In the past year I have had the pleasure of encountering an excellent read-alike pair. If you are a librarian, or if you read like one, then you know the shiver of delight this engenders. The Year of Living Biblically is Esquire editor-at-large A.J. Jacobs’ account of twelve months spent in earnest and hilarious attempts to follow the Bible, literally. Prior to beginning his quest, he spends a month reading the Bible and recording every rule he finds (over 600!) then sets out to keep them. As his year progresses and changes occur in his family life and facial hair, Jacobs chronicles his moral quandaries and epiphanies.
A secular Jew and agnostic, Jacobs is fascinated by the Bible, Hebrew and Christian Scriptures alike. Jacobs’ book projects are always full immersion affairs (see The Know-it-All and Drop Dead Healthy) and this time he employs his signature method in an attempt to fill the “God-shaped hole” in his heart. He has the good fortune to be acquainted with several learned members of the clergy, from whom he seeks guidance and insight. As he allows his beard to burgeon, he observes the Sabbath, ties tassles to the corners of his clothing (it’s in the Bible!), wears no garments that mingle wool and linen, attempts to stone adulterers (hey, you can’t pick and choose the rules) and wends his way through a fascinating cast of characters: Amish, Jehovah’s Witness, Hasidic Jew – you name it. Jacobs is thorough, and thoroughly entertaining. He traverses this terrain of religiously devout people without seeming condescending or flip, although his tongue spends some time in his cheek.
Jana Riess’ considerably shorter work, Flunking Sainthood, also chronicles a year of spiritual practice and is funny, personal and instructive as well. Riess spends her year reading great Spiritual works and attempting a new practice each month. She makes mashed potato-laden attempts at going meatless, tries Benedictine hospitality, hourly prayer, fasting, keeping the Sabbath and practicing gratitude (and finds true thankfulness to be “slippery as trout”).
I think these books absorb and engage us in the way that travel memoirs do (if they are wildly entertaining and informative in the style of say, Bill Bryson). There are places we will never go and tasks we will never undertake, but it is inspiring and entertaining to read others’ accounts of their journeys. I probably became enamored of this type of non-fiction way back with Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. And if you are judging that book by the unwatchable movie version then don’t be a snob; go read it. Perhaps the common thread here is humor. Almost anyone could recount a year in their life and be dirge-like in the process, but these authors know which moments to linger over, when to laugh at themselves so we laugh with them and how to affectingly crystalize their moments of hard-won insight.
At times, Jacobs feels the futility of being a partially-informed follower: why would God ask us to perform all this nonsense? At other times, clad eccentrically in all-white garments as instructed by the book of Ecclesiastes, he feels more spiritual because, “the outer affects the inner.” Rather than waiting for his belief to change his behavior, he finds that his behavior can affect his beliefs. How do we cross that membrane between the action and the spirit to ensure that rituals are not wrote and meaningless? The realization that Reiss comes to in the epilogue of her book took me by surprise and moved me to tears. Suffice it to say that in the midst of her “failed” attempts to find God’s way, God quietly finds her. And as for the the hirsute Jacobs, he emerges from his Biblical odyssey a “reverent agnostic.” He may not be religious, but not for lack of trying.