The Year of Living Biblically is now available on the Kindle Reader, Amazon's New Wireless Reading Device.
This interview appears in the Dec. 28 issue of “National Catholic Reporter.”
Sometimes it’s hard enough just dealing with one biblical command, such as to love our neighbors. Writer A.J. Jacobs took it quite a bit further. For one year he tried to follow all of the Bible’s commands, including stoning sinners. He chronicles his experiences in the funny and informative new book “The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible.”
“I went into it with an open mind to find out what, if anything, I was missing in not having had a religious background,” he said during a telephone interview from Philadelphia, one stop on a 20-city book tour.
Jacobs, 39, an editor at “Esquire Magazine,” grew up in a non-religious Jewish household. He writes that he had never prayed. For his biblical year, though, he had to pray several times a day. It was strange at first -- he jokes that he had never said Lord, except when followed by "of the Flies" and never said God unless preceded by "Oh my."
Having never read more than bits and pieces of the Bible, he began by spending five hours a day for a month reading different versions in their entirety. He had experience with such marathon reading, having for a previous book, “The Know-It-All,” read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, all 44 million words, from cover to cover.
But this time, “the more I read, the more I absorbed the fact that the Bible isn’t just another book,” he writes. “I love my encyclopedia, but the encyclopedia hasn’t spawned thousands of communities based on its words. It hasn’t shaped the actions, values, deaths, love lives, warfare and fashion sense of millions of people over three millennia. No one has ever been executed for translating the encyclopedia into another language . . . No president has been sworn in with the encyclopedia. It’s intimidating, to say the least.”
From the bibles, he typed up a list of more than 700 commandments, focusing on one each day, “while keeping the others in my peripheral vision.” He followed not just the big, well-known rules like the Ten Commandments, but ones like not wearing mixed fibers (Lev. 19:19); he had his clothes tested by an Orthodox Jew who makes house calls to do this. He quickly learned no aspect of his life would be unaffected -- not the way he ate, dressed, talked, or touched his wife. He visited communities where the Bible is taken literally, the Amish country and Orthodox Jews in Israel, and consulted with a variety of Jewish and Christian authorities.
The first thing to change was his appearance. He grew a full beard, in keeping with Lev. 19:27. Then his actions. He began censoring 20 percent of his sentences before they left his mouth because of the Bible’s rigorous language laws. “Is it a lie,” he asked himself. “Is it a boast? Is it a curse? Is it gossip?”
He blew a ram’s horn to mark the start of each month, participated in a service of animal sacrifice in Brooklyn, herded sheep in Israel and found solace in prayer. For one of his funniest practices, he found a way to fulfill the law to stone a Sabbath violator -- he got tiny pebbles from Central Park and, pretending to stumble, dropped them on the shoes of a man at his neighborhood Avis office who had worked both Saturday and Sunday. In that way he kept a biblical law, but it left him with questions that would follow him throughout the year: “How can the Bible be so wise in some places and so barbaric in others? And why should we put any faith in a book that includes such brutality?”
Illustrating that duality was another of his motives for the project. He writes that he wanted to “take legalism to its extreme and show that it leads to religious idiocy. What better way to demonstrate the absurdity of Jewish and Christian fundamentalism? If you actually follow all the rules, you’ll spend your days acting like a crazy person.”
But showing this in the extreme has opened him up to accusations that he was acting as a stunt journalist. A New York Times’ review criticized the book as being a “reality-show version of living by the rules set forth in the Bible,” while another said he was “keeping the joke alive for 365 days.”
Jacobs maintains the opposite is true.
“It was a genuine spiritual journey that changed me in significant ways. Ironically, most religious people see it that way and are happy I took it seriously.”
What attempting to follow the arbitrary laws points out, he says, is that everyone, even the fundamentalists, actually practice cafeteria religion.
“I came to the conclusion you have to do some picking and choosing,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with the cafeteria approach. I've had some delicious meals in cafeterias. It’s all about choosing the right parts, the ones about compassion and helping others instead of the parts that lead to exclusion. If you engage the Bible that way it can be incredibly relevant and important.”
He says he hasn’t heard any complaints from either fundamentalist Jews or Christians, although he has received some e-mails from people praying he will convert to Christianity. In fact, the book has been so well received it hit the New York Times best seller list within weeks of its release last month and Paramount has optioned the film rights.
“My behavior and thoughts have changed in a much more profound way that I had expected,” he says, mentioning cursing -- “I don’t do as much,” gossiping, which he does less of -- “or at least I feel guilty” and coveting -- “I’ve definitely cut down.”
He also joined a temple and enrolled his son Jasper in Hebrew school.
And while the beard is gone, saved now in a plastic bag under the kitchen sink, and he’s stopped stoning sabbath violators and gone back to wearing mixed fibers, he will tithe eight percent of the book’s profits and he continues to pray.
“The idea of thankfulness was a huge change in my perspective. I try to be thankful for the hundreds of things that go right all day instead of concentrating on the few that go wrong.”