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

By Anna Almendrala 4-14-2008

In church one day, my pastor asked us to raise our hands if we believed in what the Bible said. The right answer seemed pretty obvious, and the whole congregation and I raised our hands. Then he asked us to raise our hand if we had read the Bible in its entirety. Touché, Pastor Sean. Touché.

In his latest book, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, A.J. Jacobs lives as a biblical fundamentalist so you don't have to. Jacobs describes himself as "Jewish in the way the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant" and seeks advice from rabbis, pastors, church members, historians, and textbooks on his quest to live the "ultimate Biblical life." The book chronicles his attempt to conform to the myriad rules found in the Bible (Don't wear mixed fibers! Be fruitful and multiply! Stone adulterers! Forgive!), and the results are often pretty funny. Yes, Jacobs sets out to lampoon Biblical fundamentalists, but by the end of his experiment he finds himself changed - he reveres life more, he is a better father, and he has more respect for people of faith. I picked up this book for laughs, but was surprised when I ended up quite touched by it. A.J. Jacobs writes with the tone of a friend, and when I finished the book I felt I had found a fellow believer (he now calls himself a "reverent agnostic") walking by my side.

By day 264, you warm up to Christian literalists as embodied by Dr. Tony Campolo and the Red Letter Christians. How did your year-long experiment affect your perception of Christian "fundamentalists", especially in contrast to how they are portrayed in mainstream media?

It changed it drastically. Like many Americans, I used to have an embarrassingly simplistic view of evangelical Christianity. I thought it was this monolithic movement where everyone walked in lock step with Pat Robertson. I figured almost all evangelical Christians were focused on the issues of homosexuality and abortion. I hadn't heard of the Red Letter Christians and their focus on poverty and the environment. I missed the complexity of evangelical Christianity, as does much of the media. It's sort of the equivalent of saying, 'Oh, James Taylor and Kid Rock are both rock musicians, so they're pretty much the same.'

You call your book a "(gentle) attack" on fundamentalism, as you set out to show how absurd and impossible it is to live a literally Biblical lifestyle without dropping out of general society. Is there anything that especially surprised or delighted you about following the rules? How about anything that really scared you?

So much surprised and delighted me. I fell in love with the Sabbath. I enjoyed the ban on gossiping (not that I was totally successful; I live in New York and I work in the media, so gossip is about as omnipresent as air). And here's an odd one: I liked following the second commandment literally: No making images. I took this to the limit. No turning on the TV, no watching DVDs, no photos, no doodles. And it turned out to be really helpful. I think our culture is too much in love with images. Everything is image-driven, and we're forgetting how to read. And there's something sacred about reading.

What scared me? I guess how easy it is to become self-righteous. I had to fight it every day.

On day 14, you crib a line from "Chariots of Fire" about feeling God's pleasure as you tithe to charities. Have you managed to maintain any of the Biblical practices from your experiment so that you can continue feeling "the warm ember that starts at the back of [your] neck?"

I do still try to do good works. I don't do as much as I should. And I don't tithe as strictly as I should - I'm down from 10 percent to maybe seven or eight percent. But I try. Because my Bible year taught me something that I wish I had known for the first 38 years of my life.

If you want to be happy, you should pursue OTHER people's happiness. You should do good things for others. It's a paradox, but it works. Being unselfish leads to selfish fulfillment.

Who would OT God vote for? Who would NT Jesus endorse?

Wasn't it a wise man named Jim Wallis who said that God was not a Republican or Democrat?

I do remember that part of the Old Testament where God is choosing whom to anoint as the next king of Israel. And a man named Jesse parades all his sons before the prophet Samuel. And Samuel sees the tallest son, Eliab and figured he will be the new leader.

"But the LORD said to Samuel, "Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart."

Which is good news for Dennis Kucinich. Too bad he dropped out.

But it does remind us: Look beyond the superficial.

You've given a lot of interviews for this book, most of which are on the web somewhere. Tell me something about you that I can't google.

I'll tell you all the answers to my four-year-old son's favorite questions. My favorite color is green. My favorite animal is a zebra. My favorite candy is caramel. And my favorite Dora character is probably Boots the Monkey. You won't find that on the Internet!

Anna Almendrala is the marketing and circulation assistant for Sojourners. For more information on the book, click here.

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