I’ve just finished reading A J Jacob’s The Year of Living Biblically, (Heinemann, 2008). It’s a great read: Jacobs is a secular, agnostic Jew from New York, a writer, who decides that he would personally like to engage with the Bible for a full year, to try to find out what his cultural heritage is all about. So with a publication contract in hand, he undertakes to study the Bible for a year and to try to obey all the commands in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. I’ve heard him speak about his journey, as well as read the book.
He spent four weeks reading through the Bible, writing out every command. He then decided to try to take them all literally. The account is funny at times, and deeply insightful.
First, some of the funny bits. Jacobs discovers that there is a well developed science amongst strictly orthodox Jews, for examining clothes to determine if they contain any mixed fibres. He wants to obey the ruling that you should not wear any garment with mixed fibres. An enthusiastic man brings instruments to examine his wardrobe. Soon Jacobs is wearing a white robe of simple cotton, and travels everywhere in this outfit. Each new month, he blows a horn, made from an animal’s horn. No one takes any notice of these weird sounds, but he does it anyway.
He undertakes serious study of the history of biblical interpretation, and the book contains a number of succinct summaries of some of his findings—the range of approaches to various issues.
He stops shaving and cutting his hair, and the book has photographs of the year-long progress of his beard and hair. He writes out sections of the Torah, on the door-frame of his rented apartment. The landlord is perplexed. He wrestles with many of the laws in Leviticus, such as stoning adulterers (here, he settles for pitching grains of gravel at them) and others about cutting off hands or plucking eyes.
These puzzles bring him directly into issues of interpretation. Quickly he finds that the scholars and communities have very different approaches, both within Judaism and Christianity.
Overall, the book offers a month-by-month account of his experience and his findings.
I’d like to identify a number of the things I found really interesting and helpful.
1. Contrary to expectations, Jacobs finds that religion and spirituality are really relevant to and connected with everyday life. He especially enjoys the Prophets and their commitment to social justice, but gradually many other aspects of his daily life ‘living biblically’ take on new significance. He finds that he is not moving away from the life of the world, nature, people, and so on but is actually seeing things with fresh and appreciative eyes. He also finds that the religion of the Bible is more practical than he had imagined, but that it is necessary to understand the history of the culture and the text in order to see much of its meaning. In many instances, a literal reading make little sense, until the text is allowed this history and cultural setting. But when these factors are given their place, the Bible has so much more to offer, Jacobs finds.
2. He also finds real value in a determined approach to gratitude and service. After taking on a lot of negative rulings and prohibitions (no lustful thoughts, not looking at images—imagine that!) he develops positive routines for being thankful, I would say obsessively) and for seeking ways to assist others. It is interesting to see how he tries to find ways to give away a tenth of his income, without giving money to a faith community (which is how Christians would understand this idea). After months of doing good deeds to strangers (many of whom suspect him of wanting something, or attempting something improper), he reflects that it is a valuable discipline to try to help others. He remembers that at school a teacher had spoken of the paradoxical value of ‘compulsory volunteerism’. Jacobs thinks that gratitude and service are valuable disciplines which, someone, everyone needs to try.
3. As a result of this year, including his spiritual development, Jacobs freely acknowledges that he has become a more compassionate person. He does not claim holiness, but he is a more deeply human person. He visits many churches and other religious groups, trying to learn from their approach to the Bible. His account is always respectful and understanding, even of things he finds weird and not for him. His compassion for those who are different contrasts, strikingly, with the attitude of so many Christian or Jewish groups who claim to be faithful followers of the Bible.
4. Jacobs, who has had not religious formation as such, tries to pray. He reports regularly on the development of his own spiritual experiences. During his year, there are indeed moments of transcendence. He does not claim to have ‘met God’, but he does sense the presence of something more, in these moments. He attends an extraordinary dance with a Jewish group, which develops an kind of ecstatic fervour. He also has simple and quiet moments of awareness, contentment and wholeness. These are beautiful. He does not say after this that he ‘believes in God’, but it seems clear that his life is not the same as it was before.
5. Perhaps the most significant finding of his year is the conclusion that no one can take all the Bible literally, even if they say they do. All are selective. There are numerous passages wrestling with this issue. Jacobs meets with biblical literalists in the Christian churches, especially a wide variety of Evangelicals, from Jerry Falwell’s church to a group of gay men who are in most other ways conservative evangelicals, to the ‘Red-letter Christians’ such as Tony Campolo. From this wide research, he concludes that all are in some way selective. All must allow that some biblical injunctions are either figurative or have been in some sense ‘set aside’ by the coming of Jesus or by new revelations. (Interestingly, there is little discussion of the role of the Spirit in current interpretation of scripture). Most interesting, perhaps, is a Jewish approach to scripture which is very like ‘process theology’ yet is much more personal. It suggests (pages 267-8) that God is ‘like an artist who is constantly revising his masterpiece’. The idea is that God is in a relationship not only with the word, or the law, but with the reading community, and indeed in a sense ‘in the Bible, God is on a learning curve.’
This is a view that suggests, in keeping with a post-modern understanding of meaning, that the text itself is alive, in the relationship between author and readers. The meaning of the text is always in front of the text, ahead of both writers and readers. God is able to engage with this, a rabbi suggests to Jacobs, and so too could we. Reading literally may not be quite the right way to describe what this means. But taking the text with utmost seriousness might mean allowing that the text calls us into new insights into what it might literally mean. I find this a very exciting idea.
All told, this book provides a fascinating story and a great affirmation of the Bible, in its spirituality and as an invitation to journey. Jacobs discovers that in fact the religion of the Bible challenges his original approach, which was completely individualist. He finds he can’t live biblically, all by himself. He needs to re-engage with his culture and the heritage of his community.