November 8, 2007

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The Year of Living Biblically: One Man Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, by A.J. Jacobs (2007, Simon & Schuster, 388 pages)
Reviewed by Amy Diaz adiaz@hippopress.com

It’s hard not to talk about the beard.

A.J. Jacobs — whose previous book, The Know-It-All, had him reading the Encyclopedia Britannica — dives into his latest project with scholarly vigor. He buys a boatload of Bible-related books and consults religious experts of a variety of stripes. But by far the most striking part of his year-long experiment of living as the Bible instructs him to is the beard he grows. The book features among its early pages a series of photographs starting with a short-haired, clean-shaven Jacobs and ending with a wild-haired man who looks, as he himself admits, a bit like a mountain man. A mountain man with a very lax approach to personal grooming.

As he gets further into his project, Jacobs not only grows what could be considered a Biblically prescribed beard but he also dresses in white, wears fringes and adopts other parts of the Old Testament dress code. As he sets himself apart from the rest of New York on the outside, he also begins to change on the inside, swearing less, worrying more about whether he’s eating the right foods and thinking the right thoughts and regularly pondering what seems like the central question of this book — can behaving as though you believe in God lead to a genuine belief in God?

Jacobs, who describes himself as a fairly secular Jew, more or less stays on the agnostic side of things throughout his year-long immersion in religion. But he clearly gets something out of the structure that the biblical rules give his life and the bigger issues — we can see him practicing more compassion toward his fellow New Yorkers and thinking more about life (the circle of it, though not in a way that is as Lion King-ish as it sounds). He spends nine months on the Old Testament and three months on the New Testament and though he doesn’t become a temple- or church-goer by the book’s end, his experiment has brought him a new sense of what can generally be called spirituality. Though I could see some people — people who probably wouldn’t buy this book anyway — taking issue with what they might see as using the Bible as a literary gimmick, The Year of Living Biblically is actually far more genuine that you might suspect. It offers something you seldom get in modern life, a no-pressure, non-partisan and yet relatively irony-free discussion of morality and what it means to live life, as often as possible, with an eye toward being a good person.

If you liked Slate.com’s “Blogging the Bible” series, The Year of Living Biblically offers an equally enjoyable look at the other side of that coin — not the stories of the Bible but what the book’s instructions might offer someone in day-to-day life. And while Jacobs doesn’t exactly sell the free-form beard as the new hipster fashion statement (when he cuts it he says it’s been two months since he kissed his wife), he does offer a lot of ideas worth mulling over. BAmy Diaz