The Year of Living Biblically is, as the subtitle states, One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. Author A.J. Jacobs is not known for committing to projects by halves; while his year-long quest involves following the “biggies” (10 Commandments, Golden Rule), he also endeavors to follow the stranger, and archaic, laws: not wearing clothes of mixed fibers, building a hut in his living room, and stoning adulterers.
Jacobs also uses his year to meet with members of groups who interpret the Bible literally: he dances with Hasidic Jews, sings hymns with the Amish, visits a creationist museum, and discusses scripture with rabbis, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Red-letter Christians, and even atheists.
What Jacobs discovers about the Bible and its laws and history is important, but what he discovers about himself may be more so.
Religion, along with sex and politics, is a polarizing and contentious topic, one that can seem incompatible with humor and questioning of tradition. Jacobs manages it beautifully, including respectful contemplation (or dismissal) of concepts he finds odd or interesting.
While the “follow every rule” aspect was certainly fascinating, it’s the author’s studies of and conversations with representatives of different Christian groups that I found most riveting. Jacobs does a great job of evaluating and writing about them in a fair light, acknowledging his own disbelief or bias when necessary.
The history of religions, and how leaders interpret rules that were written thousands of years ago, is a big portion of the book — which were meant to be taken literally, and which metaphorically? Do all of these rules still apply in a world that is so different from what it once was? Can you follow the rules of the Bible without believing in God, or does that negate the purpose?
(Aside: In 1820 Thomas Jefferson compiled the Jefferson Bible, which included only Jesus’ moral teachings — no references to miracles or other supernatural events. Jefferson considered Jesus’ teachings “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” You can read the entire Jefferson Bible here; there’s a “Show the transcription” button once you click through.)
I also liked seeing which lessons “stuck” with the author. It was a strange, difficult journey for Jacobs, but he closes out his year a more peaceful, honest, kind individual. I enjoyed reading about his journey, and I think you will too.