When my college friend, Jon, sent me my introduction to A. J. Jacobs, I wasn’t quite sure how to take it. The note included in the gift said simply, “When I saw the title, I thought of you.” The title of the book: The Know It All. Hmm . . . Not usually a compliment, “know it all.” But author A. J. Jacobs is, after all, reasonably modest, and “One man’s humble quest to become the smartest person in the world” (the book’s subtitle) is an hilarious* romp through the Encyclopedia Brittanica, from cover to cover. And, whatever Jon may have meant by his note, yes, reading systematically through the encyclopedia is not far fetched for me. (I’ve actually been described that way, as in, “I don’t know Chuck well, but he strikes me as someone who would read through an encyclopedia.” Why, thank you! I take that as a compliment. I still prefer to look up words in a dictionary, and concepts in an encylopedia, because one always finds such interesting things along the way.)
A. J. Jacobs is a non-religious Jew (“I’m Jewish in the same way that the Olive Garden is Italian”) who writes (now is an editor) for Esquire magazine. His memoirs demonstrate his humble brilliance, and he is laugh out loud funny. (His wife, Julie, is a fair match for him, as he generously demonstrates.) But this particular “Humble Quest” has a touching serious personal dimension to it. The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’sHumble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible was prompted by the author’s serious contemplation of his role as a father, by his concern to equip his son (and, by the end of the year, sons) for life in a whack culture in a dangerous world. Should he attend more to the religious aspects of being Jewish? What would that look like, and to what end?
Without belaboring each day, as the weeks go by we find Jacobs grappling with the implications of obeying, as literally as possible, all the commands of the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments. (Is it a function of his secular upbringing, or some assumption about who would read the book, that Jacobs does not refer to the two parts in the scholarly, and political, terms: “Hebrew” and “Christian” scriptures?) He makes quite a bit of the Judeo-Christian heritage, and at the same time clearly chooses to identify specifically, and ultimately concretely, with his Jewish roots. Along the way, Jacobs introduces us to his team of spiritual advisors – rabbis, ministers, pastors, scholars – who answer his questions, introduce him to people, concepts, and movements he should explore, and give him perspective. He dances with the Hasid, and attends a snake-handling church; he pillories the Creation Museum, and is surprised to find Thomas Road Baptist Church (Jerry Falwell) full of nice people. He is clearly most surprised to learn that much of our characterization of others is based on stereotype.
Each section of each chapter is headed by a biblical verse or aphorism; generally a command. This opens the way to reflect upon such arcane commands as not wearing clothes of mixed fibers, not taking the mother with the young “if you chance upon a bird’s nest,” or blowing the trumpet at each new moon. He struggles with the concrete, daily implications of commands: how will he know whether a woman is in her period, during which he should not touch her? (Here, his wife’s delightful humor is on display, as Jacobs comes home one evening to find that she has sat on all the chairs, out of pique for the oddity of this restriction.) Will he be able to find and stone an adulterer? (Another hilarious moment.)
But what struck me was how Jacobs grew in wisdom, as the scriptures describe it. He fights his own type, and our culture, to keep the Sabbath; and in the end embraces it with delight. He struggles with the daily little white sins about which the Bible has so much to say: lying, gossip, coarse jesting. His Esquire editor throws him a special challenge, to interview Cameron Diaz and not commit the sin of lust. His struggle with all these is honest and all too familiar to any who try to take the Bible seriously as a guide to human behavior. Jacobs finds that his mind is being changed by his attention to the Bible, and for the most part, he likes it. Perhaps of greatest value to him is the birth and nurture of genuine gratitude; he learns to give thanks for everything, and his outlook is changed.
It’s easy to read The Year of Living Biblically and simply observe that, well, after all, of course we can’t literally follow all the commands of the Bible and to do so is simply legalism. Granted. But in the end I admire the Humble Quest, and wonder at how little effort I make to follow any commands of the Bible; how much I need to grow in wisdom; in what danger I am in when I rely on justification by faith apart from works and neglect the works that flow from justification; how I could use a little more of the literal. Even if I only got as far as unceasing gratitude and genuine sabbath rest, I’d be farther along than I am today.
* I just can’t shake the quaint use of the article “an” preceding nouns that begin with the letter “h.”