My brother introduced me to A.J. Jacob’s first book, The Know-It-All (he, I assume, learned about him from Mental Floss), and that book became one of my surprise favorites of 2005. So, strange though the premise may be, I looked forward to reading his new book, The Year of Living Biblically, in which he attempts to live by a completely literal interpretation of the Bible for a year.
Here’s the thing about Jacobs: just like Know-It-All wasn’t really a book about the encyclopedia, neither is The Year of Living Biblically actually a book about literally following the tenets of the Bible for a year. In truth, Jacobs is an autobiographer, and these themes are just vehicles by which he can narrate the ups and downs of his own life while getting to cite a heaping helping of trivia in the meantime.
Jacobs, Jewish by heritage, is a self-described agnostic. He is also a self-described New York secular liberal. It is unsurprising that the two literalist items of significant controversy right now—creationism and antipathy to homosexuality—he basically dismisses out of hand, even though he visits Ken Ham’s creationism museum and talks to a pastor at Jerry Falwell’s megachurch about homosexuality.
No, the focus of Jacob’s year-long experiment is decidedly Hebrew: the hundreds of ceremonial and morals laws cited in the Old Testament, such as avoiding touching a woman during her period, not trimming one’s beard, always telling the truth. It becomes clear that Jacobs has no possible hope of really following all these rules, so the narrative really does become, like his previous, divided in segments wherein he divulges some bit of trivia or religious tradition, and then somehow ties it to his own life and pretends to be enlightened.
But, I notice that in all the time Jacob spends fulfilling odd Talmudic laws, and later researching New Testament perspective, he doesn’t bother going to church (maybe once or twice), which I think most religious folk would argue is an important criterion for living “Biblically.”
All in all, Jacobs seems entirely too credulous for an agnostic, fretting histrionically about his piety and the faith (or lack thereof) of his young son, Jasper, and the second child that he and his wife are trying to have. I feel like he’s far too cynical for that kind of earnestness, and I have a feeling that at least some of it is putting on airs for the sake of writing a book that won’t piss off religious people.
Jacob’s ultimate conclusion is really two items:
- Everyone, no matter how fundamentalist, is a so-called “cafeteria Christian”—that is, picking and choosing what parts of the Bible to following and believe it. What parts of the Old Testament are ceremonial law? What parts are moral law? Who decides? Of the hundreds and hundreds of Biblical imperatives, there are always some that are left out for the sake of convenience or otherwise.
- Some of A.J.’s focus on biblical ritual and tradition made him a better person, ostensibly: it’s all rather touchy-feely stuff about appreciating family and that kind of abstracted thing, which makes me feel like he was stretching to be inclusive. He seems somewhat insincere, like a person who smiles a little too simperingly when they lie. He says very little about Jesus, other than the fact that he still can’t accept the idea of Jesus qua saviour.
My distilled opinion of the book is that it’s a weaker piece than his previous, if for no other reason than he felt constrained (for whatever reason) to write insincerely. It has plenty of interesting Bible trivia (though you might need a Bible handy to reference), but the frame is a bit week, as is Jacob’s own personal narrative. It feels forced.
As is my wont, I probably sound overly harsh here: let me say, with all sincerity, that Jacobs is an excellent writer. He has a good feel for narrative flow, he’s witty and funny and not infrequently poignant as well. I’m comparing him only to his (limited) canon, against which his latest book is only slightly less entertaining (or rather, perhaps, slightly more frustrating?) than its predecessor. I heartily recommend either book by Jacobs, because they are both amusing and informative, and you can’t really ask anything more of a book (especially when it’s written by the editor of Esquire).