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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). He can't even sit on a chair a menstruating woman has occupied, which makes navigating the Manhattan subway a bit tricky.

He allows the sides of his hair to grow uncut (Lev. 19:27), and by the end of the year the fashion-challenged combination of his long earlocks and all-white garments (Eccl. 9:8) causes people to cross to the other side of the street rather than encounter him.

Although Jacobs sets out to include both the Old and New Testaments, it's the Old that takes center stage in this book, often to great comic effect. Admittedly, some of the life changes Jacobs undertakes are merely fun—he eats chocolate-covered crickets to fulfill Lev. 11:22 ("It'll be Fear Factor, Old Testament style"); rents movies from Clean Flicks to filter out sex and foul language (and, confusingly, much of the plots); and chows down on Ezekiel bread, one of the only recipes in the Bible. But during his year-long spiritual journey, he also raises some compelling moral and theological issues: Is it all right to employ modern mandrakes in the form of IVF, so that he and his wife can have another child? What is the proper way to treat his unpaid intern (unpaid internships being, as Jacobs rightly notes, the closest thing to biblical slavery that our culture now permits)? Does it violate the eighth commandment to "borrow" your downstairs neighbor's wireless signal? And, most poignantly, is it possible that freedom from choice is just as liberating as having unlimited freedom to choose?

Of course, some of the Bible's laws prove too strange even for Jacobs. The notion that one should break the neck of a cow near the scene of an unsolved murder (Deut. 21:4) is a bit too bizarre to be transforming the NYPD anytime soon. And, as Jacobs notes, some recommendations (e.g., "kill magicians") are downright illegal.

Though he sets out to prove what he calls the "righteous idiocy" of religious legalism, there is considerable irony here. In some ways, Jacobs' project is itself a fundamentalist one. Like a fundamentalist, he begins from the premise that it is not only desirable, but also possible, to filter past centuries of interpretation to excavate a "real" biblical truth. In that sense, Jacobs' project is an anti-modern manifesto that even Alexander Campbell could embrace: he wants to return to a primitivist biblical reality, without all the pesky accretions of interpretation.

Except, of course, that he can't. What distinguishes his quest is his early realization that "when it comes to the Bible, there is always—but always—some level of interpretation, even on the most seemingly basic rules." It is this level of self-awareness that rescues Jacobs' project from being merely quixotic or entertaining and elevates it to something beautiful. "I'm growing more and more skeptical that I'll ever hit Biblical bedrock and discover the original intent," he confesses in month five. "The Bible's meaning is so frustratingly slippery."

He also realizes that his quest is inherently Protestant, even though he himself is an agnostic Jew. The idea that an individual could strip all the layers of interpretation away to attain a pristine and plain truth is the quintessence of Protestantism: it is, he openly acknowledges, DIY Bible. William Miller would have felt right at home with this mission, based as it is on the elementary Protestant principle of sola scriptura.

In particular, Jacobs' project bears the mark of an undiagnosed and lingering strain of American Puritanism. As he scrutinizes every article of his clothing under a literal microscope, it serves as a metaphor for the entire project of religious self-examination. Just as American Puritans engaged in relentless assessments of their own actions, filling their commonplace books and journals with seemingly endless analyses of behavioral minutiae, so too does Jacobs offer up every aspect of his private life: family relationships, sexuality, fertility, even his innermost (and often unflattering) thoughts. But because the book is so wonderfully funny, we don't immediately realize Jacobs is standing in a modern-day Puritan's self-directed confessional booth for one.

Despite the individualism of Jacobs' task and focus, the haunting and glorious truth of the book is that his most significant spiritual experiences all happen not as part of his solitary year-long quest, but in community. He dances exuberantly with the Torah scrolls with hundreds of black-hatted Hasidim on Simchat Torah, celebrating the joy of the Bible in a way he never did on his own. He delves into Jewish family rituals, like the bat mitzvah of his niece or the circumcision of his twins, because he has decided that indeed, it is not good that man should be alone (Gen. 2:18). He assembles a sort of spiritual advisory board and tries to meet with or talk to at least one member of that group each day. Along the way, he discovers that a vital part of religion is belonging in community, whether or not we always understand (or agree with) why that community does what it does. One of the book's most illuminating moments, in fact, comes when Jacobs tries to think like a biblical creationist and realizes that despite its abuses of science, creationism is actually about a theology of human relationship:

The first thing I notice is that I feel more connected. If everyone on earth is descended from two identifiable people … then the "family of man" isn't just pablum. It's true. The guy who sells me bananas at the deli on 81st Street—he's my cousin.

At its heart, this is a book about all the various ways religious people pick and choose, the most famous being many Christians' fixation on the six biblical statements about homosexual relations in comparison to what Jacobs claims are seven thousand—seven thousand!—biblical comments on how to treat the poor. All religious people do this sifting, he finds; they simply have to. The Bible, Jacobs comes to understand, is a jumble of mysteries:

How can these ethically advanced rules and these bizarre decrees be found in the same books? And not just the same book. Sometimes the same page. The prohibition for mixing wool and linen comes right after the command to love your neighbor. It's not like the Bible has a section called "And now for some Crazy Laws." They're all jumbled up like a chopped salad.

Despite his confusion about the Bible's quirky mishmash, Jacobs comes away, like any pilgrim, changed by his experience. From his beginnings as a person who says he never uttered the word "Lord" unless it was followed by "of the Rings," he now describes himself as a "reverent agnostic" who, though he is unsure about God, recognizes the existence of the sacred in prayer and in each life. He realizes that the Bible is far more than he—and many devoutly religious people—had reduced it to. It is more than a mere self-help tome or an extended history lesson. It is something that requires everything he has:

It's not like studying sumo wrestling in Japan. It's more like wrestling itself. This opponent of mine is sometimes beautiful, sometimes cruel, sometimes ancient, sometimes crazily relevant. I can't get a handle on it. I'm outmatched.

Jana Riess is the Religion Reviews Editor for Publishers Weekly and the author or co-author of six books, including What Would Buffy Do? (Jossey-Bass) and American Pilgrimage (Paraclete Press).

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