Friday, March 19, 2010

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

Hello Friends:

This book gets three out of five 'wings' from your Adventure Hostess.

Rating this was nearly impossible.  Three or four?  I went back and forth.  I ended up giving it a three.  I can see that someone else would like it quite a bit more, and give it a four or higher.  But ratings are subjective ... I just couldn't give it a four.  As you'll see below, in spite of plenty of good stuff the book had to offer, there were a few things that drove me nuts.

Before I get into the details of the review, I need to tell you why I read this book, and why it is relevant for this blog.  It goes back to the post OCD's and Scrupulosity: Obsessive Religion.  There I discussed some of my confusion and pain over trying to figure out what commands in the bible had to be followed to be saved, and which ones didn't.  That is part of the reason I gave up on the bible entirely.  There is always another person showing you how what you are doing is wrong, and how their version is right.  My OCDs make this situation intolerable for me.  I need an unequivocal answer.

For example, most Christian women in the US do not cover their heads in church.  And yet in 1st Corinthians it says, "But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head."  Even in the fundamentalist church I used to frequent, women did not cover their heads unless it was with a massive Sunday-best sort of hat.  So isn't that picking and choosing what commands to follow and which to ignore?  And yet the bible also says, "You shall not add to the word that I am commanding you, nor take away from it."  (Deuteronomy 4:2)

So I discussed this with my therapist.  And I'm making this sound like it was a nice, happy little conversation.  But this subject gets me really bent.  Very sad and very scared.  My therapist said, "Nobody follows the bible literally.  Nobody.  No matter how fundamentalist or orthodox, everyone chooses what commands they follow, and how they interpret them."  I wasn't sure I believed that, so he suggested I read this book and see if it offered a little perspective.

Right.  Onto the review.

The Year of Living Bibically by A.J. Jacobs was published in September of 2008.  The premise is that the author spends a little over a year of his life trying to follow the bible as literally as he possibly can.  In practice, he realizes immediately that such a task is impossible, but he tries hard to follow each rule at least once, no matter how strange or obscure.  It is largely a book of humor, and that's probably the section you'd find it in if looking in the bookstore.  But it has poignant aspects, as well as some not-too-shabby religious scholarship.

Some of What's in the Book

The book is written like a dairy, with short entries, each dated, and then compiled into chapters.  Every entry is accompanied by a relevant passage from the Bible.  The author does not have an entry for each and every day, but he does try to keep a chronological record of his attempts to live the bible literally.  Each entry highlights one command, experience, or lesson learned.  He spends most of his time attempting to follow the Old Testament (Torah) where most of the bible's commands are found.  And then he adds on a few months to attempt to include the New Testament commands.

What I Liked

The author has OCD issues, and he admits this up front.  They are pronounced enough that his wife has developed a code phrase for when the author is trying too hard to shield their son from the contagious and pointy aspects of life.  She says "helmet" and he knows he needs to back off.  His OCDs play into his own reasons for wanting to investigate the commands of the bible, and bear some resemblance to my own.  So this made the subject and the author immediately sympathetic to me.

The book is simply enjoyable to read, well written, and entertaining.  The author's style is conversational and low stress.  One thing leads into another, and you find yourself not putting the book down.

What I most needed from the book was found early, a passage on page nineteen that helped me see more clearly what we all really mean by 'following the bible literally.'  "In fact, the very first command that God gives to Adam is 'Be fruitful and multiply.'  It's the Alpha Rule of the Bible.  Now, if I were taking the Bible absolutely literally, I could be 'fruitful' by loading up on peaches at Whole Foods Market and 'multiply' by helping my niece with her algebra homework."  "This hammers home a simple but profound lesson:  When it comes to the Bible, there is always - but always - some level of interpretation, even on the most seemingly basic rules.  In this case, I'm pretty sure that the Bible was talking about fertility, not math, so that's what I'll continue to pursue."  It's where he says "I'm pretty sure ..." that it comes home most strongly.  No one would disagree with him in his interpretation, but it is, in fact, interpretation.  This all might seem silly and obvious to you, but honestly, it was useful for me to read.

What I Didn't Like

The author writes very short chapters/sections.  He gets into an idea and then drops it before he really flushes it out or explores the consequences.  This is my major gripe with the book, that it could have been profound, but instead was often sadly shallow.

The tone of the book is a little cynical; not always, it is sometimes very moving.  But one gets the distinct impression that aside from the author's OCDs, the main reason he took on this project was so that he'd have something to write another book about.  Because of this, he intentionally puts himself in 'interesting' situations, things that might be considered very bizarre or controversial, so that his book will be interesting.  He does this instead of developing some of the aspects of his search that would have naturally been very interesting and not at all contrived.  One small example comes from his attempts to always tell the truth.  He sometimes uses this as an excuse to say something biting or off the wall, rather than finding a way to demure.

As far as genre, the book just does not know what it wants to be.  Is this a book of humor?  A memoir?  A travel essay?  A religious or inspirational work?  It is all of these things at one time or another.  For some this might be a plus, but it didn't work for me.  It was humorous in places, but not funny enough to be a book of humor.  It was moving in places, but not compelling enough to be a memoir.  It was scholarly in places, but not developed enough to be taken seriously from a religious standpoint.  I was glad I read it, but yet when I put the book down I felt vaguely unsatisfied.

Summary and Final Comments

The book does make the point that one cannot follow the bible completely literally.  No one can follow each and every command of the bible in the original sense it was intended, and on a daily basis.  There must be some sort of picking and choosing about what commands are more important than others.  Our current culture (which denounces rape, which tries to protect animals from abuse, etc.) is not welcoming to ritual sacrifices, nor to the idea that 'you raped her, but it's okay as long as you marry her'.  And this is good; some of the bible is barbaric.  I think we have a more compassionate idea of human (and animal) rights, including rights for women, minorities, and more.  This does beg the question of how to determine for one's self which commands to follow, and in what priority.  But that's a different problem.  I recommend the book for anyone who enjoys ironic humor, who does not mind irreverence in their literature, and who has the same curiosity I did about what it might mean to try to live the bible literally.

Your Hostess With Neuroses


Andy said...

Good review of an interesting book. I agree that much of the time his actions seemed driven by the idea he was writing a book than by unselfconscious seeking. I also thought it odd that he started by saying he'd decide for himself how to interpret things, but then in the end basically went with established religion on everything.

I did enjoy the book, though. :)

Marj aka Thriver said...

Thanks so much for visiting my blog recently and leaving a comment. I like what I see here at your blog and I'm going to look around a bit.

The Blue Morpho said...

Hello Marj! Nice to virtually meet you, and thanks for visiting Anxiety Land. You run a great blog, and I thought many of the posts were really thought provoking. I love (and agree with) the idea that it's about thriving, not just surviving. I can't say I'm thriving yet, but I believe it in, and am working towards that goal.

Rebecca Flys said...

As an anxious mess myself, I refrain from trying to analyze the Bible. It freaks me out.

Also, after seeing a baby delivered, (even after I'd already delivered 3 myself), I realized that life is really, really, really, amazing. I think if we do right by the people around us, and take care of what we are given, we have a pretty good insight into what God originally intended us to do in the Garden of Eden.

Warm regards and Lexapro dreams.

The Blue Morpho said...

Rebecca - I appreciate your reading and commenting on my blog, thanks! I agree that life really is amazing. It has taken time to see it, and when I am down I feel like it is amazing for everyone but me. Yet still, I will resurface and see so many awesome aspects to life for us, plants, animals, and all the rest.

Greg Dungan said...

I have often found comments like yours to ring about church in general. Words like shallow, unsatisfying, and undeveloped seem to describe many aspect of established church life in America these days. I believe it is because we miss the point of "Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and Love you neighbor as yourself." These are the commands that sum it all up. When we fully invest ourselves in our relationships with God and others, the Holy Spirit leads the way. It is only then that we can learn to love God and serve the church - not the other way around.

The Blue Morpho said...

Greg - Thanks for reading - Your comment made me think about other issues that come up when you have mental illness and are seeking to understand religion. Your mentioning the passage "Love your neighbor as yourself" makes me think of C.S. Lewis, who in Mere Christianity asked how do we really love ourselves, anyway? Many people with MI have experienced little love of self, or even outright hatred of self. Just one more hurdle in attempting to create a view of the world that is just, fair, and meaningful.

Amy said...

I like what your therapist said--that no one actually follows the bible literally. Many churches claim that they follow the bible and "do what it says," yet there are, and always have been, great differences in how various churches practice their beliefs.

Speaking as a former fundamentalist, I have learned that even believers who possess a sincere and thoughtful faith differ with each other about how to be a "good" Christian. Nothing wrong with that, but it is tough on those of us who want dependable answers.

The Blue Morpho said...

Amy - I agree completely. I would feel differently if the overall attitude was "I see it this way, you see it that way. We all have our view, and each is valid." Instead, if you pick the 'wrong' view, everyone else thinks you are going to hell. High stakes, and no right answer. It sometimes seems like a game that can't be won. But I still feel compelled to continue learning about how to construct a new view of the Almighty. I'm not giving up on that just yet.

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