First Lines: The Year of Living Biblically

People use the bible to justify just about everything. There are those that object to same-sex marriage because the bible says that marriage is a sacred institution meant for a man and a woman. There are those that protest at funerals of gay people because the book of Deuteronomy says that thou shalt not lie with a man like with a woman. There are those who keep strict dietary prescriptions because the bible says that thou shall not eat this or that, for it is unclean. There are those who claim that evolution isn’t true, for the bible says that the god of Adam and Abraham and Noah and Moses, etc. created the heavens and the earth in six days.

And yet there are very few people who would insist on keeping slaves, offering goats, smearing lamb’s blood over their doors, stoning adulterers, blasphemers, rebellious sons and sabbath-breakers, and always wearing white.

The bible is full of rules. Some of them make sense, where some of them do not. And that is precisely why I have a bit of a problem with it: if it is indeed the inerrant, revealed word of God, shouldn’t you go whole hog and abide it’s every rule? Who decides which part of the bible you should take literally and which parts are meant metaphorically? If, indeed, God has a higher, unknowable plan with all those rules, who are we mere mortals to pick and choose? That’s a very slippery slope.

For me, it’s simple: since everybody seems to neglect the parts from the bible that don’t suit their fancy, it has just about the moral authority of the Grimm fairy tales. If you really believe the bible is the infallible revealed word of God, you should heed all its rules.

Which is exactly what A.J. Jacobs (who is Jewish in the same sense that the Pizza Hut serves traditional Italian food) tries to do in The Year of Living Biblically. For a year he tries to obey the bible’s many, many rules as literally as possible, to find out what’s good in it, and what’s maybe not so relevant to the 21st century. The result is a very interesting and lighthearted memoir. It’s a good book.

Personally, there where a few times that I wanted to sit Jacobs down and give him a good talking to. For example: after he tells about this former Buddhist-guru-gone-born-again-Christian-turned-hard-core-Jew ex-uncle Gil, he says he fears slipping past the mainstream into the stranger fringes of religion. Then, he comes up with this:

It’s why I don’t know what to do with Jasper [his son]. If I give him some religion, then he might become obsessed and go Guru Gil [the ex-uncle] on me. Then again, if I give him no religion, he could descend into moral anarchy. They’re both so risky. I feel like I can’t win.

He (repeatedly, I might add) seems not to realize that you don’t need God, the bible or some other spiritual guide to live a perfectly moral life. So what he comes away with at the end of the year, is that it’s impossible to live by all the biblical rules, and that whether or not there’s a God, there’s such a thing as sacredness. Life is sacred. The Sabbath can be a sacred day. Prayer can be a sacred ritual. There is something transcendent, beyond the every day. I understand the sentiment. But like I said: you don’t need a god or holy book for that.

A.J. Jacobs — The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible
As I write this, I have a beard that makes me resemble Moses.