"The Year of Living Biblically" began as a gimmick.
A.J. Jacobs was merely looking for a way to sell a book. He was not one bit religious when he decided to try to follow all the rules in the Bible. You can tell by the way his agnostic friends try to help him on his quest that they all think Jacobs' one-year experiment is going to be pretty funny.
And yet, in the end, this book doesn't seem like something agnostics will buy. It will be readers who have a Bible by their bedside who will be the ones most interested in Jacobs' quest. Readers who believe the Bible has had power in their lives will be intrigued to see if it can exert any power over Jacobs.
A hint: Only two weeks into the experiment, Jacobs' life begins to change.
He decides to try to tithe. The concept seems pretty painful to him and his wife doesn't want to give away 10 percent of their money either, because after all, he explains, they have a child to think about.
So Jacobs consults with some religious leaders, and one of them tells him to begin by giving more than he wants to. He does this. He gets online and gives 2 percent of his annual income to "Feed the Children" and "Save Darfur."
Then he writes, "And as I gave away the money, I think I may have felt God's pleasure. I know: I'm an agnostic. But still I feel his pleasure. It's a warm ember that starts at the back of my neck and spreads through my skull. I feel like I am doing something I should have been doing all my life."
Really? "God's pleasure ... all my life." Intrigued by those words, the reader begins the next chapter.
Some readers may be put off by Jacobs' tone (even as they may admit to having some of the same struggles themselves). Jacobs spends a lot of time pointing out the contradictions in the Bible.
For example, he laments, "How can these ethically advanced rules and these bizarre decrees be found in the same book? And not just in the same book. Sometimes the same page. The prohibition against mixing wool and linen comes right after the command to love your neighbor. It's not like the Bible has a section called 'And Now for Some Crazy Laws.' They are all jumbled up like a chopped salad."
At some point, he begins to enjoy his prayers. Or at least he likes praying for other people. On Day 103, he writes, "The Bible says not to boast, so I'm not going to say that I've turned into Albert
Schweitzer or Angelina Jolie. But I do feel myself becoming a slightly more compassionate person."
Along the way, Jacobs comes up with answers he finds satisfying. Take, for example, Deuteronomy 5:9: "I, the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquities of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me."
Jacobs says he used to find this an appalling sentence. Why would his grandson get leprosy if he, himself, worshipped a false idol?
"But I've come to appreciate it," he writes, on Day 117. "The trick is, you have to see the passage as a warning that your moral failings will affect your ability to make the right choices. If you beat your son, he'll be more likely to beat his son."
By the time he gets to the New Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures have wormed their way into his heart. But Jacobs decides he has to modify his approach to the New Testament. He can't go into it with the same open mind he used for the Hebrew Scriptures, wherein he just decided to do his best to accept God as real. He explains, "When I do it with the Hebrew God, I feel like I am trying on my forefathers' robes and sandals. There's a family connection."
Being open to Jesus as his Savior would feel too uncomfortable, he explains. "I've come to value my heritage enough that it'd feel disloyal to convert."Still, even in the New Testament, Jacobs continues to try to work out God's relationship to humans. He continues to ask questions and slip back and forth in his mind, sometimes feeling like an agnostic, sometimes believing in a loving God most often knowing only that there is something more to life than he thought there was when he began this quest.