The Year of Living Biblically, AJ Jacobs

This has been a strange week for me taste-wise. First, a nonfiction book about athletes, history and biology, and now, more nonfiction, only this time it’s religion?! What’s going on here? Honestly, I’m usually more of a novel girl, but I have to at least mention this book because it took me, no joke, a year to read it. I know – it’s like I planned it! Hilarious, right?! But I didn’t, because to be honest, one of my biggest pet peeves is having a book unfinished while trying to read other books. It just eats away at me like a little reminder of all the other nagging things that are being left undone.

Somehow though, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, turned out to be the perfect book to keep queued up on the Kindle app on my phone. Every chapter is broken down into even briefer sections using the biblical verses Jacobs is considering, and it was breeze to catch up for a few minutes every night while waiting for David to wrap things up at the office, or while I at the doctor’s office, or standing in a long line.

I was actually surprised when I found myself finished a few days ago. I hadn’t been paying close attention to the day markers in the text, and the story doesn’t so much climax as it does end with Jacobs still questioning much of what he has discovered over the last twelve months. He has such a conversational style though that it’s easy to be caught up in his day-to-day trials as he struggles to grasp religion from a scholarly perspective.

As a skeptic with Jewish roots, Jacob begins his year perplexed but strangely fascinated by believers. His decision to try to discover what makes a faithful Jew or Christian by strictly adhering to the laws dictated in the Bible (more of his book is dedicated to his exploration of the Old Testament than the New out of an especial curiosity for his own history) is an interesting approach. He uncovers plenty of fascinating (and incendiary) rules the vast majority of practitioners of either religion won’t be familiar with, and he follows all manner of bizarre leads around the country and even to the Holy Lands to try to uncover the secrets he’s searching for.

Now, my mother is a minister for the UCC. My husband’s mother is an American Baptist minister. I went to church summer camp for nine years, taught Sunday School, and I’m currently writing a book (my fifth) for The Pilgrim Press (the UCC imprint). We go to church, well, not every week (the farmer’s market is only on Sunday mornings and sometimes I need fresh air and locally grown produce more than a sermon), but many. I take great pride in belonging to a community of faith that believes in tolerance, justice, peace, and action. I also take great joy in being well-versed in the traditions of the other major world religions, as well as many of the less major ones. In my faith, I’m a traveler on a path, and the path is wide, and it intersects with more roads than I could ever imagine. I love to discover and braid in elements of other religions into my own ideas about compassion and community. That being said, I was surprised by much of what I read in this book – it’s clear that his researcher nature has uncovered a lot of details that I’ve missed even after years of study.

I find great beauty in the author’s quest to uncover his own spiritual truth. One of his most lasting revelations – the beauty of taking time to say a quick prayer of gratitude many times during every day – especially stuck with me. Through all the rules, all the conflicting advice and controversial ideas that he discovered, the piece of it that seemed worthwhile was not about all of us answering to the same idea of God or searching for the most knowledgable teachers or even having faith at all – it was just a small, human nugget of happiness that evolved from appreciating the bounty of what he already had.

Today, before tasting my lunch of hummus and pita bread, I stand up from my seat at the kitchen table, close my eyes, and say in a hushed tone: “I’d like to thank God for the land that he provided so that this food might be grown.” 

Technically, that’s enough. That fulfills the Bible’s commandment. But while in thanksgiving mode, I decide to spread the gratitude around: “I’d like to thank the farmer who grew the chickpeas for this hummus. And the workers who picked the chickpeas. And the truckers who drove them to the store. And the old Italian lady who sold the hummus to me at Zingone’s deli and told me ‘Lots of love.’ Thank you.”

Now that I type it, it sounds like an overly earnest Oscar speech for best supporting Middle Eastern spread. But saying it feels good. 

Here’s the thing: I’m still having trouble conceptualizing an infinite being, so I’m working on the questionable theory that a large quantity is at least closer to infinity. Hence the overabundance of thank-yous. Sometimes I’ll get on a roll, thanking people for a couple of minutes straight—the people who designed the packaging, and the guys who loaded the cartons onto the conveyor belt. Julie has usually started in on her food by this point.

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, more aware of my place in this complicated hummus cycle. They remind me to taste the hummus instead of shoveling it into my maw like it’s a nutrition pill. 

And they remind me that I’m lucky to have food at all. Basically, they help me get outside of my self-obsessed cranium. (pg 95-96)

AJ Jacobs can be found at http://www.ajjacobs.com/content/home.asp

3 thoughts on “The Year of Living Biblically, AJ Jacobs

  1. How weird is this? what I wrote for communion last week …
    Invitation to Communion
    Leader: This is the Bread we come to eat.
    People: We honor the wheat farmers and the bakers.
    Leader: This is the Bread we come to eat.
    People: We honor the truck drivers, and
    those who stock the grocery shelves.
    Leader: This is the Cup we come to drink.
    People: We honor the grape pickers, the factory workers.
    Leader: This is the Cup we come to drink.
    People: We honor those who have written and printed the
    good news of the new covenant.
    Leader: This is Bread and Cup and this is Body and Blood.
    People: This is the Sacrament we share with God,
    because others have passed it on –
    spiritually and physically — to each of us.

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