A.J. Jacobs's first book, The Know-It-All, chronicled his quest to read the Encyclopedia Brittanica from A-to-Z. Jacobs has now extended his version of literary flagpole-sitting to the Bible in The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, in which he describes his attempts to adhere to the laws and commandments - Old and New Testament - set forth in the Bible.
Jacobs is a self-described agnostic, a secular Jew who had almost no exposure to religion, Jewish or otherwise. The only Bible he had when he started was a King James Version which he had somehow acquired from an ex-girlfriend, and which he had never opened. But he was intrigued by the apparent fascination of millions (if not billions) of people through time with what was written in the Bible, and chose this method of trying it on for size, so to speak.
His efforts are, of course, a gimmick...a hook to attract attention (hence my earlier reference to flagpole sitting). He also picked a potential minefield to meander through, given the reverence many of us have for God's Word. (Can you imagine someone taking a shot at the Koran in this fashion, for the purpose of writing a humorous book about the experience?) So, you might be surprised that I recommend reading his book, especially if you are a Christian. Here's why.
In addition to being a well-written and entertaining diary of a man trying to live with one foot in the 21st century and the other in 4,000 B.C., Jacobs's observations and experiences provide much food for contemplation. Most of the following items were probably not even on the author's radar screen as he wrote his book, but that doesn't make them any less valid.
- He reminds us of the Jewish underpinnings of our faith. Through liberal consultation with various religious advisers, Jacobs sheds light on the Jewish traditions surrounding many of the [primarily Old Testament] commands. We also get to see how some modern-day Jews continue to observe the letter of the Law.
- He unwittingly demonstrates the absolute futility of living a life that's "good enough" to please God. Jacobs is quite forthright about his failures in living up to even some of the most seeming simple commandments, and his frustrations are a reminder of the importance of God's grace.
- His attitude nevertheless serves as a valuable reminder of the importance of putting God at the forefront of our thoughts and works. We are called to be holy, even as God is holy. A good place to start is to dwell on His word in all things.
Of course, as interesting - and occasionally hilarious - as it might be to watch someone try to shoehorn ancient Jewish traditions into a modern New York City lifestyle, the ultimate question for Christian readers has to be: what about Jesus?
Jacobs lays out his quandary in clear terms: If I don't accept Christ, can I get anything out of the New Testament at all? What if I follow the oral teaching of Jesus but don't worship his as God? Or is that just a fool's errand?
In the end, Jacobs cannot - will not - acknowledge Jesus Christ as the messiah that his forefathers prophesied about, and the Christian reader will find his stance puzzling and disappointing. How can someone dive into the Bible - a book comprised of revelations inspired by God Himself with the overarching purpose of pointing mankind to the Savior - and still come away a non-believer?
Jacobs states that Ecclesiastes is his favorite book in the Bible, presumably because of its pragmatic wisdom and advice. It's ironic then that in his quest to live according to the truths of the Bible, he is unable to recognize The Truth for which the book was written. That, in the end, made his exercise the ultimate "vanity of vanities."