Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Book Review: The Year of Living Biblically

I've been thinking carefully about how I should blog about this book. There were humorous moments, times when I quite liked the author, but there were more times when I got out my pen and wrote yet another note about how he had misquoted, stretched or made a nonsense of the Scriptures.

A J Jacobs is a career author, regularly churning out book after book based on strange challenges he sets himself. An American Dave Gorman, if you will. A previous effort saw him read through the Encyclopedia Britannica and use the facts he found there in his everyday life, as well as an appearance on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? The challenge he has set himself this time is, as the title suggests, to live biblically.

He's upfront and honest about his quest. He wants to 'explore religion.' And on that very point, he immediately stumbles into a great problem. He does indeed explore religion - rules to obey and seek some reward for obedience; but Christianity isn't about religion - it's about relationship. After a mammoth session of reading the Bible from cover to cover, he finds there are over 700 'rules' in the Bible, commands that he feels me has to fulfill and obey over the course of his year.

As he starts, he's only too honest that he doesn't believe in God, but seeks to practice 'cognitive dissonance', so that by behaving as if he believed in God, then eventually he will. Where practice leads the mind will follow. The logical conclusion of this is that the Bible is seen as a manmade book, a self-help manual, filled with rules and handy hints to make him a better person.

Yet as Hebrews warns, 'Without faith is it impossible to please [God], for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.' (Heb 11:6).

So how does he do as he seeks to keep the whole law? Within half an hour, he stumbles. Half an hour is quite impressive, yet he knows failure fairly quickly. And that's the point. The law wasn't meant to be kept, because we cannot do it. Yet Jesus perfectly kept the Law so that he does for us what we cannot do by ourselves.

He's a writer, out for laughs, and for maximum sales, and so majors in on the weirdest rules in the Bible. Wearing mixed fibres, impurity laws surrounding a woman's period and men's emmisions, stoning adulterers, not capturing a mother bird along with her egg, the red heifer. His overall opinion is that he admires the 'ethically advanced rules' but wonders how they sit beside 'these bizarre decrees.'

Part of his problem is that he takes random verses out of context. So, for example, the command to bind money in your hand (Deut 14:25), but one of our Sunday School class could probably spot his taking it out of context - this is in relation to the tithes to be brought up to Jerusalem for a party as a thanksgiving of all God's good gifts. It doesn't mean that when you're going out for a walk you bind up some money and carry it in your hand or attached to your clothing! In other occasions, he seems to think that the rules he has compiled are things to be checked off, and so he goes to particular people, places and events to tick off another rule from his list. Again, not really the right attitude!

Using his author's instinct for the ridiculous, he even admits that 'one of the reasons I embarked on this experiment was to take legalism to its logical extreme and show that it leads to righteous idiocy.' He has a problem with legalists? Christians too! We're not legalists at all, far from it, we abound in the grace and mercy of God, not in the letter of the law, which cannot save us and instead condemns us.

To help us through the year, he assembled a team of spiritual advisors - Christian pastors, Jewish rabbis, and anyone else he could call on. At times, he is helped, and at least does put across the reason why Christians do not observe the Old Testament sacrifices and ceremonial law (in several places) because Christ is our sacrifice for sin, and the Old Testament prepares the way and points forward to him.

An interesting read, to see how an unbeliever reacts to the Bible, but entirely predictable. In his reading, he completely misses the point, and focuses on rules rather than relationship, on 'I must' rather than 'Jesus has.'

For another reaction to the book, check out Phil's blog on Rules, Rules, Rules.

1 comment :

  1. AJ Jacobs’ book insults believing people everywhere with its dumb-show antics aping faith. If Jacobs had decided to spend a year as a cancer patient, if he’d written a cheery book describing how he’d hop into his hospital bed and act drained and uncomfortable, all done in front of people who are genuinely ill, the affront would not have been greater.
    We can only hope Jacobs gains some kind of perspective on all this renown before he dashes into his next book, because The Year of Living Green would be boring where this book is sacrilegious, and The Year of Living Fat would be cruel where this book is trite, and The Year of Living Muslim might get him blown up in his car. This reviewer’s advice to our author: invest some of those bestseller profits, take a few years off from writing these silly, stupid books, and actually study something. It’s an unsettling experience at first, but you’ll get used to it.