Going by the Book (for a year)

Published April 2, 2008

The Bible told A.J. Jacobs, “You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard,” (Leviticus 19:27) and, so, he didn’t.

A. J. Jacobs describes himself as obsessive-compulsive, and proves it to be so by relating how he disinfects the playground swings before his toddler son uses them. He is also an accomplished practitioner of the literary genre of undertaking a weird project and writing a book about it. His previous best seller, The Know-It-All, described his experience of reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. One might wonder if the former is a necessary quality to succeed at the latter.

Nonetheless The Year of Living Biblically is an interesting book. Part spiritual journal, part diary, highly introspective and a touch egocentric, it gives one the feeling that Mr. Jacobs will never need to write his autobiography: his readers will already know everything about him. Indeed he states, “I write memoirs for a living.”

Mr. Jacobs, an extremely secular Jew and editor at large for Esquire magazine, decides to obey the Bible as literally as possible for one year. His intention is to follow, if possible, every rule no matter how minute. He includes in that the wisdom sayings from such books as Proverbs and Ecclesiastes and the oral law of the Talmud. Although officially a Jew he decides to include the Christian Scriptures while acknowledging that it is debatable whether they even have a legal code.

Such a task seems impossible but Mr. Jacobs does allow himself some leeway. He makes a distinction between literal and figurative passages declining, for example, to follow Origen into self-castration on the basis of Matthew 19:12: “There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of heaven,” a passage which, he decides wisely, is unquestionably figurative.

Other rules cannot be followed literally because cultural changes have made their fulfillment illegal, for example, having the city elders stone one’s disobedient son. He deals with that difficulty by trying to find the original intent of the biblical rule or teaching and following that to the letter. But that raises the question of interpretation and he soon discovers that there are about as many interpretations as there are interpreters. Undeterred, he plows on, although his obsessive-compulsive nature sometimes leads to silliness, for example, walking through Central Park dropping pebbles on the shoes of those he deemed to be blasphemers in order to fulfill the injunctive to stone such persons, and then apologizing to them.

Mr. Jacobs’ purpose in this project is threefold: first, he admits, is to write a book; second, he hopes it will be “a visa to a spiritual world;” third, it “will be a way to explore the huge and fascinating topic of biblical literalism.”

In the first he has undoubtedly succeeded. It is an interesting, often fascinating book that will probably be a best seller. The third, exploring literalism, leads him to many places, to meet many people and to delve into many sub-sub cultures. He experiences the lives and practices of ultra-conservative Jews, the Amish, a variety of stripes of extreme right wing conservative evangelicals, snake handlers and red heifer breeders.

[pullquote]The latter, my favourite, is an unlikely alliance between ultra fundamentalist Christians and a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews who are striving to breed a completely red heifer without one white hair in order to fulfill Numbers 19:2: “Tell the people of Israel to bring you a red heifer without defect, in which there is no blemish . . .” – an act, they believe in quite different ways, that will bring the Messiah. My 16-year-old daughter found these sections the most interesting and humorous.

Success or failure in his second purpose is less clear. He undoubtedly had a number of significant spiritual experiences, usually related to people he met or rituals in which he took part. On several occasions he had a profound experience of appreciating his cultural and religious heritage. He grew to appreciate private prayer, being especially taken with thanksgiving, the value of which he sees primarily in the effect it has on him.

But what he sees as the question of faith – to believe or not – remains unresolved. When he commenced the project he decided to test the theory of cognitive dissonance. That is, if you behave in a certain way your beliefs will eventually change to conform to your behaviour. John Henry Newman, whose writings on faith are among the best, wrote that if you wish to have faith but do not, act as if you do, and you will. Mr. Jacobs seems in the end to be a man of faith who struggles with belief, a not-unknown struggle for many Christians. Even if the rest of his book were not interesting, that alone would make it worth reading.

David Crawley is the retired archbishop of Kootenay and former metropolitan of British Columbia and Yukon.


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