The Year of Living Biblically

While I wish that everyone loved books enough to drop $25 on a hardcover, I realize that many of you will only give a book a chance once it hits in paperback. So, when one of my favorite books of 2007 had its paperback release this past Tuesday, I jumped at the chance to feature it on the BookPeople blog. The book is The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs.
The Year of Living Biblically is a memoir recounting A.J. Jacobs’s effort to “live the bible” for 12 months. After establishing certain ground rules concerning legality and literalism (when is a tower just a tower and when is it a metaphor for big breasts?), Jacobs sets out to adhere to everything from the Big 10 (Do not lie, kill, etc.) to the more obscure (Do not wear clothes of wool and linen woven together).
A premise like that is a perfect setup for irreverent mockery, especially when you consider that Jacobs doesn’t begin the project with any personal history of reverence for the Bible.
But it doesn’t go that way. That isn’t to say that the book isn’t funny (it absolutely is) or that Jacobs takes his project too seriously (he doesn’t), but he does take it seriously. He wrestles with it in a way that I, as a pastor, often forget to. He tries it on and walks around in it, and he realizes that, in doing so, he risks being changed by it.
As one of his friends suggests early in the project “You’re dealing with explosive stuff. People a lot smarter than you have devoted their lives to this.”
Jacobs writes in response: He’s right. And it scares me. I hate losing control. I like to be in command of everything.
It is Jacobs’ transparency that makes this project so fascinating. He isn’t trying to hide from his readers, even in his more uncomfortable moments. His willingness to struggle was the book’s center. He struggles with sensing the presence of God. He struggles with distractions. He struggles with frustration and boredom. He wonders why the God who wrestles with Jacob doesn’t make Himself a bit more obvious to Jacob.
I recently had the chance to speak with A.J. about the book, and this is what he had to say:

Talk briefly about what sent you off on this “year of living biblically” in the first place.

Because I grew up with so little religion, I wanted to experience the other side. I wanted to know if I was missing anything – especially since I have a young son and wanted to whether to teach him religion of some sort.  I wanted to know if I was going through life without experiencing something crucial – like a man who never falls in love or hears Beethoven.

What were you most afraid of before you started this project?

As you point out in your excellent review, I was most afraid of surrendering and losing control.

Did you find your fear was warranted?

Well, I did surrender somewhat, and it was an amazing experience. But at the same time, I’m still a bit too controlled and repressed to surrender completely. I’m still afraid that I would lose control and end up in some weird cult that chants in airports and refers to their leader as “Baba.”

What most excited you about the project?

It was a tremendously exciting project. I’ve done several experiments with my life, but this was by far the most life-changing and profound. I think what I loved was how it smashed all my stereotypes. Nothing is black and white.

What was the most challenging aspect of “living biblically”?

I’d have to say it was avoiding such sins as lying, coveting and gossiping. I work in the media and live in New York. So that used to take up most of my day.

Looking back on it now, how would you compare/contrast the person you are with the person you were?

As I said in the book, if my old self met my new self, they’d probably get along pretty well, but still think the other was moderately deluded. I’m still agnostic, but I’ve become what a minister friend of mine calls a ‘reverent agnostic.’ Whether or not there’s a God, I believe in the idea of sacredness.

What’s something that Judeo-Christians (like myself) need to take more seriously when it comes to “living biblically”?

Well, I feel unbiblical making grand, prideful statements. But I’m a big fan of the Sabbath. As a workaholic (I’m always checking my emails – in movies, while brushing my teeth), I love the idea of this mandated day of rest and reflection where you can be thankful for the rest of the week.

What’s something that Judeo-Christians need to take less seriously?

Again, I’m not sure I’m qualified to weigh in. But if I had to, I’d say everything. In the words of that great theologian Paul Schaeffer (David Letterman’s bandleader), if God is the ultimate being, then he has the ultimate sense of humor.

You often speak of your young son throughout the book. Were he to take on a similar project in 20 years, what would be your advice to him?

To go in with an open mind. Even if you disagree with someone on many points, you can still find wisdom in their thoughts.

Posted by Kester

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