Last night I finished reading The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, by A. J. Jacobs. I'd read Jacobs's previous book, The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World, about his journey reading all the way through the Encyclopedia Brittanica. I thoroughly enjoyed The Know-It-All as a fascinating, geeky read, ideal for book geeks who enjoy spouting off random trivia. Both books also double as contemporary real-time memoirs, as you follow Jacobs through his year and get an inside look into his very amusing life.
The Year of Living Biblically is particularly interesting because Jacobs is a nonpracticing secular Jew. He has a vague sense of wanting to connect with his heritage but doesn't really believe in all the God stuff. But he reads through the Bible, makes a list of all the commands (both Old and New Testaments) and does his best to live them out over the course of a year. He grows out his beard, writes commandments on his doorframes, learns to pray and observe the Sabbath. His quest takes him on some journeys to visit communities that also hold strictly to the Bible, such as the Amish, Jerry Falwell's church, snake handlers and the remnant of Samaritans living in Israel.
While in Jerusalem, Jacobs finds himself on a busy street where he's encountering Hasidic Jews, hearing an Ave Maria as well as a Muslim call to prayer. And it occurs to him that his humble quest to live biblically is an entirely autonomous, individualistic enterprise. He feels utterly alone in his attempts to follow the commandments, precisely because he is not anchored in any faith community.
This made me think that the Christian life is not merely about privatized, pietistic attempts to live godly lives. Not that personal holiness is unimportant. But certainly the Christian life is meant to be embodied in community, that Christian living can only really be done with the support of fellow brothers and sisters on the journey. We are the people of God, not merely individuals of God.
At the end of his year, Jacobs is still unconvinced. But he is somehow more attuned to the possibility of the divine, and he has moments of encountering transcendence. His prayers have shown him the importance of thanksgiving, and his life is more virtuous. So his exercise has not been unfruitful, even if it is incomplete. I hope he continues on his spiritual journey, and that he really comes to know the God he has been praying to.