Arts & Culture

A.J. Jacobs Talks about His Year of Living Biblically

Daniel Radosh, author of the new book Rapture Ready! Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture, interviews friend and fellow Jew writer A.J. Jacobs, contributing editor at Esquire, on his year-long road trip (or rather, home-trip) through the … Read More

By / March 27, 2008

Daniel Radosh, author of the new book Rapture Ready! Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture, interviews friend and fellow Jew writer A.J. Jacobs, contributing editor at Esquire, on his year-long road trip (or rather, home-trip) through the Old Testament, documented in The Year of Living Biblically. A.J. will be giving an in-depth talk on his experiences at the 92nd Street Y on April 1.

You followed the Bible literally for an entire year. If you had to do it again for one month, which month would you choose and why?

Can I make my own month? And choose to do 31 Saturdays in a row? Is that allowed? The Sabbath was one of the most life-altering parts of my year. As a workaholic, the line between weekend and weekday didn’t exist for me. But here was a mandated day of rest and joy, a "sanctuary in time," as Rabbi Heschel called it. When I first tried Shabbat, I got the shakes, but by the end of the year, I had come to love the ritual.

You came out of your experiment with a deeper sense of transcendence and sacredness in life. Have you been able to maintain that now that you are no longer doing your biblical study and practice?

To some extent, yes. I started the year as an agnostic and I ended the year as what a minister friend of mine calls a ‘reverent agnostic.’ Which is a phrase I love, however oxymoronic it may seem. Whether or not there’s a God, I believe in the idea of sacredness, and that rituals or the Sabbath or prayer can be sacred. I still observe the Sabbath – in the sense that I try not to email or make phone calls or write on Saturdays. I still pray, even though I’m not sure what I'm praying to. And I try to maintain a sense of wonderment, which is something I gained in my biblical year (I also gained it sophomore year of high school after a night with an apple bong, but the feeling from my biblical year was more lasting).

For your previous book, The Know-It-All, you read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. Which contains more wisdom, the encyclopedia or the Bible?

That's a hard call. If forced, I'd say the Britannica, since it has huge sections about the Bible. So you kind of get a two-for-one deal. You get biblical wisdom, plus wisdom from modern thinkers like Horace Mann ("Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.") and Ian Fleming, author of the great philosophical work Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. ("Never say 'no' to adventures. Always say yes otherwise you'll lead a very dull life.")

You found that following biblical rules dovetailed with your tendency toward obsessive compulsive disorder. If somebody who doesn't have OCD did the same experiment, would they end up with it?

I think you have to be a little obsessive to do the experiment in the first place. So the question is probably unanswerable. It was fascinating, though, to see the overlap between OCD and religious rituals – an overlap Freud talked about. I actually found it comforting. Why should I come up with my own idiosyncratic rituals, when the Bible has ones that my ancestors have practiced for thousands of years?

If you could pick three biblical rules to teach your children, what would they be?

Aside from honor your parents, which seems the go-to answer, I’d say these three:

  1. Be thankful. That was one of the big lessons of the year. I was saying all these prayers of thanksgiving, and they really started to sink in. I started to shift my perspective. I found myself being thankful for the 100 things that go right every day as opposed to focusing on the three or four that went wrong.
  2. No gossiping. It sounds like a minor thing, but it wasn't. I found that the less I gossiped, the fewer petty thoughts I generated, which caused a decrease in jealousy which led to greater happiness. So for selfish reasons alone, it's a good rule. And of course.
  3. Do not marry your wife's sister while your wife is still alive (Leviticus 18:18).

Who would you rather have running the country, someone who believes the Bible is the literal word of God, or someone who doesn't think it's important at all?

Neither sounds appealing. Biblical literalism is filled with dangers, as I discovered through my year. (We both visited the Creation Museum in Kentucky, which seems a three-dimensional example of biblical literalism gone awry). But if you don't think the Bible is important, then you are a stiff-necked fool, as the Bible would say. Whether or not you believe in its historical or theological truth, the Bible is hugely important for sociological, ethical and literary reasons alone.

Sam Harris says it would be easy to come up with principles that are more ethical than those taught in the Bible? Do you agree?

More ethical than Deuteronomy 25:11? Well, yes, maybe. (In case you forgot, that one says that if two men are fighting, and the wife of one of the men reaches out and grabs the private parts of the other man, then her hand shall be cut off.) But more ethical than "Love thy neighbor as thyself" or "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you?" I'm not so sure. I couldn't come up with anything better than that. What I'm saying is the Bible is not monolithic. Some parts are incredibly compassionate; others are better applied to an ancient tribal society. Also, of course, there's the difference between the ethics of the Bible and the ethics of rabbinical tradition.

Which rituals do you miss the most?

I've gotten lax with the dietary laws. I still don't eat pork or shellfish (and I also studiously avoid eagles, ospreys and hawks, as the Bible commands), but I've let a lot of the other rules go. And I do miss it a bit. When you are strict with what goes into your mouth, you gain a sense of mindfulness about the act of eating.

In your blurb for my new book, Rapture Ready! Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture, you said, "Daniel Radosh writes about evangelical culture with brilliance, humor, and understanding." Can you elaborate on that?

Yes, this Radosh guy has written a really good book. But I still mourn the loss of the chapter on Christian mimes. I hope you’re considering using it in the sequel.

Previously: Jacobs Introduces His Guest-Blogging Stint No Mixed Fibers Indulging Creationism Midweek Shabbat  Throwing Rocks at Old People