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Jana Riess


It Is Written

Literalism ad absurdum.

We've all seen the email: a letter to a fundamentalist pastor thanking him for his helpful insights on how vital it is to live all the laws of the Bible. But, the letter-writer continues, this uncompromising stance does raise some sticky questions. How and when should you stone adulterers and Sabbath-breakers? What is the best way to inform your first wife that you'll be adding to the family by taking a second and third? How many human slaves should you strive to own, and where can they be purchased nowadays?

The point of the email, of course, is to sardonically highlight just how far we have come from the culture of biblical times, and how impossible it is to speak of living the Bible literally when our own world is so different. And yet many of us try, out of devotion, to arrive at an unspoiled, untainted biblical meaning—discovering how ancient ways of pleasing God might be relevant for our times.

Such is the agenda of A. J. Jacobs' achingly funny memoir The Year of Living Biblically. Jacobs, the author of The Know-It All, begins by describing himself as a secular Jew. ("I'm Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant.  Which is to say: Not very.") In spite of his own detachment from religion, he is increasingly curious about the ways it influences 21st-century American life. Rather than standing on the sidelines or casting himself as an aloof pundit, he dives in head first and decides to spend a year living all the commandments of the Bible—that's right, all of them. A sampling:

He hires an earnest New York shatnez tester to ensure that his garments don't mix wool and linen (Deut. 22:11).

He can't utter the names of false gods (Exodus 23:13), which means that "I'll have lunch with you on Thursday" or "let's get the kids together for a play date on Wednesday" are flat out, since Thursday and Wednesday honor Thor and Woden, respectively.

He won't touch his wife during and just after her period—or any woman, for that matter (Lev. 15:19). ...

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