The Year of Living Biblically

April 27, 2008

I obtained The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible from the public library as an audio book. At the end of the last track, a voice said the book had been “abridged for audio.” I have no idea what I missed out on, but it’s hard to imagine a better way to enjoy this story.

The author, A.J. Jacobs, reads the book himself. He is no actor. His voice is unassuming, with a nasal grainy quality, and his pacing is so deliberate that I sometimes thought he was unfamiliar with the words. But rather than detract from the story, it lends it considerable heart. The tone of his voice is a good guide to the humor and puzzling frustration that cohabit these pages.

As a work of audio, the book has another interesting, and for the MP3-based listener, redeeming feature. Each chapter is short, begins with a biblical verse, and ends with one or two lines of reflection. The latter are sometimes annoying, reminding me of the cutesy turns-of-phrases that appear at the end of news magazine stories (I haven’t looked at Times or Newsweek in years, but I’m guessing that these habits have not died), but they provide obvious markers for turning off your MP3 player.

When it comes to content, the book points out many of the absurdities of biblical literalism, primarily by having the main character (Jacobs) struggle to incorporate biblical behaviors into his everyday life. When a college student writes him asking for an unpaid internship, Jacobs replies instantly that this is possible as long as the intern is willing to be referred to as his “personal slave.” Jacobs’ glee at being able to perform several biblical injunctions regarding slave owners, without having to violate any civil laws or suffer pangs of conscience, is contagious (perhaps I feel this because I have been employing interns for two decades and never thought to call them “slaves”?).

The slavery example is typical of Jacobs’ approach. His feelings towards religion, especially the literal kind, is gentle, fond, and of course, frequently puzzled. Would any rational modern creature refrain on biblical principle from shaving, wearing clothes with mixed or forbidden fibers, or dancing with members of the opposite sex? If you feel ready to answer any of these questions instantly, you should read this book because it will give you pause. The individuals who pass through Jacobs’ life follow these injunctions, they live in the modern era, and to all appearances, they appear rational.

The light touch lends itself to humor, but it dodges some of religion’s more repulsive aspects. I have listened to Jewish literalists cite Biblical verse as justification for occupying the West Bank. My children have had to endure Christian literalist classmates telling them that they would burn in hellfire for eternity. And on it goes, religion after religion. The ability to read literally is too often used to breed self-righteousness, hatred, and intolerance.

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One Response to “The Year of Living Biblically”

  1. […] 30, 2008 Some months before I listened to The Year of Living Biblically, I had checked out Letting Go of God by Julia Sweeney, another recent audiobook that uses humor to […]

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