Thursday, March 12, 2009

Book Review: My Jesus Year

Here's another book by a Jewish journalist with a reality-show flavor. It reminded me of The Year of Living Biblically in some ways and I wasn't surprised to see A. J. Jacobs, the author of YOLB, endorsing the book.

Although both YOLB and My Jesus Year are about Jews seeking to connect with their faith, the difference is that while Jacobs was an agnostic (and remained one), Benyamin Cohen, the author of My Jesus Year, is a believing and observant Orthodox Jew.

This is NOT a book about conversion, but a record of the author's hope that by investigating Christianity, Jesus lead him back to Judaism. And He does, by the way!

Cohen is the son of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, and the only one of his siblings not to become a rabbi or marry one. In fact, his wife is the daughter of a Methodist minister who embraced Judiasm when they married.

Cohen writes that he felt estranged from his faith and found no meaning in its rituals and services. With the permission from his own rabbi (because Orthodox Jews are not supposed to attend church services) he embarked on his "Jesus Year", which involved attending as many Christian church services as he could, mostly in the greater Atlanta area where he lives.

The value in this book for the Christian reader lies in the sage observation of Robert Burns:
Oh wad some power the giftie gie us
To see oursl's as others see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us,
And foolish notion.
Cohen's viewpoint is that of a sympathetic outsider to the Christian faith. One of the things he is seeking to discover is how some Christian churches attract and keep their attendance and the devotion of their members. He hopes that he will find ideas that would translate to the synagogue.

The book is both humorous and instructive. Cohen writes extensively about the evangelical mega-churches and some odd sects like the Black Jews, but not much about the mainline Protestant churches. I think this shows his journalistic bias because these groups provide more entertaining and sometimes sensational copy.

Cohen spent some time in Catholic churches where he found he could identify with the emphasis on ritual in their services. There was one odd chapter in which he goes to confession and has a discussion with the priest about his loss of faith without telling the priest he is a Jew and not Catholic., although he knows that confession is meant for Catholics only. I'm really not sure what to make of this, not being Catholic myself, but it made me uncomfortable.

At the beginning of the book Cohen writes of his fascination with the Cokesbury Methodist Church which was in his neighborhood when he grew up. At the end of the book he visits that church and finds that the congregation has aged, dwindled away and the church is hanging on by a thread. In the afterword he notes that this church was closed not long after his visit. A parable for our time?

The book is well written and the author is likable and sincere. It's always a good thing to learn how Christians appear to others.


Gannet Girl said...

Thanks for this one! My six years teaching in an Orthodox school had a huge impact upon my understanding of Jesus and my Christian faith (not to mention my understanding of Judaism).

It's hard to imagine a priest being bothered by a nonCatholic coming to confession, but it's equally hard to imagine the confession being of much value as confession if a person doesn't divulge who he is.

Singing Owl said...

I am reading this book right now too, and I also find myself wishing he would have branched out a bit and visited some more "moderate" and mainline churches. I do find myself squirming a great deal...