A. J. Jacobs, who describes himself as "Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is Italian," compiled all the laws of the Bible and tried to obey them for a year (with notable exceptions, including Jesus' commands to "repent and believe" and "go and make disciples of all nations.") The product is The Year of Living Biblically, a sort of journal of Jacobs' experiences in trying to obey and meeting religious groups who base their morality on the Bible. He spoke with CT about his new perspective on the Bible and religion.
What got you started on this project?
I became interested in religion, fascinated by it, especially because I have a young son and wanted to know what to teach him about religion. And I was worried that I was I missing something by not having religion, like a person who went through life without ever falling in love or hearing Beethoven.
I decided to dive in headfirst and try to live by the Bible for a year and see what I could take out of it, what enhanced my life, and what was not as relevant to my life.
Had you read the Bible before this?
Some pieces, but certainly not Genesis to Revelation, which is what I did.
How did you compile all these laws?
First I bought myself a whole stack of Bibles: Christian Bibles, Hebrew Bibles, the King James, the Revised Standard Version, the New International Version. A friend of mine sent me the Hip-Hop Bible where Psalm 23 is rendered, "The Lord is all that" instead of the traditional "The Lord is my Shepherd." I read through all the Bibles and wrote down every piece of advice, every rule, every guideline that I could find. And it stretched 72 pages, over 700 rules.
What do you think the point of all these laws is?
It's a structure. In many cases, the laws made me a better person. Things like no coveting, no lying, no gossiping. I underwent an extreme ethical makeover.
The transformation involved some adventures. Which was the most revealing to you?
I did love visiting these various communities to see how they lived the Bible. I spent time with evangelical Christians and Hasidic Jews and the Amish.
And I'm very proud, because I think I'm the first person to out-Bible-talk a Jehovah's witness. He came over to my house and after about 3 1/2 hours, he looked at his watch and said I gotta go.
Living Biblically asks, what do we do with the Bible, considering all the sometimes strange laws and the fact that Jesus confirmed them in the Sermon on the Mount. What do you think the Bible is for? What do you think is expected of people who believe it?
You can see your life as a series of rights and entitlements or as a series of responsibilities. And the biblical way is to see the responsibilities to the elders, to your parents, to your neighbors, to the community. So, like JFK said, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.
Many people would say that the impossibility of keeping all these laws is the pointthat it shows us God's character and that we don't measure up. So when we go to God, it's to ask for forgiveness and grace, not to show him we're good.
It's certainly is true that it makes it very clear that you can't measure up. You cannot follow all these laws. Just try not coveting. I tried and I think I made progress, but I realized it was really eye-opening to see how much I sinned. How much I lied and gossiped and coveted and was angry and so that was certainly a huge part of my year was coming to terms with that.
I do think I got better, thanks to the Bible, I made strides. I never became a saint, I never became Gandhi or Angelina Jolie, but I became a slightly better person.
I explored a lot about the laws versus grace in the second part of the book because I know that most Christians believe that Jesus' death nullified many of the laws.
Were there any laws that only made sense to you when you did them?
A lot of them, once you start doing them they start to have meaning. For instance the Sabbath, that was a big one for me because I would gladly work through the weekend. But here I was forced to take a break and reflect and spend time with my family. And it became a beautiful thing and I think everyone should do it.
One that really changed me was praying. As an agnostic and a totally secular person, I had never prayed before. As I said in the book, I never said "Lord" without following it with "of the Rings." And for the first time I was trying to say the word "Lord" earnestly and with purpose. It was strange to me and very uncomfortable in the beginning.
But I came to love two types of praying in particular. I became an extreme thanker. I'd be thanking that this phone works and that you seem like a nice person and all this sort of thing. It's a weird way to live, but it's also great because you start to realize the 100 little things that go right every day, as opposed to the three or four that go wrong.
The other kind of praying I liked was for other peoplesick relatives or friends or those in need. I don't even know if those are actually effective, that they will help a person get better, but it's good nonetheless. I compare it to moral weight training. Because it's 10 minutes a day when you can't think of yourself or your own petty problems, you're forced to think about others, so it makes you a better person.
I decided to take the commandment against graven images to the extreme, so I made no graven images and took no photographs for the year.
You write that you're now a reverent agnostic. Do you think you are/were missing anything in not being religious?
It was fascinating to see how my behavior affected my thoughts, how the outer affected the inner. So almost by pretending to be a better person, I sort of became a better person. Which is sort of what cognitive psychology says. Fake it till you make it, the ethical version.
I do feel that there was lots and lots in religion and the biblical way of life that has enriched my life.
To give my son some basis in religion, if he turns into an atheist or a religious person, either way, I'll be happy as long as he's a good person. But I decided to give him a base in religion so that he can make the decision himself. We did join a temple. And we send him to Hebrew school.
Copyright © 2007 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
The Year of Living Biblically is available from Amazon.com and other retailers.
A. J. Jacobs' website has more on the book, including an excerpt about the progress of his beard.
Books & Culture and Al Hsu reviewed the book.
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