Reviews > Books

Judaism on the treadmill

Books | Author gleans insights from the Bible but shows little evidence of transformation

Issue: "Shattered dreams," April 5, 2008

The subtitle of A.J. Jacobs' The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible (Simon & Schuster, 2007) shows both the strength and weakness of this sometimes-amusing work that ends in sadness.

Jacobs, a Jewish atheist, dances around what it means to follow the Bible literally. Is it following the ceremonial laws that the coming of Christ abrogated? Or, is it loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves? But he does mention one side effect of his picaresque quest: "I didn't expect to confront just how absurdly flawed I am."

Sometimes during his year-long quest he recognizes that. He writes after Day 91 that it's important not to be "so caught up in the regulations that you forget about the big things, like compassion and respect for life. The righteous idiot is what the Christian Bible calls a Pharisee-one of the sanctimonious legalistic scholars."

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On Day 238, Jacobs writes about three phases of his experience: the old agnosticism, a new sense of "a divine spark" in life, and "the third phase, the highest level": He almost comes to belief in "a God who cares, who pays attention to my life, who loves. Why wouldn't there be a God? It makes just as much sense as having no God."

On Day 243 Jacobs begins his "New Testament life" with awareness of the problem: "As a Jewish person, how do I treat the issue of the divinity of Christ? For the bona fide literal New Testament experience, I should accept Jesus as Lord. But I just can't do it." His solution-of-sorts: "I'm going to visit some Christian communities that interpret the Bible literally. I will try to learn about them."

So much for following the Bible literally-Jacobs, back in journalistic mode, visits Jerry Falwell's church, then a Manhattan gay group led by an out-of-the-closet Bob Jones alumnus, and then Tony Campolo. He also mentions a visit to an evangelical Bible study at the American Bible Society building, but that must have been too serious to make fun of: Instead of describing what goes on there Jacobs riffs about traffic laws and describes his visit to snake handlers in Tennessee.

On Day 309 Jacobs, having seemingly abandoned his Christian exploration, is back to stunts: burning myrrh every morning, typing at night by an olive oil lamp, and wearing a white shepherd's robe that he purchases at a Halloween costume store. Sadly, Jacobs incoherently concludes this book: "I'm now a reverent agnostic. . . . I now believe that whether or not there's a God, there is such a thing as sacredness. . . . It's possible that humans created this sacredness ourselves, but that doesn't take away from its power or importance."

But maybe something sank in that will later change Jacobs' life.

Alliance builders

David Klinghoffer is an Orthodox Jew who sees the importance of building alliances with Christians. His Shattered Tablets: Why We Ignore the Ten Commandments at Our Peril (Doubleday, 2007) eloquently shows the relevance of one of God's greatest gifts to mankind.

David Gelernter, author of Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion (Doubleday, 2007), is also a Jewish alliance builder. He's over the top when he speaks of a worldwide religion that sees the United States as a new Zion, but he's right to note that the United States saved the world from long domination by three powerful countries-Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union-that for a time came under pagan sway.

Jon Entine's Abraham's Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People (Grand Central, 2007) has interesting data and speculation for those who wonder why American Jews were seen as below average in intelligence early in the 20th century but above average in basketball-and why the reverse is now true. Some who consider themselves descended from the Ten Lost Tribes will be pleased to discover genetic evidence, but British Israelites and Mormon theorists have struck out.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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