Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Year of Living Biblically

Review of A.J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. Toronto Star, fall 2007.

It’s a long and ongoing tradition: journalists artificially insert themselves into some milieu and then recount their experiences. Every so often some reporter will, for a brief time, live as a homeless person, or work at a menial job, or undergo some fad diet or exercise regime. Nearly 50 years ago, white writer John Howard Griffin posed as a black man travelling in the Deep South for his book Black Like Me. More recently, filmmaker Morgan Spurlock lived on nothing but a McDonald’s diet for a month for his film Super Size Me. There’s an air of the stunt about these endeavours, but they can also serve as a springboard to thought-provoking larger discussions; Spurlock, for example, managed to look at the unhealthy influence of fast-food culture on modern life from several angles.

A.J. Jacobs, an editor at Esquire in New York, has put himself at the centre of a story twice now – first with 2004’s The Know-It-All and now with The Year of Living Biblically. In the new book, Jacobs tells us that his agent refers to his chosen genre as “immersion journalism.” Unfortunately, Jacobs is the kind of writer who gives immersion journalism a bad name. Superficial, intellectually lazy, and unfunny, he uses his own experiences not so much to explore big ideas as simply to kitschify them.

For The Know-It-All, Jacobs spent a year reading the Encyclopaedia Brittanica in its entirety, after somehow convincing a book editor that this would be an interesting and meaningful task. For The Year of Living Biblically, Jacobs sets out to follow the numerous and varied dictates of the Bible, “as literally as possible,” for one year. Especially the oddball ones. Especially the oddball ones that are merely wacky and in no way genuinely threatening or distasteful to modern liberal humanist sensibilities.

Both the book and the project are organized chronologically. Jacobs decides to tackle the Old Testament in his first eight months and then the New Testament in the final four months, and he records his progress in brief diary-style entries, spanning a few days at a time. The breezy, episodic feel is exacerbated when Jacobs realizes that there are rather a lot of rules in the Bible – hundreds and hundreds – so he’s going to have to do some picking and choosing. “I will still attempt to follow all the rules simultaneously,” he writes early on. “But on a given day, I’ll hone in on a particular rule, and devote much of my energy to that rule, while keeping the others in my peripheral vision.”

Look, let’s face it: this is book-deal bait, pure and simple. Jacobs, though, argues (unconvincingly) that his project springs from a genuine interest in spirituality. Nominally Jewish, he lives a mainly secular lifestyle, but remains fascinated by his Uncle Gil, a black-sheep relative who’s tried several religions and has even been a sometime cult leader himself. The irreligious Jacobs also claims to be looking for some sort of ethical framework he can pass on to his young son, and figures living Biblically can help him articulate it.

In that latter respect, it may be that the project actually served a purpose. Part of Jacobs’ Bible year involves trying to rein in his some of his baser human instincts, like lying, gossip, and envy – things we could all stand to work on. But Jacobs’ ethical exercise program seems to bear pretty modest results. At the end of the first month, he notes with some surprise that his new self now holds open elevator doors, gives small change to homeless people, and “refrains from gawking at odd-looking passerby.” That it took 38 years and a Bible-themed book deal to bring basic, everyday human decency onto Jacobs’ radar is downright alarming, but better late than never, I suppose.

Anyway, Jacobs is most interested in visible manifestations of his spiritual carnival ride. He lets his beard grow unchecked, wears white robes in public, and starts blowing a horn (shofar) to mark each new month. His tone while describing these escapades is one of disingenuous mugging: “I sip a glass of water, part my lips, jut out my jaw, and blow the shofar again. It sounds like a dying fax machine.” You can practically hear the whimsical string music that will no doubt figure heavily on the soundtrack of the inevitable film adaptation. The same is true of the various one-off projects that Jacobs engages in, such as building a rudimentary hut in the living room of his condo or writing scripture on the frame of his front door.

The Year of Living Biblically could have made some intriguing points about what it means to observe Biblical teachings in the modern world. But while Jacobs does make some dutiful field trips – he visits, among others, an Amish man, a group building a creationist museum, and his fanatical Uncle Gil, now living in Israel – he returns from these excursions with shockingly little insight. What do you know, the Amish man has a dry sense of humour, and the creationists are more engaged and intelligent than you’d think.

If there’s an overall theme to the book, it’s that much of the Bible probably isn’t meant to be taken literally, especially the unpleasant bits. But Jacobs himself shows no inclination to actually probe deeply at any questions that arise. When faced with the problem of reconciling spiritual interests with fantastical beliefs (creationism, miracles) or unpleasant ones (the Bible’s anti-homosexuality passages), his MO is simple: shrug and move on. The book’s most common rhetorical flourish is the gormless little section-closing scratch of the head, such as: “Could I ever get into the skull of an ancient Israelite who believed in several gods? Do I want to?”

Failing to achieve any relevance, The Year of Living Biblically could at least have been entertaining. But Jacobs has the comedic sensibilities of a matinee standup at a B-grade Vegas lounge. “Humans have come up with some astoundingly bizarre stuff ourselves – biathlons, turducken, and my son’s Chicken Dance Elmo, to name a few,” he writes at one point. And at another: “You watch the Appalachian snake handlers on the Discovery channel, and they look as weird as the guy on Coney Island who hammers six-inch nails into his nostrils, or Nick Nolte after a couple vodka tonics.”

Like religious belief, humour is a personal and subjective thing, and I guess some readers may consider Jacobs’ comedy stylings to be heavenly. But for this one, they were purgatorial.

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