Review: The Year of Living Biblically (AJ Jacobs)

Hi A.J.  I recently finished reading your book,  The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible  It made me both laugh and think. I appreciated the  respectful way in which you treat a variety of groups and beliefs you encounter in your book.   I gained new insights into some beliefs and practices. I also appreciated you sharing your attempts as a secular agnostic to apply some of the Bible’s teachings to your own life,  and your acknowledgement of many profound teachings in the Bible. There were also some insightful comments, such as this one from your friend: ‘we shouldn’t underestimate people’s ability to hold totally contradictory opinions and be just fine with it’ (p133).

However, I have some questions. Firstly, is it possible your  book has missed the point of the Bible? You seem to view the Bible as a loose collection of rules and stories, yet the narratives and commands in the Bible can only be properly understood in light of the overall ‘story’ of the Bible. The imperatives of the Bible can only be understood in light of what God has done in Jesus. The Scriptures themselves claim they are ultimately to point us to Jesus – who he is and what he has done.  Jesus ‘opened’ the minds of his disciples to understand the Scriptures by showing how they point to him (Luke 24:27, 44-47). The Bible warns against studying the Scriptures, but missing who they point us to. Jesus says: ‘You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life’ (John 5:39-40). If you spend a year (or a lifetime) trying to study or live by the Bible, but fail to come to Jesus, then according to the Bible you have missed its point.

Secondly, is it possible your book fails to grasp the power of the Bible? You acknowledge appreciation for some of the profound teaching of the Bible. For example, when considering the command to ‘not covet’ you say: ‘The Bible is right, jealousy (coveting) is a useless, time-wasting emotion that is eating me alive’ (p28). Yet while you work at exterior ways to reduce coveting in your life, you quote Woody Allen: ‘the heart wants what the heart wants’, and wonder whether true heart change is really possible.  Your book misses the real power for change the Bible points us to – the transforming power of God’s grace and love in the gospel, that is able to change us even at the level of our hearts or desires (Ezekiel 36:26-27, Titus 2:11-14).

Finally, I did not find your claim that ultimately ‘everyone practices cafeteria religion…we pick and choose from the Bible’ (p328) to be convincingly argued. Could you really not find any group who were sincerely attempting to understand and live by the whole Bible on its own terms, and not pick and choose? Nor did I think the question this rightly raises was adequately addressed: ‘…the problem of authority. Once we acknowledge that we pick and choose from the Bible, doesn’t that destroy it’s credibility?‘ (p328).  I was left wondering whether the position you opt for: your ‘own cafeteria religion’ (p309) is consistent with your desire that your children not descend into ‘moral anarchy’ (p104).  Can there really be any absolute or genuine  ‘morals’ to teach our children, if religion is ultimately pick and choose? 

Despite these issues, I enjoyed your book. Thanks for a stimulating read. Like you, I love that your dad reads your reviews, and I’m hoping he won’t mark this one ‘unhelpful’, despite my questions!

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