It seems very authentically Jewish to write smart and funny social commentary about exploring spirituality through following obscure rules. I don’t know if such a thing as being “authentically Jewish” exists (versus everyone who is inauthentically Jewish, right?), and I hope I don’t offend by that phrase, but what I’m saying is that I don’t think Moses and Isaiah and all the boys would kick A.J. Jacobs out of their club. In fact, I think Jacobs comes closer to meaningful Bible commentary than any contemporary Christian writers I have read. I was worried when I started the book that it would be like my experience with the Will Farrell movie Blades of Glory
: without much substance beyond the weirdness of the concept. Instead, The Year of Living Biblically
was an adventure, and I feel it would be very thought provoking and entertaining for readers of any religion or spiritual persuasion.
Jacobs’ purpose in following the Bible as literally as possible is to prove that each of us, regardless of our specific beliefs, makes choices as to what constitutes Scripture (or holiness, or what have you) and what doesn’t. Specifically, Jacobs looks at interpretations of the Bible (2/3 Old Testament, 1/3 New Testament) and tests how relevant, or even manageable, they are today. He goes about this with the earnestness of a little kid memorizing statistics on his favorite baseball team or learning how to take apart a car, and I think that enthusiasm is what makes this book charming rather than obnoxious. For example, when he finds two prevailing interpretations of how to live a biblical rule or principal, he does both. He gives thanks both before and after a meal, and when deciding who he should stone, he looks for someone working on both Saturday and Sunday (failing to observe both the Jewish and Christian Sabbaths). I mean, if you have to stone someone, it’s better to cover your bases, right?
If it is not already obvious in what I have said thus far, A.J. Jacobs is unabashedly weird. I don’t get the impression that the weirdness is a show, either, but that the show is some kind of natural part of his weirdness. I think that makes this a compliment. Regardless, his weirdness brings out the weirdness in others enough to make the cast of characters in The Year of Living Biblically
as hilarious and horrifying as a Dickens novel. The book is not a circus, though, and Jacobs treats all of his characters and their beliefs with respect, whether he agrees or disagrees with them. He is very honest about his own skepticism and willing to say when something seems hateful or unlikely, but he is also very open to the views of others.
is updated pretty frequently, and while scanning through it, I came across this selection, which gives a pretty good sample of his writing:Tuesday, April 11, 2006
The Other Moses
I got a note from a reader saying that I shouldn’t ignore the ‘hanging curveball’ thrown by Gwyneth, who just begat a new son named Moses.
It’s a rich topic, to be sure. Though as a guy whose real name is “Arnold,” I don’t think I can really make fun of other people’s names.
But...I will say that if the Paltrow-Martins are trying to form some sort of Biblical theme (Apple from Genesis, Moses from Exodus), they should know that most Biblical scholars do not think that the unnamed forbidden fruit was an apple.
The more likely candidates, they say, include pomegranate, fig, apricot, wheat and grape. One source said it was a banana tree, but that might just be crazy talk.
I hope that people will not dismiss this book before they have read it. It is possible that people on the right and will expect it to be hateful mockery and people on the left will expect it to be irrelevant. I don’t think it is either of those things, but rather, as I said, thoughtful and smart. Often he discusses debates over Scripture similar to the passage above in that his ultimate conclusion is that the very nature of the debate is a little loony tunes. I found his reflections on the value of faith and family, however, very insightful. Hopefully, we can learn his more profound lessons without having to forsake mixed fibers and carry a Handyseat for a year, but it is a comfort to have A.J. Jacobs out there on the front lines of literalness, taking the bullet for the rest of us.