The Year of Living Biblically

Book by A.J. Jacobs

Review by John Halford

Who would have thought that legalism could be so much fun? In a previous book, The Know-It-All, this innovative author chronicled his attempt to read through the Encyclopedia Britannica — every word of it — in one year. What could he do as an encore? His answer: to not only read through the Bible in one year, but to try to put everything he discovered in its pages into action in his life.

Jacobs takes his self-imposed assignment — although not himself — very seriously. Much of what we read or write about the Bible is filtered through our theological perspective. Jacobs has no such restriction. He is not a religious man, and has little previous understanding of the Scriptures. As he discovers something, be it a major commandment or a minor statute, he tries to apply it. His question is not “does this apply today?” so much as “how can I do this today?” He makes efforts to love his neighbors, he employs an expert to search his wardrobe for clothes of mixed fibers, he learns to pray, to play on a ten-stringed harp and to blow a shofar trumpet. He also visits fundamental religious communities and travels to the Holy Land to experience firsthand the Bible environment.

The result is a fascinating, profound and often hilarious commentary, quite unlike anything I have ever read before. He is never disrespectful, although it is obvious that some of what he writes is with tongue very much in cheek. He exposes, perhaps more effectively than any doctrinal argument, just why a fundamentalist legalistic approach just does not work. But he also begins to discover the value of prayer and worship.

At the end of his year, Jacobs shaves off his by now enormous beard, goes back to his usual diet and resumes a normal life. But his experience has changed him. As he concludes: “I’ll never live with so many restrictions. But a part of my biblical alter ego has carried over. If my Bible self had a foot-long beard, what remains is barely a five o’clock shadow, but it’s there. I think it’ll always be there.”

Many readers of this magazine have rejected, or are in the process of rejecting, a legalistic approach to Christianity. Too often, the questions you must wrestle with along the way are presented in a confrontational style. I think you will find A. J. Jacob’s gentle, humorous and yet profound account of his attempt to “live biblically” to be a delightful change of pace. In fact, as the dust jacket warns, “Thou shalt not be able to put it down.”

A.J. Jacobs, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, Simon and Schuster, 388 pages, $25.

Copyright 2008

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