A. J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically: Taking the Old Testament Literally
By the time I waded through the Old Testament, I felt, among other things, dirty. I’m not referring to a reaction to the content, per se; rather, the details in those pages make it crystal clear that that era’s ideas of cleanliness were vastly different than ours. This partly explains a number of the laws laid down in Leviticus. So, I was curious to read how a person would replicate those conditions, especially a modern resident of New York City like A. J. Jacobs, as he details in The Year of Living Biblically. Given how violent, dark, dirty as the setting for so much of this part of the Bible is, I was curious how successfully any person could be at trying to follow the Old Testament literally. Especially when the person attempting this is married with a child (as Jacobs is). This part of Bible’s angry God would also be watching closely, right? So no cheating.
In his book, Jacobs details an interesting approach to living by the Bible literally. I had assumed he would follow everything in the Bible from day 1. He doesn’t, and I don’t know that anyone could. But out of his year-long experiment, he reserves the first eight months for the Old Testament. His first order of business: how to keep track of every rule one needs to follow?
Jacobs confronts this first quandary head on: he creates a series of lists that tell him what to follow. As the length of these lists demonstrate, a person is bound to mess up. In order to set himself up for success, then, he cuts himself some slack: he tackles content in the Old Testament in stages. His first list: the Top Five Most Perplexing Rules in the Bible. He picks the one that appears to be the easiest for him to tackle: no wearing garments made of mixed fibers (22). This experience, as with many others, shows how challenging it can be for someone to respect the literal rule of the Bible—he enlists the services of a man who comes to your home and, with the help of a kit (including a magnifying glass), determines the fiber make-up of your clothes.
Is this really serving God? He doesn’t say, but his experience does make a clear case that this is a total pain in the ass, to say the least, and demonstrates that if you are going to follow the Bible literally, you must be committed to these types of inconveniences.
His journey also leads him to experience how other people use the Bible to guide their lives. His journey takes him to Amish country, and this experience yields an interesting story. Sure, he talks to some really nice Amish folks, but the real nugget here is what he understands when he watches an Amish woman work a leaf blower. Turns out, that although electricity is banned, batteries and gas-powered tools are good. From this he draws a useful conclusion: you can’t stop religions from evolving (34). And as so much of the life we experience now—technology, for example—is not accounted for in the Bible, how we use the Bible should evolve with the times as well.
This particular lesson is also useful, in part due to the challenges he faces on his quest. Trying to follow the Bible literally presents a number of practical challenges, in part because a lot of the Bible is not meant to be taken literally. So, in a number of useful places in his story, Jacobs stops to clarify the true meaning of a lot of words and phrases in the Bible (and not just because most of us are dealing with a translation, i.e. an interpretation of an interpretation). For example, even non-Bible readers are familiar with the phrase ‘an eye for an eye’ in the Old Testament. Jacobs states that this should not be read literally because what it actually means is “cash for an eye,” meaning that if you hurt someone’s eye, you need to pay them the “monetary value of the eye” (68). The difference is significant, as should be clear. He covers many such instances in the Bible.
So if so much of the Bible should not be taken at face value, should we bother reading it? He’s advised by several religiously-learned individuals that he needs to “look beyond the weirdness” that permeates a lot of the rules in the Bible and instead try and figure out the spirit of the intent, what it is really saying (87). Handled this way, the Bible seems much more practical that it does on the surface.
But people do this all the time, I imagine some people saying in response. Of course they do, I would say. But these aren’t necessarily the people protesting against gay people. These people are the ones who are using the Bible unjustly. Although this fraction is a minority of Christians, they are the ones with the loudest voice. They are the ones who need to pay closer attention.
But Jacobs isn’t focused on this vocal minority—although he does tackles the supposed anti-gay content, he’s more concerned with following all the rules, and when he does, he discovers something rather interesting: there’s a certain amount of liberty that a person experiences when their freedom of choice is restricted (143). He also discovered that being forced to comply with certain rules added something to his life, not take away. For example, although it’s difficult in the beginning, following the no-working-on-the-Sabbath becomes something he looks forward to (251). He’s forced to relax, and as someone who has trouble unplugging myself, I can see how this would be a rule worth embracing.
Is he a better person in the end? As someone who began this process as an agnostic, he finds that religion grounds him, makes him more present in this world. And the more he stops to notice, the more he appreciates. This is the real payoff.
Having read the Bible myself, I appreciate what this experience did for him. I don’t know that I experienced the same level of awakening that he did; however, about his final point about feeling grounded, I would agree that immersing yourself in the Bible does open your eyes to the world around you in new, beneficial ways. That said, I find that doing so forced me to be hyper aware of my sexuality in ways I was not before: The Bible forces me to think about being gay much more than I would, especially at my age (40), when I’m much more settled in my life (i.e. not out barhopping, clubbing, as I did in my 20s). Being gay is a part of my personality (like being a Star Wars collector or an avid Pearl Jam fan), but it doesn’t define me. The Bible, and those who choose to take the few places The Bible mentions homosexuality, would have it define me. And that’s a problem.
Next up: I examine how Jacobs addresses the gay content in the Bible.