Interview with A.J. Jacobs, Author of The Year of Living Biblically

If A.J. Jacobs was curious about Christianity, I’m surprised he didn’t just build his own church.

I wouldn’t put it past him.

Jacobs is the author of The Year of Living Biblically, a memoir of his year-long quest to follow all the rules in the Bible.

All 700+ of them.

YearofLivingBiblically

The book is hilarious. Go read it.

Here’s Publishers Weekly:

… He didn’t just keep the Bible’s better-known moral laws (being honest, tithing to charity and trying to curb his lust), but also the obscure and unfathomable ones: not mixing wool with linen in his clothing; calling the days of the week by their ordinal numbers to avoid voicing the names of pagan gods; trying his hand at a 10-string harp; growing a ZZ Top beard; eating crickets; and paying the babysitter in cash at the end of each work day. (He considered some rules, such as killing magicians, too legally questionable to uphold.)

Some of my favorite parts include the moment he begins the journey:

Within a half hour of waking, I check the Amazon.com sales ranking of my last book. How many sins does that compromise? Pride? Envy? Greed? I can’t even count.

… and when he discusses the strictest Sabbath keepers:

You can’t plant, so gardening is off-limits. You can’t tear anything, so toilet paper must be pre-ripped earlier in the week. You can’t make words, so Scrabble is often considered off-limits (though at least one rabbi allows Deluxe Scrabble, since the squares have ridges, which provides enough separation between letters so that they don’t actually form words).

There are also the scenes where he out-Bible-talks a Jehovah’s Witness, goes to the Creation Museum in Kentucky, and attends a meeting of the NYC Atheists.

His wife, a good sport about all this, has to go along for the ride. She had already lived through his previous project, reading through the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. When he tells her his new idea, she responds, “I was kind of hoping your next book would be a biography of Eleanor Roosevelt or something.”

There are a number of points that Jacobs gets completely right, like these:

For most of my life, I’ve been working under the paradigm that my behavior should, ideally, have a logical basis. But if you live biblically, this is not true. I have to adjust my brain to this.

The prohibition against mixing wool with 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’re all jumbled up like a chopped salad.

And I saved my favorite bit for last:

I asked [atheist group leader Ken] if it’s hard to lead a group of atheists. Like herding cats, he says. Atheists aren’t, by nature, joiners. “They’re individualists,” he says. Which perhaps explains why we had thirty separate checks for lunch.

A.J. Jacobs was kind enough to answer questions for this site:

Hemant: Why is your wife still with you? :)

A.J.: No doubt, my wife is a saint. She really did endure a lot. Consider the biblical laws of sexual purity. You’re not supposed to touch a woman during her “time of the month.” But if you take the Bible really literally, you cannot sit on a seat where a menstruating woman has sat. My wife thought this was incredibly sexist. So in retaliation, during her time of “impurity,” she sat on every seat in our apartment, and I had to spend much of the year standing.

Hemant: What was your process of writing? (Would you live Biblically all day and write about it the next day? Would you take notes while events happened?)

A.J.: I wrote most of the book as I lived it. I wanted to give the book an immediacy, so that readers could feel like they’re coming on the journey with me.

Hemant: What is your next project?

A.J.: My wife says I owe her big time after my last two projects – the Bible one and the year I spent reading the encyclopedia for my previous book, The Know It All. She says I need to do The Year of Giving Her Foot Massages. Not sure the publisher’s going to go for that.

I do have a couple of ideas – I love these immersion projects. But I want to be really sure before I dive in. Because they consume my life.

Hemant: Have you been criticized at all for being *too* objective? (i.e. Besides simply saying you aren’t a Creationist, why not attack that position more?)

A.J.: Not too much. I thought I might encounter that, but so far, I haven’t.

But to answer the question as to why I didn’t attack creationism more strongly: I figured you could find dozens of creationism critiques written by scientists more qualified than I am. What I hadn’t seen as much were anthropological explorations of the creationism movement. What is it about this six-day version that holds such allure? Why is it so comforting?

Also, I figured my whole book is, in a sense, a (gentle) attack on literal interpretation of the Bible. I show that if you take everything literally, you act like a crazy man.

Hemant: What are your views on “fundamentalist” Christians?

A.J.: Well, part of my aim was to become the ultimate fundamentalist for a year, to show that if you are too literal or legalistic when approaching the Bible, you are making a mistake.

So of course, that’s my main view. But I did enjoy learning more about them. Before my year, my view of fundamentalist Christians was black and white. Now it’s much more complex and filled with shades of gray.

First off, I learned that Evangelical Christianity is not synonymous with fundamentalism. Yes, there?s the Christian right. But there?s also a group of evangelicals called the Red Letter Christians.

Yes, there’s the Christian right. But there’s also a group of evangelicals called the Red Letter Christians. They focus on Jesus’ words – the ones printed in red in the old Bibles. Their argument is that Jesus never talked about homosexuality, so they don’t put any energy into opposing gay marriage. Instead, Jesus talked a lot about helping the poor and society’s outcasts, so that’s what they focus on.

I also visited [Jerry] Falwell’s headquarters: Obviously, the man held some truly reprehensible views (e.g. AIDS was the wrath of God, etc), which are presumably shared by some of his followers. At the same time, paradoxically, the Falwell churchgoers are some of the kindest people I’d ever met in my life. Genuinely kind. Not pretending. It was a study in sweet and sour.

One group I refused to embed myself with was the Dominionists — those who advocate a return to Old Testament theocracy (executing adulterers and blasphemers). There’s no arguing they are scary.

Hemant: Where on the spectrum of Christianity, from extremely-liberal to Pat-Robertson-Fundamentalist, do you think the Bible intends for a Christian to lie at?

A.J.: It’s an interesting question – but I think there’s a problem with it. The problem is, the Bible is not monolithic. It was written and edited by dozens of people over hundreds of years, so it’s hard to say, the Bible is X or Y.

There are some passages that are to the right of Pat Robertson – ones that encourage and the slaying of enemies (e.g. execute astrologers and rebellious children). but there are others that we’d consider liberal –the Bible contains what was probably the first welfare system. (You were not supposed to harvest the corners of your field, so that the poor could come and eat it).

The thing is, there is always picking and choosing when following the Bible. That was one of my big conclusions. Fundamentalists call this “cafeteria religion.” But I say, what’s wrong with cafeterias? I’ve had some great meals at cafeterias. It’s all about picking the right parts, the parts about compassion and loving your neighbor, not the parts about condemning homosexuality.

Hemant: Is there any rule you regret following?

A.J.: The Bible says to build a hut once a year to commemorate our forefathers. I live in New York, and couldn’t get permission to build the hut on the sidewalk, so I ended up building it in my living room. That might have been taking it too far.

Hemant: What has been your favorite question asked during a book signing?

A.J.: People want to know about my beard. Just for the record, I kept it in a Ziploc bag under my sink. In case anyone wants a souvenir tuft.

Hemant: Which Biblical rule is the most important for us all to live by?

A.J.: I know it’s the obvious answer, but it’s a good one: The Golden Rule. It really is a beautiful notion.

Oh, and also the one about if two men are in a fight, and the wife of one of the men grabs the genitals of the other man, her hand shall be cut off.

Hemant: Where are you on your spiritual journey now? Have you become any more religious (or perhaps more atheistic)?

A.J.: I started out as an agnostic. By the end of the year, I had become what a minister friend of mine calls a “reverent agnostic.” Whether or not there’s a god, I think there’s something to the idea of sacredness. That rituals can be sacred, the Sabbath can be sacred. I acknowledge that this sacredness could be human-made. But I still think it’s important.

(Someone at one of my readings called himself a God-fearing atheist, which I thought was a nice phrase as well).

Hemant: Did any rules contradict other rules? How did you reconcile that?

A.J.: Ah yes. As the great theologian Ned Flanders said, “Why is this happening to me? I followed everything in the Bible – even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff.”

It can be as simple as the command to love your wife, and the command not to gossip. My wife was dealing with a horrible client, and was looking for my support, but I refused to engage in “evil tongue.” She got really pissed. I think I made the wrong decision.

Again, it’s all about picking and choosing.

Hemant: What was your least favorite book of the Bible?

A.J.: Leviticus really is a tough one. It does have some wise laws (love thy neighbor) but you also have to plow through several pages describing skin ailments and mildew. It’s not edge of your seat reading.

Hemant: Did any book in the Bible surprise you in terms of content?

A.J.: Two did in particular. First, Ecclesiastes. It’s a beautifully written book, and I believe it has the most modern sensibility in the Bible. It acknowledges the mystery of life — and its seeming randomness. The race does not go to the swift, as it says. In the face of life’s uncertainty, you should eat and drink and enjoy the honest labor. It’s almost got an Epicurian tilt to it.

Second, the Song of Solomon. Here’s proof that the Bible is not always anti-sex. The Song of Solomon is basically a love poem, and it can get steamy at times. Like this line: Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle, that feed among the lilies.”

Hemant: What was your most creative loophole for following a “morally objectionable” or now-illegal rule?

A.J.: I’d probably say there were two.

First, stoning adulterers. The Bible doesn’t say the size of the stones, so I went with pebbles. This man came up to me in the park and asked me why I was dressed so strangely (I was wearing my sandals and white garments). I explained my project. He said, well I’m an adulterer, are you going to stone me? I said that would be great. So I took out my handful of pebbles. He actually grabbed the pebbles from my hand and threw them at me. So in retaliation, I tossed one back at him. An eye for an eye.

Second, the proverbs say to punish your child with a rod of discipline. That’s not my parenting style. So I went on the Internet and bought a Nerf rod and hit him with that. But he thought it was hilarious, and hit me back with a whiffle bat, so the whole thing was a fiasco.

Hemant: Were there any rules that sounded crazy at first but began to make sense once you started living them?

A.J.: Honestly, I did start to see the allure of some of the crazy ones. I’m obsessive compulsive, so the rituals dovetailed quite nicely with my OCD.

For instance, the food taboos turned out to be interesting. No pork, no shellfish (and no eagles or hawks or osprey either). The idea of being really aware of what you put in your mouth – where the food comes from, how it’s prepared – it made eating more of a mindful act.

Hemant: Did any rules turn you into a worse person?

A.J.: I don’t think stoning adulterers made me better. Also, telling the truth all the time isn’t really a good idea. I wrote an article on it for Esquire called Radical Honesty and the chaos that occurs if you never, ever lie.

Hemant: What were your impressions of the atheist group you visited? (You can be honest. We’re a thick-skinned bunch!)

A.J.: When I first heard about the atheist group, I thought it was paradoxical. Like an apathy parade. I didn’t think atheists were joiners by nature. I thought they were ultra-individualists. And in a sense I was proved right – at the meeting at the Greek restaurant, they asked the waiter for thirty separate checks, one for each atheist.

In truth, I think I underestimated the appeal of organized atheism. (When I wrote my book, the Hitchens and Dawkins books had yet to hit). I thought atheism would always be the David to the religious lobby’s Goliath. I thought it’d be hard to rally people around a negative, a lack of belief. But I think I underestimated that they could be rallied by reason and science.



[tags]atheist, atheism, Bible, Christian, Jesus[/tags]

  • http://paxnortona.notfrisco2.com Joel Sax

    Great interview Hemant. AJ sounds like my kind of guy — a “reverent agnostic”.

    I don’t completely chuck the book, myself. There’s plenty to sift through and as AJ points out, you got to remember that a lot of people put their fingers into it before the Council of Nicea formalized it and sowed the myth that it was the Word of God. It’s fun to talk to ministers and ask them what they make of the sixth chapter of Matthew, for example, which proposes that you do not go to church but do all your praying in the closet. (Oh, the backflips you will see as he tries to argue his way past Jesus….)

    And there is wisdom. One of the best speakers I know on the subject of bipolar disorder is a Presbyterian minister who himself is a sufferer and fully aware of the ways that some Christians attempt to bypass the wisdom of psychiatry in favor of faith healing. He can outquote them chapter and verse and it is truly a joy to watch.

  • Stephen

    Great interview. The Old Testament really is a hoot for all the obvious reasons. Ironically, while the Old Testament contains some of the most disturbing parts of the Bible (Moses telling his followers to murder and rape, kids getting torn apart by bears), it also contains some of the most beautiful and moving parts of the Bible (Ecclesiastes, as AJ says, along with Job, Proverbs [not that I agree with a lot of them] and some of the Psalms [not that I agree with any of them]). Frankly, I see no appeal in any of the New Testament, not even Jesus’ words. But the Old Testament is definitely pretty cool.

    On a more bitter note, I find it galling that fundamentalists speak disdainfully of “cafeteria Christianity” (“salad bar Christianity” was the only term I’d heard before now) as if they don’t do exactly the same thing.

    But I digress. I’ve been planning to read The Year of Living Biblically ever since I heard about it a while ago. I’ll definitely get around to it soon.

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  • http://journals.aol.ca/plittle/AuroraWalkingVacation/ Paul

    I think I’ve made this comment before, but he completely missed the boat on his stoning of the adulterer bit. Sure, the Bible doesn’t specify the size of the stones, but it does specify that the adulterer is to be stoned until he was dead. So he didn’t actually follow that law at all. So saying he followed every law in the Bible is a lie. Oops! There’s another one…

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike C

    There’s plenty to sift through and as AJ points out, you got to remember that a lot of people put their fingers into it before the Council of Nicea formalized it and sowed the myth that it was the Word of God.

    Don’t believe everything you read in the DaVinci Code.

  • http://thatatheistguysblog.blogspot.com NYCatheist

    A.J. will be meeting with the NYC Atheists again to talk about his book on 11/29.

  • Polly

    Interesting that he couldn’t form words. I don’t remember that from the Bible. Did he find it in the commentaries?

    I guess I don’t really know what his goal was. Was it to live like an average Israelite, or just to follow every single rule and play every part.

    If the former, then he wasn’t required to do anything to adulterers because he:
    1) is not a judge or priest appointed by the elders, god, or any authority
    2) didn’t catch them in the act
    3) doesn’t have another witness – 2 witness minimum
    4) is not the one who was sinned against, so he can’t cast the first stone
    5) he would have had to apprehend BOTH parties to the sin

    Same would go for all the other capital crimes of the OT.

    He also didn’t have to follow nazirite rules – that was an unusual distinction.

    If he wanted to fulfil every rule and role, he should have taken on the duties of the high priest and sacrificed animals as burnt offerings for all the different types of offerings: sin, guilt, thanks, freewill, etc and the grain and wave offerings. The list goes on and on. For that he’d need the Temple at Jerusalem or a blessed tabernacle made to specifications (many talents of gold and silver and bronze required) or an undressed-stone altar.
    Then there are the rules for kings. Did he read the law each day? Did he refuse to cut down the trees surrounding a beseiged city? Did he offer a pact to cities that are far off from the Promised Land before attacking?
    I could go on for hours. I’d better stop.

  • Michael Bolton

    I’m definitely going to pick up a copy of this book. Sounds like a fun read!

  • http://paxnortona.notfrisco2.com Joel Sax

    Mike C: Never read the Da Vinci Code. From what I understand, it doesn’t reflect the official Catholic position on the Bible anyways.

    What I meant to say was that there is a lot that got rammed into the Bible that wasn’t necessarilly considered to be the Word of God — e.g. Proverbs, various narratives, spiritual works of fiction such as the Book of Job and Jonah, (my wife says that these are some of the best), etc. The purpose of the collection was to bring together texts which in some way had been referred to in the Gospels and subsequent New Testament texts. The idea that it is all true and all the Word of God is a modern heresy, circa about 1900 when people began doing backflips over evolution.

    Don’t believe everything you read in the Fundamentalist tracts.

  • http://ohthethinksyoucanthink.blogspot.com Linda

    Um… well, uhhhh, ahhh, never mind…

    I tried this before, twice as a matter of fact – verse by verse Bible study from Genesis to Revelation with an atheist (I’ve never done it myself.) I recently tried it on my blog and then found A Reasonable Atheist’s blog, where he attempted to do it. I had to delete mine due to complicated ciucumstances, and the Reasonable Atheist stopped after one chapter for unknown reasons. Go figure! Maybe he’ll pick it back up.

    One question, though…

    Is that THE Michael Bolton?

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike C

    What I meant to say was that there is a lot that got rammed into the Bible that wasn’t necessarilly considered to be the Word of God — e.g. Proverbs, various narratives, spiritual works of fiction such as the Book of Job and Jonah, (my wife says that these are some of the best), etc. The purpose of the collection was to bring together texts which in some way had been referred to in the Gospels and subsequent New Testament texts. The idea that it is all true and all the Word of God is a modern heresy, circa about 1900 when people began doing backflips over evolution.

    Joel, the history of the formation of the biblical canon is a lot more complicated and nuanced than all that. I’ve read quite a bit of the early church writers (ca. AD 100-500 – not exactly “fundamentalist tracts”) and can tell you that deciding which books were “inspired” and “authoritative” was a long and involved process, which, BTW, had nothing to do with the Council of Nicea (you might be thinking of the Council of Carthage in 387 which merely confirmed the list of canonical books already put forth by Athanasius and others). However, these ancient church leaders from very early on held the scriptural texts (whichever ones they thought should be included, and yes there were some minor disagreements) to be “inspired by God” (a phrase which comes straight from Paul in 2 Timothy 3:16) .

    I think what you are referring to is the fact that ideas about “biblical inerrancy” didn’t arise until the early 20th century in response to the the liberal vs. fundamentalist debates over the Bible. It was around this time that conservatives started asserting that not only was the Bible the inspired Word of God (which almost all Christians had affirmed since the time of Paul), but it was also utterly incapable of error or contradiction in any way. This of course is ridiculous given that the Bible is not and never was intended to function in the same way as a modern-style historical or scientific text, and thus need not adhere to the same standards as these more modern genres.

    However, the important point is that “inerrancy” and “divine inspiration” are two very different terms. You are right to say that inerrancy is a relatively recent imposition on the text. But inspiration is something that the entire church has mostly agreed on since the beginning (even if they didn’t always agree which books in particular were the inspired ones).

  • http://paxnortona.notfrisco2.com Joel Sax

    Mike C, fundamentally we agree, but you seem to be in the classic net “Well I know better than you and I am not going to avow that you might know anything” mode right from the very start.

    There are plenty of less patronizing ways for you to have gone about this, but you decided that you knew better.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike C

    Sorry Joel, I didn’t mean to come across that way. It just seemed to me that you were affirming all those urban legends (popularized by the DaVinci Code) that there was some big conspiracy in the early church around the time of the Council of Nicea to invent what we now consider to be orthodox Christianity and add all the stuff like belief in the bible as the Word of God. Perhaps you weren’t, but that’s how it seemed and it was those assumptions that I wanted to correct. I apologize if I came across condescendingly.

  • Stephen

    Mike C, fundamentally we agree, but you seem to be in the classic net “Well I know better than you and I am not going to avow that you might know anything” mode

    Boo hoo, he knew something you didn’t. His attitude wasn’t the least bit condescending. Just accept it and move on.

  • grazatt

    deciding which books were “inspired” and “authoritative” was a long and involved process What was the process?

  • Polly

    Mike C.,
    That was informative and appreciated.

    My question is:
    Wouldn’t we expect something that was inspired by god naturally to be inerrant? He has control over the process, so why allow any kind of errors.
    Surely, getting the details right and the stories straight couldn’t possibly detract from the Message?

    I think this is why the two concepts get conflated by people like me.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike C

    What was the process?

    Keeping in mind that these are wikipedia articles and not necessarily entirely accurate or unbiased, you can find a decent overview at the links below:

    Development of the Jewish Canon
    Development of the New Testament Canon

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike C

    Wouldn’t we expect something that was inspired by god naturally to be inerrant? He has control over the process, so why allow any kind of errors.
    Surely, getting the details right and the stories straight couldn’t possibly detract from the Message?

    I think this is why the two concepts get conflated by people like me.

    Yes indeed Polly. That is exactly the argument that fundamentalists and evangelicals use to make their case for inerrancy. However, as I alluded to above, I think the problem here is that the term “inerrancy” doesn’t take into account the nature and purposes of ancient texts in their native contexts. To truly understand its meaning, we have to approach the Bible on its own terms – as the kind of literature it actually is – and not expect it to conform to the standards of historical or scientific writing that we impose on our modern day texts.

    For instance, to demand that the early chapters of Genesis present us with a scientifically accurate description of the creation of the universe entirely misses the nature and purpose of the Genesis literature. The ancient writers were not writing science (a genre which was not to be invented for several more millenia), they were writing myths (in the literary, not the derogatory sense) and poetry and theological treatises. And even where they were writing actual histories, we shouldn’t assume that they would necessarily follow the conventions or strictures of modern day historians. Instead they wrote in a form and style that was meaningful to their audiences back then. Which is why we must read the Bible contextually, but not always (sometimes, but not always) literally. This idea is known in theology as “accommodation”, which basically states that God inspired the biblical authors in such a way that his message was accommodated to the understandings of the people to whom it was written. It’s a means of reading scripture that goes back at least as far as St. Augustine in the 5th century, lest you accuse my hermeneutics of being too “liberal” or too “modern”. ;)

  • Polly

    God inspired the biblical authors in such a way that his message was accommodated to the understandings of the people to whom it was written.

    This makes sense, and it also ties into another point I read somewhere else about the context of ancient writings being indispensible if one wants to know what was actually meant and not the latest interpretation through the filter of the current paradigms.

    So, would you say that the ancient Israelites didn’t really believe there was a literal Adam and Eve who inhabited a 6-day old Earth or, a Moses and 40 years of wandering after 10 plagues?

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike C

    So, would you say that the ancient Israelites didn’t really believe there was a literal Adam and Eve who inhabited a 6-day old Earth or, a Moses and 40 years of wandering after 10 plagues?

    Not exactly. I’m saying that the question probably wouldn’t have been that important to them. Probably wouldn’t have even occurred to them to ask. Maybe they thought Adam and Eve existed. Maybe they didn’t. But they would have understood that the point of the story wasn’t just to give historical details about “what happened”. They would have known that the point was to convey something true (in a deeper sense than mere historical truth) about the nature of God, Creation, and the relationship between the two.

    Likewise with Moses, though in a slightly different way since Exodus is a different kind of genre from the opening chapters of Genesis. They most likely did think of Moses as a real historical character (as do I) but they would not have been so concerned with whether ever single detail of the Exodus accounts could be verified as completely accurate. They would have known that the story was crafted in such a way as to communicate certain theological truths.

  • Polly

    @Mike C,

    Very interesting. I appreciate your patiently replying to my questions. Thanks.

  • Susan B.

    Gonna stay out of the discussion about how the bible was put together, since I have nothing to add, but I just wanted to comment that, thanks to Hemant’s earlier plugging of this book and especially this interview, I went and picked it up yesterday. I’m about halfway through and finding it delightful, so much so that today I picked up the author’s previous book to read next.

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