The Gospel According to A.J.

The market for gimmick books—shtick lit, as it were—has enjoyed a surprising shelf life. There are authors who pledge not to spend money for a year, those who promise to say yes to everything and, of course, those who only eat food made by 21st century chemical processes. Writing one seems simple enough: You need an absurd lifestyle and the willpower to stick with it for a year or some other marketable length of time. But even amidst an overabundance of gonzo journalistic endeavors, A.J. Jacobs appears to have cornered the market.

It’s not just because Jacobs’ last book, _The Know It All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Man in the World_, in which he recounted his year spent reading the entire _Encyclopedia Britannica_, earned wide praise beyond its novelty appeal. It’s because Jacobs has that rare ability to be sincere without being self-serious, to be laugh-aloud funny without being ridiculous. This skill is crucial to the success of his most recent quest, which is to “follow the Bible as literally as possible.” In _The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humbe Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible_ (Simon & Schuster, 2007), Jacobs studies both the New Testament and the Old, meets with various religious advisers and, most importantly, follows the myriad and often conflicting rules of the Bible—he cannot wear mixed fibers, trim his beard or touch a woman while she’s menstruating, which, as Jacobs sees it, could be any woman at any time. You can imagine the awkwardness that ensues.

Despite his liberal sensibilities—Jacobs is a secular Jew—he does not pick and choose what rituals to practice no matter how disruptive to his daily life (he’s an editor at Esquire) or, more importantly, to his family (luckily, he has a very patient wife). His singular focus often yields behavior that is weird at its best and repulsively self-righteous at its worst. In one particularly cringe-worthy instance, Jacobs and his wife run into an old friend of hers. When the friend suggests that they all get together soon, instead of nodding in agreement, Jacobs, per the Bible’s proscription against lying, explains that he’d “rather not. I really don’t have time for new friends right now.” Did he really have to embarrass his wife and offend her friend for the sake of a book project? No, but this sort of unconventional behavior is central to Jacobs’ point: At the end of the day, following the ancient text literally almost always requires dropping out of general society, as many religious groups have.

Studying the Bible and following its rules in secular America is only part of the story. He also visits numerous religious groups, including the Amish, the Hasids and Jerry Falwell’s mega-church congregation. While these jaunts provide some funny background, they’re far less interesting than Jacobs’ personal struggle to find meaning in the arcane rituals dictated by the Good Book. Can he actually accept Jesus Christ as his Savior? Can he condemn homosexuals? Can he no longer covet and stop checking _Amazon.com_ to see where his first book ranks? You should be able to figure out the answers to these questions without reading _The Year of Living Biblically_, but it says something about Jacobs’s writing that the book is utterly engrossing even though you already know how it ends.

It’s easy for an agnostic to find resonance in this book as Jacobs lies in the Sukkah he’s built and tries to feel something, or when he starts to question whether he’s doing good deeds—like the singularly New York act of agreeing to read his neighbor’s manuscript—just because the Bible says so. These moments should be familiar to anyone who has ever tried to find faith or meaning in something greater than themselves. _Biblically_, unlike its inspiration, is not revelatory, but it does offer a thoughtful and thankfully humorous voice, on a subject that does not often enjoy much of either.

What do you think?

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4 Responses

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