The Year of Living (Not Quite) Biblically

A.J.Jacobs is a very entertaining writer. This book chronicles his effort to live as the Bible teaches, but his project came about as a stunt to write a book that would sell well, and not because he really wanted to be obedient to God. In fact, he did not even believe in God. He describes himself as an agnostic Jew. But he made a reasonable, if incomplete, effort. The dissonance between life as God commands it, and the culture his lives in and writes for, made up much of the humor that gets him readers and income.

My sister recommended the book to me because it's funny. It is funny, in a sad sort of way. Like reading through the entire encyclopedia in a single year, his previous book. Only worse, because this is about eternal values.

I'm starting to write this review now, after reading only a couple chapters. It reads like he wrote the book that way, keeping notes as he went along, then redacting them slightly at the end, perhaps to make the presentation more thematically coherent. I often write reviews only after finishing a book, but that usually ends up with a summary of my overall reaction. Jacobs has important insights which would get dropped if I waited. Like this, on page 25:

The point is, you can never know what is important in the long term. God might have a different measuring scale than us.
I wish more Christians understood this. Just because we don't happen to like what God expects us to do does not justify not doing it. Jacobs is quite intelligent and thoughtful about his project. He just doesn't believe it. This was most evident when he described his visit with the Creationists:
The Answers in Genesis folks aren't idiots.
But Jacobs cannot quite bring himself to give their data a fair hearing:
The mental gymnastics can be astonishing...

As I said, I still believe in evolution. There's nothing that will change that, even if they found...

In other words, Jacobs admits to having a closed mind to the data, which forces him to believe that it's the Creationists who are being deceptive. But he was honest enough to admit that the movie Inherit the Wind is pretty dishonest with the facts:
I have to say ... the movie is wildly unfair to Christians. does seem odd to me that this movie -- which is supposed to be a champion for the truth -- distorted the truth so much. Why do that? Especially when you have reality on your side.

Of course Jacobs is not about to check out the facts and see on whose side reality really is. The reason the movie distorts the truth so badly is that the reality is not on their side. Like them,
I have to go with 99 percent of the scientists on this.
Probably not 99%, because (as Robert Gentry and others discovered the hard way), if your science openly disproves the government-funded Established Religion of the USA, you lose your job. So most of them probably just quietly cover up the contrary evidence and publish benign results. Real science does not need evolution (and none of it supports it), the science works perfectly well in a Creationist model; they just don't dare say so.

I probably should not have been, but I was astonished at Jacobs' remarks on truth. While acknowledging that God commands honesty, he somehow could not bring himself to live it:

Day 37. Man do I lie a lot. I knew I lied, but when I started to keep track, the quantity was alarming. As with coveting, I try to catalog my daily violations.

A sample from today: [4 particular lies listed]

People in the churches often admit to lying a lot. I could never relate to that. Jacobs understands the logic for honesty, but he cannot bring himself to do it. He made a more substantial effort in the case of lust, which he reasonably seems to infer from the Tenth Commandment against coveting. He had numerous theological advisors to help him understand the meaning of the Bible; one of them told him:
When you see a pretty woman married to another man, you have to put her in the same class as your mother. She's off-limits. The very notion of her as a sex partner is repulsive, unthinkable, ...
Not bad advice. He ends up walking around with his head down, so as not to be tempted by the over-sexed billboards. Not a bad idea, at that. Truth can be done the same way. On the other hand, by lying a lot, Jacobs has handsome book royalties; telling the truth gets me fired. I can see why he (and the people in churches) are not motivated to tell the truth.

The problem is -- and Jacobs noticed it -- when people discover that you are in the habit of lying, they never believe anything you have to say. He claims that everything in this book actually happened; is that another lie? The flip side of the Epimenides paradox is that both liars and honest people will deny lying. Are they more honest if they admit to some lying? You still don't know which. God's way is to not lie at all. It can be done, but sometimes it makes people unhappy at you, enough to crucify you.

At this point I have read his efforts through the second month. By Day 50 he is still in flagrant violation of many of the important Biblical rules: Lying, vanity, gossip, coveting, touching impure things, anger "I gave the finger to an ATM." He knows what the rules are, but he has that Jeremaical "stubborn and rebellious heart" which prevents him from living them. He's only in this for the year, then he plans to go back to being his old sinful self. He reminds me of nobody so much as the Pharisees that Jesus condemned as "whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of ... everything unclean."

I sometimes ask people, "If you don't like living God's way here in this life, what makes you think you will like it any better in Heaven?" Jesus was rather more blunt: "Many are called, but few are chosen." There are going to be a lot of surprises on Judgment Day.

At the end of the third chapter my appreciation for this book took a sharp turn:

One of the reasons I embarked on this experiment was to take legalism to its logical extreme and show that it leads to righteous idiocy. What better way to demonstrate the absurdity of Jewish and Christian fundamentalism?
There you have it: He thinks I am absurd. I don't normally attach the label to myself, but I live that life. It is not absurd, only different from the life that the pagans live. Most important, it is different from the life that the hypocrites -- including Jacobs during this year -- live. He did not succeed at his quest because he did not believe in it. At the end of the year he went back to being a pagan atheist (I looked at the end of the book). He actually never stopped being a pagan atheist. He just adopted a schizophrenic alter ego, which he called "Jacob" to live (most of) that life in pretense. He had an agenda, and the agenda was not Godly. He lost me around that corner.

He knows what he is doing. Earlier in the same chapter he rethinks his brush-off of recent creation:

Maybe I let myself off the creationism hook too easily. As unlikely as the six-day scenario may be, shouldn't I at least give it the benefit of doubt?

So I do an experiment. I try to put myself into the mind of my biblical alter ego Jacob. I convince myself that the earth was formed a handful of generations ago. I can't 100 percent believe, but for a few minutes I almost believe it...

Since I'll never convert to creationism, I have to find some dignity and self-esteem and sacredness even with our mucky origins.

Perhaps, as he observes, the Biblical model places us as people higher up in justified self-esteem. It's not my inclination to think that way, but most Christians are MBTI Feelers for whom affirmation is most important. I care more about what is true. The atheists say they do too, but when you look carefully, they really just don't want to be told what to do. Neither do the Christians, but most of them solve that problem with "cheap grace." Both of them attach the pejorative label "legalism" to the few who really do want to live the life God set out for us.

There are still some insights Jacobs finds, which we do well to observe. So I will finish the book. I think it was C.S.Lewis who said, "The truth is so big, it's hard to miss all of it." On saying grace before eating Jacobs says:

The prayers are helpful. They remind me that the food didn't spontaneously generate in my fridge. They make me feel more connected, more grateful, more grounded, ... I'm not sure this is what the Bible intended, but it feels like a step forward.
If he really wanted to believe it, I'd say "Bravo!"

His friends joke a lot about King James elocution: "Verily, I ask thee, would you like to meet us for pizza?" But Jacobs rightly understands the power of the tongue and the proscription against gossip:

The problem is, if you really want to be biblically safe, you should go much further. You should avoid almost all negative speech whatsoever.
There seems to be a fine line here, because Jesus and the prophets did not go all the way, they were quite negative at times. Jacobs rightly left that word "almost" in there.

Related to that, in his discussion of the Commandment against graven images -- he includes photographs, and wonders even against watching TV and movies -- he compares text to images. Christian writers have made some of these same observations:

First, it suits my job. Images are taking over, and writers are a dying breed...

Second, I think there is something to the idea that the divine dwells more easily in text than in images.

Chapter 4 is about December...

[2011 February 11]

I'm sorry, I stopped reading here. Two years later, I still cannot will myself to wade any further into the dreck of his hypocrisy. Like this on page 133, about where I stopped:

I have two heads, two sets of eyes, two moral compasses. They're battling for supremacy. Maybe one will win -- or maybe I can keep both.
No, he has only one moral compass, the one spinning wildly out of control so as to give him the false impression that he has any moral compass at all. It makes me want to puke.

So I sent the book back to my sister. Jacobs probably has more insights, but not better than I can get reading the Bible itself. So I will continue to do that.

Tom Pittman
2013 September 24