical literalism—some picking and choosing and interpretation is inevitable.

However, you would be wrong to write off the book without a further thought. The author is a good writer, with a great sense of humor. He pokes fun at himself incessantly, and is very respectful of all the biblical literalists and spiritual mentors that he meets with throughout the year. Although his project is first and foremost a book-writing project, he is also partly on a personal spiritual quest, and he bends over backwards to give the Bible, and biblical literalism, the benefit of the doubt. Nor is he obsessed only with the “wacky” parts of the Bible; if anything he is more concerned to explore its sublime aspects.

I personally found Jacobs to be more honest than most Christians I know. Most of my successes in my professional life have come about because I have rejected the conventional wisdom in favor of insisting on following ideas through to their logical conclusion. This character trait carries over to my attitude towards the Bible. Thus it was refreshing to me to finally see someone else making the same logical deductions, instead of slavishly parroting “standard” ideas from organized religion or secular thought or modern scholarship. To be sure, Jacobs spends a great deal of time finding out what organized religion and modern scholarship have to say about the Bible, and testing out those ideas, but he is far more open than most people to letting the experiment take him wherever it leads him.

Jacobs poses some excellent questions, and if you approach the book with an open mind then you will surely be led to challenge your own attitude towards the Bible. You will also surely learn many things that you didn’t know. Even though I’ve spent a lot of time digging into the same obscure corners of the Bible that Jacobs has, he has some great insights that I had not had before. I also learned many fascinating facts about some of the more extreme versions of Judaism out there.

In short, the book is uniquely thought-provoking. Check it out!

Posted November 2008

Back to Christian Stuff