I read “The Year of Living Biblically” some time ago. I intended to write a review of it immediately, but somehow that kept on getting left off. Now I decided enough was enough and that I would write it.
First the precept of this book – the author, A.J. Jacobs, decides that in order to learn more about religion, he will spend a year trying to follow the teachings of the Bible as literally as possible.
It’s part a stunt, criticising the absurdity of literal Biblical interpretation. And, in part, he actually wants to learn about religion. By jumping in and living it from the inside, he wants to see if there is actually anything missing from his previous, secular life.
In particular, he explains he was inspired to do so by the birth of his son. He had no firm philosophical grounding for teaching his son to be a good person, and was alarmed at the moral relativism and cynicism abound in our modern society. While not entirely convinced by religion, he wanted to see if it could help him, and his son, become better people.
As a “spiritual but not religious” type myself, I think there might be a third option he could consider. But I’m not going to make an issue out of that. I love the precept of this book, because it’s so committed, so daring, so out there. And I can really identify with his desire to find that “something more”, even if I wouldn’t do it in the same way.
Insights From The Bible
He explains his year in a day-to-day diary format. It’s quirky, often funny, and interesting. As the author readily admits, he’s an OCD type with a tendency to pick up rituals, so he fits quite well into the new life.
I could explain all the amusing things he reports like growing out a beard, throwing stones at adulterers, wearing only white, trying to play a ten-string harp, and all sorts of other oddities taken out of the absurd commandments of the Bible. But that’s really just kind of the quirky icing on the cake.
What I really liked about this book were how the author – and, vicariously, I – gained some real insights through this experiment in living.
As you can imagine, a lot of the rules of the Bible are just nonsensical, e.g. if your wife grabs the testicles of a man while defending her husband in a fight, you must cut off her hand. And of course some others are quite sensible but almost anyone could see that they make sense, e.g. love thy neighbour. What is interesting is when something doesn’t seem to make sense at first, but then ends up making sense.
Stuff That Didn’t Seem To Make Sense, Making Sense
I liked reading how wearing white made A.J. feel better, almost lighter or more spiritual somehow. That’s something that’s not always intuitive. I had actually come to the same realisation myself, though it wasn’t something I’d always known.
What was more of a revelation to me, though, was his experience with swearwords:
I used to curse a lot. In fact, my computer password was, at one time, a particularly adolescent bodily function. During my year, I tried to scrub up my vocabulary. My new curse words were: Fudge, sugar and shoot. Whenever I said them, my wife would respond by whistling the Andy Griffith theme song. She can mock me, but the weird thing is, I think my G-rated language made me a less angry person. Because here’s the way it works: I’d get to the subway platform just as the downtown train was pulling away, and I’d start to say the F-word. I’d remember to censor myself. So I’d turn it into “Fudge” at the last second. When I heard myself say “Fudge” out loud, it sounded so folksy, so Jimmy Stewart-ish and amusingly dorky, that I couldn’t help but smile. My anger receded. Behavior shaped emotions.
This came at a time when I was starting to question my use of swearwords.
I had been just like A.J.: no filter. But then my experience with the drug MDMA showed me, through my then-increased sensitivity, that words have a vibration and swearwords somehow feel negative and unhealthy. It was a subtle thing.
Then when I read these words from A.J. I really thought I should start paying attention to these things. And so I did.
If I’d written this here post just after reading the book, I’d have said I was going to try swearing less as an experiment. Instead, I just took the message on board, and have begun toning down my habitual cusswords, from “shit” to “crap”, from “fuck” to “shag” or “screw”, from “fucking” to “frikkin”, and from “hell” to “heck”.
While it’s not a complete change, and I still use the stronger words from time to time, it does feel better this way.
Too Subtle To Measure
Which brings me onto the general realisation I got from this book: sometimes things that are too subtle to measure, still mean something. Swearwords for example. Or white lies. Or pride.
It’s not so easy to say WHY exactly these things are a bad idea. But somehow, some part of us can still feel that they are when we focus on it. And I do think there may be subtle repercussions from abusing these things, effects which ripple through our lives and come up in unexpected ways, the cause completely unnoticed.
Religion is a set of rules written with the understanding that people are not going to think about them – they are just going to follow them. And, while there are obvious problems with this, I think religion may still hide some ideas which really can only really be expressed this way, because their value is too subtle to put down to rational cause and effect.
But you don’t have to try out religion. I personally would never do it. But I appreciate very much that I could learn from A.J. Jacobs’ experience. Like Jesus suffering from horrifying and gratuitous torture, A.J. did it so you don’t have to.*
*Joke, I don’t actually believe in Hell or that Christ tried to save us from it. I think he was smarter than that.
Another thing that makes “The Year of Living Biblically” worth a read are the travels A.J. did for the purposes of religious inspiration.
He spoke with many different religious counselors and visited many different Christian congregations – and what a better place to do that than America, with the Amish, the 1000s-strong megachurches, the Mormons, the snake handlers, and so on. It helped me appreciate the vast diversity of human expression, and perhaps I got inspired by a few things, too. The snake handlers are very interesting, and the Amish are in equal parts weird and inspiring (at least to me).
The Amish, as we see in “The Year Of Living Biblically”, have a mandate to measure their words very carefully and not say anything that is unnecessary. As someone who speaks very impulsively and often doesn’t review her speech before speaking it, this was oddly interesting and inspiring. I could see that maybe a moderate version of that philosophy could make sense. It kind of goes hand in hand with what I was saying above about how subtle things can be important, even if you don’t see any direct result from them.
The book was also interesting almost on a geeky level – reading about all of the weirdest parts of the Bible and how certain fringe communities actually put those teachings into practise. Some of it was just shocking, like the ritual slaughter of chickens by some Jews. Other parts were unusual, such A.J.’s visit to the dwindling Samaritan tribe in Jerusalem. Other parts still were intriguing – like the LGBT Christian group he visited, and the – rather tight – Biblical arguments they used to justify themselves to the rest of Christianity.
So, in general, “The Year Of Living Biblically” was an engaging read and eye-opening at more than a few points. I was pleased with it in particular because of the realisation it led me to about the power of words. But there were quite a few other nice takeaways, and I felt like my life was better for having read it. And that’s about as high a compliment I can make for a book
Addition: I found this article while researching my post. If you don’t want to read a whole book, you can read this for a condensed version. In particular A.J. lists and explains his 5 top takeaways from the experiment: Keep the Sabbath, Give Thanks, Wear White Clothing, Don’t Gossip, and Don’t curse.