Ed Dobson describes himself as a follower of Jesus, literally, beard and all. Dobson grew up in Ireland but moved to the United States in 1964 and eventually attended Bob Jones University. Not long after graduating, he became the vice president for student life at Liberty University, working closely with his friend Jerry Falwell. In 1987 Dobson left Liberty for Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he Dobson for eighteen years as the senior pastor. After being diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) in 2001, he stepped down as senior pastor but returned briefly to academic life by serving as the vice president of spiritual formation at Cornerstone University for a short time. He’s also written Prayers and Promises when Facing a Life-Threatening Illness.
Inspired by A.J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically, Dobson’s purpose is simple: to live like Jesus lived for one calendar year. As the cover of the book illustrates, that meant growing an impressive beard, but it also meant eating like Jesus, who, as a first-century Jew, ate kosher. Like Jesus, Dobson attempts to observe the Sabbath and other Jewish festivals and feasts. He sought to study the life of Jesus by listening to the gospels on his iPod over and over again. As a rabbi, Jesus would have been deeply engaged with the Hebrew Scriptures. So Dobson sets out to study and pray like Jesus, a journey that leads him to the synagogue, to conversations with a rabbi and to the reading and recitation of Hebrew Scriptures and prayers. Having learned so much from Judaism, Dobson decides to explore other prayer practices like praying the rosary, praying through the stations-of-the-cross, or praying the Orthodox prayer rope. Whether sitting in a bar, sipping on a beer and talking with strangers, or attending services at a synagogue or Roman Catholic church, or even picking up hitchhikers, Dobson spends time with people who are different than him just as Jesus had done.
The book reads easily and is formatted as a series of monthly journal entries. Each month is a chapter and the reflections are full of information about how Jesus lived as a first-century Jew as well as stories and insights from Dobson’s experiment. Halfway through, however, Dobson abandons keeping journal entries, and the remaining five months are a hodgepodge of stories, thoughts on the Bible and various cultural issues, including how his experience living like Jesus led him to vote for Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election and think through the issue of abortion.
Despite his extensive evangelical resume, The Year of Living Like Jesus paints a picture of Ed Dobson as a faithful guy with a rebellious streak. Beneath all the different titles he’s had, his attempt to live like Jesus shows a guy who is deeply human, who fails along the way, and who knows about suffering. Most of the stories he tells are about how he got it wrong as he tried to live like Jesus. Yet there is something profoundly right about his getting it wrong. The result is that he’s an authoritative voice within evangelical Christianity but at the same time a normal person able to offer a loving, yet challenging critique from within.
Perhaps the most notable theme running throughout the book is the power of ritual. Eating kosher, keeping Sabbath, and reciting prayers don’t come across as monotonous and empty. Instead, they often appear to make Dobson’s life more full, creating a sense of anticipation for the Divine in all things. Holiness often gets a bad rap in our culture, but Dobson’s experience uncovers the true meaning of holiness as a life “set apart.” Watching Dobson stumble his way through these spiritual practices is like seeing the idea of holiness redeemed. These mindful ways of eating, spending time, praying and thinking are what Walter Brueggemann calls “concrete bodily practices that create habitable space for the Holy One among us.”
Reading about Dobson’s experiences with people who are different than him raises another fascinating observation about living like Jesus. When you engage with other people and get to know the story behind the story of their lives, it becomes far more difficult to see the world in black and white terms. The Year of Living Like Jesus is a picture of what it looks like to wade into a complex world and lovingly discern what it means to be faithful.
Anyone with an interest in the Hebraic roots of Christianity will find the book a very helpful source of information. Don’t let the beard deter you. The Year of Living Like Jesus is sure to compel you to wonder how you might live a little more Jesus-ly yourself.