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.
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]