Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs

It has been busy around the house and that has left little time for reading. Definitely hope to remedy this in the days and months to come. After all, isn't that a major part of retirement? Between preparing for Thanksgiving, then a Holiday party for 75, Christmas, and the major upheaval of kitchen floor remodeling, it has been tough to actually sit down for any length of time without feeling guilty.

The Year of Living Biblically was the January selection for the Flower Memorial Library Book Club. This was not a book that I would have chosen on my own. A.J. Jacobs describes himself as "Jewish in the way the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant." In effect he is an agnostic. As he considers his son's upbringing, a book deal and a need for some spirituality in his life, Jacobs decides to live according to the rules of the Bible for a year. He fastidiously writes down 613 rules from the Old Testament and dedicates himself to following the rules to what he and his advisers consider the literal interpretation. The year-long journey is not an easy one and Jacobs communicates his path with a sense of reverence for the Bible and with humor that keeps the reader entertained throughout.

No matter what one's religious affiliation, one must respect the dedication that A.J. Jacobs to his task. The book is broken down by each month of the year and contains the Biblical references to the part of the scripture on which he is concentrating that month. He does not cut his hair or shave his beard and wears a white shepherd's robe as well as carrying a stick. He must have been a sight riding the subways in New York. There were many obstacles in his way - he could not touch his wife or anything that she touches during her "time of the month." But that extends to any woman so he must buy a special seat to use in public places as well as his home so as not to violate that rule. He is commanded to build a hut (a sukkah) and needs to live in it for a week. But there is no space to do this except in his apartment. His wife must be a saint.

Jacobs is an obsessive compulsive learner. His previous book chronicled how he read an encyclopedia from A-Z. He spends countless hours reading about all the facets of the Jewish faith, but also extends his quest for knowledge to other religious sects. He visits the Amish in Pennsylvania, Jerry Falwell's church in Lynchburg, VA, a snake handler church in TN and his orthodox Jewish Uncle Gil in Israel. In his hometown he attends Bible study groups when he moves into the rules of the New Testament, about 8 months into his spiritual journey.

One might conjecture that living Biblically for a year would create a transformed person. But that wasn't the way it was for Jacobs. The reader does sense some change in him. He describes himself at the end of the book as a "reverent" agnostic. He understands the sanctity of life and how precious it is. He no longer regards prayer as something foreign, but a natural part of his day. During the course of the year he and his wife become parents of twin boys who join his son Jasper. He learns that discipline is an important part of parenting and we know that he will follow through with this "rule." He ends the book with thoughts about "cafeteria" religion, and how picking and choosing from scripture is practiced by all religious groups and it may not be all bad. "The key is to choosing the right dishes. You need to pick the nurturing ones (compassion), the healthy ones (Love they neighbor), and not the bitter ones." Amen.

For an insight into A.J. Jacobs, view his interview on the Today Show.