Thursday, October 23, 2008

Book Report

Last year I read The Know-it-all by A. J. Jacobs, about a guy’s quest to read the entire Encyclopaedia Brittanica in a year. It was surprisingly entertaining, and so I gladly picked up Jacobs’s second offering, The Year of Living Biblically, which documents the year he spent supposedly trying to live by the bible.

What a disappointment.

I guess a big part of it was that this time the subject was much closer to my heart. (Who cares what anyone thinks about the Encyclopaedia Brittanica?)

It seems as if Jacobs really meant to try, sort of. But the thing is, I don’t believe you can just try out a worldview. You either adopt it or you don’t. (“There is no try,” as Yoda says.) I don’t believe that Jacobs has made an authentic attempt to understand the Christian mindset at all. What he might call living a Christian life turns out to be nothing but following a few hand-picked, quirky behavioral codes (chosen more for their colorfulness than out of any sense of hierarchy or importance).

Jacobs makes a (very long) list of all of the “rules” and “suggestions” from the bible (Old and New Testament) and then tries to live a lot of them, including bizarre ones like not wearing clothing with mixed fibers and getting a chicken sacrificially killed for him. Reading the book is slow, slow going at first because the first two-thirds of the book are focused only on the Old Testament, which to me is such a very little part of the gospel. (But then, Jacobs is a [non-practicing] Jew.) But I waded through the first part out of eagerness to see what he would make of the last (and most important) part. The coming of Christ can, after all, fulfill, enrich, explain, and/or magnify what came before. Would Jacobs see this? Would he feel it? Would he honestly explore Christianity, actually ask the big questions, open up his heart to the possibility of conversion?

Of course not. Sigh.

Here’s his explanation for not even trying: “I could adopt the cognitive-dissonance strategy: If I act like Jesus is God, eventually maybe I will start to believe that Jesus is God. That’s been my tactic with the God of the Hebrew Bible, and it’s actually started to work. But there’s a difference. When I do it with the Hebrew God, I feel like I’m trying on my forefathers’ robes and sandals. There’s a family connection. Doing it with Jesus would feel uncomfortable. I’ve come to value my heritage enough that it’d feel disloyal to convert.” [Ack. Far be it for him to actually go so far as to make himself uncomfortable during this year. Perish the thought that he actually open his mind to something.] “Which naturally leads to this quandary: If I don’t accept Christ, can I get anything out of the New Testament at all? What if I follow the moral teachings of Jesus but don’t worship him as God? Or is that just a fool’s errand? Again, depends whom you ask” (p. 256). And then, of course, he goes on to highlight various philosophies on how literally one out to interpret the bible, which is all this book really is anyhow: one friendly, all-American non-practicing Jewish guy with a sense of humor appearing to give religion the old American go because that’s the kind of guy he is, but really copping out by highlighting the most extreme and oddball interpretations, holding all the contradictions up against each other, and coming out at the end a little more thankful, a little more moral, a little more appreciative of his religious buddies.

Later he says, “It comes back to the idea of surrendering. I still haven’t been able to fully surrender my spirit or emotions, but I have at least surrendered some of my bank account.” Which really sums up the book, to me. “Hey, I donated a little time, a little study, a little money to trying out this religion thing. Didn’t do anything for me. Yeah, yeah, so I didn’t invest my heart in it or anything—but you gotta admit it was a trip, right? Can’t we be friends and call it good?”

Bleh, what a let-down. And this time it wasn’t even funny.

1 comment:

Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury said...

Hey, great review. I've thought about reading this book, but you've answered any questions I had, so thanks.

I think you should post this to the AML list and see if it generates any discussion.