The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

December 26, 2008

Book review: Writer chronicles year spent ‘Living Biblically’


‘The Year of Living Biblically’

By A.J. Jacobs

While it didn’t sound like something I’d be interested in, a friend recommended “The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible” by A. J. Jacobs, so I decided to give it a try. I’m glad I did. Jacobs has an engaging writing style and an inquiring mind which, along with a willing spirit, he brought to his self-appointed task of trying to follow all the rules of the Bible for a year.

A secular Jew, he devoted the first two-thirds or so of the year to following the Hebrew Bible and the last third to the New Testament. Along the way, he talked to people of various faiths as well as atheists and consulted with a number of religious leaders, from rabbis of various movements to Protestants of several denominations and Catholic priests. The Biblical interpretations and viewpoints he received from his sources were, naturally, very wide-ranging and often contradictory. His efforts to live according to the rules were heart-felt and sincere, if sometimes confused. There is a lot of humor, and some serious discomfort, in his interactions with friends and family as well as strangers.

Among the first rules he adopts are those that pertain to dress and appearance, so he begins by growing his beard and trying not to wear mixed fibers. Early on, he creates a list of the Top Five Most Perplexing Rules in the Bible, the ban against wearing mixed fibers being one of them. Mixed fibers crop up occasionally throughout the book, and lead him to one of the interesting people he meets during the course of the year: Mr. Berkowitz, the shatnez tester (shatnez being the Hebrew word for “mixed fibers”). To Jacobs’ surprise, it turns out that there are, in fact, Orthodox Jews who closely follow the rule about mixed fibers, and since you cannot trust fabric labels to be 100-percent accurate, you have to test clothing to make sure that it is wearable. Moreover, the rule appears to apply solely to wearing flax (linen) and wool together. Why? Well, this is one of the 613 rules that Orthodox Jews live by that are chukim — laws without explanation. Of course, there are, as it turns out, many different theories about why those laws came about and what they mean, and Jacobs goes into some detail about that as well. The bottom line for the observant, though, is (essentially) God said so.

In addition to the material about trying to follow all the rules he can find (and manage to follow — some rules are illegal, like “kill magicians”), Jacobs writes about his family life, particularly his long-suffering wife, Julie. During the course of the year, they go through the attempt to add a second child to their family which brings in another layer of rules to think about as they consider in vitro fertilization. Is that biblically OK or not? Again, opinions differ.

Over the course of the year, Jacobs goes to Israel (where he meets one of the surviving 700 or so Samaritans), a snake-handling church in Tennessee, a Bible study and sermon at Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church in Virginia, and a Bible study group run by Evangelicals Concerned (a gay and gay-friendly group of Evangelicals) in New York City, where he lives.

It’s a hard-to-put-down book (I read the 559 page large-print edition in three sittings) written with sincerity, humor, puzzlement, consternation and hope. It’s hard to say which I enjoyed more — Jacobs’ personal quest or the bits and pieces of information about various rules, sects and people. It is a mind-opening work of one man’s search for meaning and connection. The library owns large- and regular-print editions.

Linda Cannon is the collection development librarian at Joplin Public Library.