Book Review: Year of Living Biblically

It seemed really appropriate to select this book as my cruise leisure reading material for several reasons.

Primarily, because religion is a main driver of resistance to science and climate change generally, but also the human contribution  to climate change specifically.It seemed appropriate to be at a Skeptic conference aboard ship among Americans who are mostly religious and self entitlement often stems from religion, each group of believers thinking that they have the inside track and the rest of us do not.

But also because during the conference, the roadblocks to political action on climate change, the resistance to science and education and understanding complexity, all stems back to religion. While I have dismissed religion in my life, it behooved me to understand religion a little better to understand what is it that people are rejecting an evidence based worldview for.

Reading the book detailing Jacob’s delving into belief was a lot more efficient, less cost and time consuming, than doing something similar myself. I think a smart person learns from their own experience, but a wise person can learn from other people’s experience. Wisdom is too often in short supply.

In the spirit of AJ Jacobs of living life as an experiment, it also afforded me a mini-experiment to expose myself to people’s reactions to my reading it not only in in public, but in a controlled environment where I was definitely a fish out of water – being Canadian among Americans, and other socioeconomic differences between me and the usual market for cruise ship vacationers.

This was a laugh out loud book, so reactions varied widely – the funnier that I found the book, the more negative the reactions were – limited to hostile stares without verbal altercations. I suspected that these responses were because people assumed from the cover and my laughing that I was laughing at the bible and it’s followers – which was sometimes true – but mostly, it was laughing at the word smithing or observations/realizations or anecdotes.

The most curious response was at the end of the cruise when we were waiting for the shuttle bus to return us to Canada. The shuttle coordinator became dewy eyed and inspired that I was reading a book on how to become more religious, as she gave the cover the shallowest of scrutiny and waxed poetic about her own faith.

My spouse gave me a fierce look to not correct the woman, which as it turned out, the book had already convinced me to not correct her, an odd side effect because while I respect people’s right and entitlement to believe what they want, I feel no onus to respect said beliefs – but this book made me appreciate the sentiments and people’s need for in a way that I never would have otherwise.

That combined with knowing we were going to be waiting for an hour in this woman’s presence, caused me to decide to not correct her since it would pass as a more pleasant hour in each others company to be pleasant and it’s not like correcting her would have resulted in companionable interactions, and having already seen her dealing with difficult clients and she had skillfully de-escalated the conflict between the husband whose wife had only booked a one way shuttle to the cruise and not round trip back to the airport, I had to wonder how much the shuttle coordinator’s faith contributed to her ability to enjoy life as if came and not be ruffled by disagreeable customer conduct.

Her day was tough enough without my bursting her bubble or trying to. But this was a choice of behaviour that I could make on its own merits, without resorting to bible rules or behaviours, we can be good without gods. We just have to choose our behaviour, our moment, our battles based with our own understanding of good and bad.

That is what I found over and over as a response to AJ Jacobs’ realizations in the books – where he found a reason to be reverent and compassionate as a result of following the Bible, I just saw that in every situation, we have a choose of how to participate and if you follow a set of rules to govern interactions, rules that you have no part in determining and rules which don’t have any obvious reason or basis that you are supposed to just believe have merit, rhyme and reason, you are not choosing, you are simply obeying and limiting the kind of interactions you can have.

The rule of not mixing fibers in your clothing is nonsensical, and it seems that much of the rituals and rules are to occupy the mind and portions of your day that could be spent on meaningful interactions with people or productivity.

In the book, Jacobs finds a degree of comfort in having some things decided for you, such as clothing – rituals replaced planning, choosing, in essence, thinking. He relates that Einstein had 7 identical suits so he wore the same outfit every day – but that was an active choice he made to eliminate the need for daily consideration and this seemed different to me than engaging in rituals because the bible says to engage in these rituals and replace thinking about the choices, it’s more passive means of not exercising your brain to make a thoughtful choice or decision.

Living by a set of given rules does not prepare you to deal with rule conflict or circumstances not considered by the writers of the rules. The Bible is basically the bronze age version of Wikipedia – it had many authors who wrote independent texts which were gathered at various points and edited by committees into which texts were cannon and which text were supplementary or outright excluded. Each author had their own ideas and agenda, as did each editor and committee – which is why the bible is so uneven, inconsistent and contradictory and it’s parts often dramatically different in tone and substance. It’s not a single book by a single author, it’s a collage of text by multiple authors writing down oral stories, writing metaphoric parables, this book was about promoting an idea in the market place of ideas in the time they were written, not an historical rendering of the times the text is written about.

So, much like Shakespeare’s plays do not reflect the historical facts of the stories being told, the stories were changed to reflect what was politically expedient at the time the plays were written as well as recognizing that these are dramatic plays and not documentaries. Poetic license and all that artistic jazz.

There were many junctures in the book where I felt that the real revelation was being held back or perhaps Jacobs hadn’t continued the consideration far enough down the path. Perhaps it was my own resistance to the overall message of there being any value in the bible texts, we are all guilty of confirmation bias and can engage our cognitive dissonance offsets as a matter of course, after all.

But, I am inclined to think that the part of the bible that are valuable are valuable on their own merits and not because they were included in the text – after all – the ideas about compassion and kindness, hospitality and refraining from harming others are not only good for their own sake, but are not unique to the bible – they tend to show up in all religions – because being good, treating people fairly, not causing harm – these are not only self evident – but good Public Relations – to bring about a new religion, people had to connect it to familiar faiths and connect it to feel good behaviours. It’s easier to sell a feel good ideology that doesn’t require too much effort to get the ball rolling – that is the basis of The Secret, a modern wave of promoting wishful thinking and promising the wishes will be realized if the wisher is a good enough person – and few people stop to consider what a young child could have done to cause terminal cancer or death from starvation in a resource poor and poverty stricken country – you aren’t ever supposed to give the punters time to take the philosophy to it’s logical conclusions.

Which, I suppose is why there’s over 700 bible rules and so many rituals to keep people occupied. It’s not that idle hands are the devil’s plaything, but idle time is when when the brain kicks in and starts to wonder and ponder, to think things through, to connect disparate seeming dots into a cohesive and unified whole, to realize what they’ve been sold and bought into…


A.J. Jacobs TED Talk

5 thoughts on “Book Review: Year of Living Biblically

  1. AJ Jacobs’ book insults believing people everywhere with its dumb-show antics aping faith. If Jacobs had decided to spend a year as a cancer patient, if he’d written a cheery book describing how he’d hop into his hospital bed and act drained and uncomfortable, all done in front of people who are genuinely ill, the affront would not have been greater.
    We can only hope Jacobs gains some kind of perspective on all this renown before he dashes into his next book, because The Year of Living Green would be boring where this book is sacrilegious, and The Year of Living Fat would be cruel where this book is trite, and The Year of Living Muslim might get him blown up in his car. This reviewer’s advice to our author: invest some of those bestseller profits, take a few years off from writing these silly, stupid books, and actually study something. It’s an unsettling experience at first, but you’ll get used to it.

    • It’s clear that you didn’t actually read the book, because while AJ started the project as something for the experience to write a book

      what he went through profoundly changed his understanding of religion from something that was a curiosity from a bygone age – something you didn’t admit to in educated circles – to becoming a meaningful part of his life and his identity.

      What he discovered was a connection to his family’s historic roots, a sense of the history and an understanding of why things are as they are and he found a way to be Jewish with a multi-faceted understanding of the diversity of christianity.

      so as a visitor to your reality, he came respectfully to learn, and he learned and shared

      but you, from inside that reality, can’t understand his journey because you can’t put aside your own baggage and follow the journey outside your reality.

      and in not understanding, not trusting and rejecting everything from outside your reality – you can only take pot shots at something and instead of victory, are only showing how small your world is and how scared and huddled and threatened that you are inside it.

  2. There is no explicit biblical injunction against writing fatuous, self-serving vanity-books, and this is lucky news for A.J. Jacobs, else he might be accruing trouble in some high places.
    Readers will remember Jacobs’ previous book, The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World, in which he fatuously, self-servingly set himself the task of reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica from aardvark to zero and then telling everybody all about it. There’s nothing inherently wrong with reading the Britannica all the way through as though it were a textbook, although even a hundred years ago the essential imbecility of the task was so evident as to form the basis for a charming little scene in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Red-Headed League,” where the hapless Jabez Wilson elicits uncontrolled laughter from Holmes and Watson by admitting that the League had conscripted him to undertake that very task. The reason for the derision is the same then as now: the task is so obviously reductive, so blatantly, simplistically moronic, that it’s mere undertaking renders the volunteer in question instantly pathetic. Jabez Wilson takes affront at the laughter of Holmes and Watson; how much nicer the world would be if A.J. Jacobs had a similar amount of self-regard.

    Because he doesn’t just embark on these idiotic, childish quests, he writes about them. That’s the real corncob in the crankcase: some savant at Simon & Schuster saw the least-common-denominator potential appeal of The Know-It-All, and it became a best-seller, tucked into innumerable briefcases by men and women who bought into the basic premise of the book, that actually learning about anything is simply too much to ask a busy young professional on the Upper West Side—better by far to pick and parrot. And as a result of that book’s success, a success spurred on by an invitingly pedestrian prose style and the author’s characterization of himself as an aw-shucks everyman, we have this present book, in which the author comes up with the idea of trying to live literally by the Bible for one year. And then write all about it.

    • Okay so basically, you are dumping on a person – AJ – for trying to understand more than he does and for sharing that understanding with other people.

      So what is it that you have done to improve yourself or better understand others – what bridges have you built, that you are in a position to condemn a person who is trying to make the world a more understanding place?

  3. Pingback: Letters from a Skeptic – Letter 1 – 3 of 30 | Random Ntrygg

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