Instead of simply offering a laundry list of books I enjoyed from time to time I thought I would try to add to my blogging experiment some review on the books I read. Hopefully this will not only offer a preview before you throw down your next twenty dollars at the bookstore, but will help me better digest content. So for my first attempt at public book review I offer you A.J. Jacobs’ bestseller The Year of Living Biblically, One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. (Simon & Schuster, 2007, 332 pages)
A.J. Jacobs is the editor at large of Esquire magazine. He is agnostic, a true New Yorker, extremely secular, and Jewish “in the same way the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant.” The Year of Living Biblically chronicles his participatory journey into fundamentalist Biblical literalism by trying to live every commandment, principle, jot and tittle of Scripture as closely as possible. From stoning adulterers in Central Park to being faced with administering his child’s first spanking Jacobs’ quest involves applying even the most quirky commandments to daily life. Without ruining the read for you the comedic value is high in this one.
The journey is not without an agenda. He writes, “I would do this by being the ultimate fundamentalist. I’d be fearless. I would do exactly what the Bible said, and in so doing, I’d discover what’s the great and timeless in the Bible and what is outdated.” Being a devout Christian I encountered Jacob’s purpose with my own sense of skepticism. I figured by the end of the book I would be exhausted by the rehearsal of the common secular/agnostic/intelligent New Yorker/agnostic/media type conclusions about people like me, people of faith who follow Jesus. You know the song and dance, that we’re basically flat earth idiots who should be exiled to a strange island where we can spend our nights sitting around a fire singing Kum Ba Yah to our happy slappy God delusion.
I was wrong.
The more I read the more I found myself actually rooting for Jacobs. His story was humorous and honest. I think he was surprised by two things. One, that even the most obscure commandments in the Bible can be meaningful. Even if we never understand their purpose they still possess the capacity to deepen life, all of them are in some way wise. The more Jacobs applied Scripture to his walk, at times just for a laugh, the more he grew. He learned to be thankful, prayerful, and thoughtful. Jacobs was surprised at how truly deep and transformative the Bible is when applied to every facet of life. I think the second thing Jacobs found surprising was that people of faith are not flat earth idiots. From his visit to Ken Hamm’s creation museum, to Jerusalem, to a trip to a Tennessee snake handling church (as odd as even I think snake handling is), Jacobs found that people of faith are a diverse and profound people. Sure each of us may have our own odd idiosyncrasies but the term fundamentalist does not necessarily mean stark raving, uneducated lunatic.
At times the book rambles along and seems long, but you can’t help but be drawn in to the day by day account. As a pastor and student who has spent a good portion of my life concerned with the interpretation of Scripture, I loved some of the ways Jacobs found to apply the text to even the mundane moments of life. There were a few borderline crude moments, but the story is what it is, a man that does not believe in God trying his best to do what God has spelled out for all of us to do. And for this reason I was rooting for Jacobs on every page; hoping that in the next chapter, the next day he would meet God. At times when it seemed as if he were close to the truth, realizing that Scripture is not just ancient moral codes, but a directive toward a passionate relationship with God through His Son Jesus Christ. But in those moments that bordered too closely to truth Jacobs pulled in the reins and would not allow himself to go there. SPOILER WARNING: In the end, I was disappointed when he reduced God to a ten minute feeling of mystical euphoria. The Creator of the universe, the Heavenly Father is not a mystical but actual. He is God.
Personally I was convicted by the book in that here is a guy who is agnostic, who allows his world to be cataclysmically restructured by the Bible. Here I am, a believer and follower of Jesus Christ, and I look around wondering what in my world has been so cataclysmically impacted by my faith? Don’t get me wrong, I think my life is profoundly shaped by the Bible, but at times it becomes so routine I wonder what it is that I am truly sacrificing, giving, restoring, exploring, restructuring that I may conform more of myself to Christ? Am I constantly and meticulously evaluating every thought, action, and moment of my life against the Word of God? At times Jacobs was overly compulsive to the point of stifling the Scriptures, but all in all I found it convicting that he was willing to go so far.
Sure, he did it for a book deal, but I honestly think Jacobs found in the Bible more than he bargained for. Sure, it was massively Old Testament and he may not have given the New Testament a fair shake, but I truly appreciated the book just the same. My prayer is that Jacobs’ journey did not end with a shave and a manuscript. I hope that in his mind and heart he continues to explore faith, because I know that in his mind and heart now there is so much Scripture that surely the power of God in the gospel is making an impact on him. Perhaps it will fruit unto salvation.
Quick Note: Jacobs employs an array of spiritual advisors who range from theologically conservative, to skeptical, to liberal. He attends an evangelical gay event, he struggles to find the place of alcohol in the Biblical walk – he is unapologetically agnostic. This book is not a Bible commentary or a Sunday School lesson. If you want a book that is Baptist, conservative, and “in the circle” per se, this is not it. If you have a hard time reading books that question the truth and validity of Scripture, this is not it. It is what it is, an agnostic, secular New Yorker trying to participate in a world that is foreign to him – and he writes honestly from his perspective. This is not a Christian book! To borrow from Jacobs’ humor, this is a Christian book in the same way that Garth Brook’s “Unanswered Prayers” is a Christian song! I enjoyed the book because I think it is interesting to see how people who do not believe in Christ perceive the ways and means of our faith.