Beliefnet News

By Shona Crabtree
Religion News Service
Imagine spending a year of your life without telling a single lie, coveting thy neighbor’s iPhone or touching women.
Author A.J. Jacobs did all that and more — stoning suspected adulterers with pebbles gathered in Central Park, worshipping with snake handlers at a Tennessee church, sacrificing chickens — while attempting to adhere as literally as possible to some of the 800 rules in the Bible.
Jacobs is the author of the new book, “The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible.” Inspired by an uncle who at one point on his spiritual path tried living the Bible literally, Jacobs decided to do the same.
A Jew by birth and an agnostic by belief, Jacobs, 39, said he wanted to explore Biblical literalism for two reasons: one, to understand a worldview shared by millions of Americans, and two, to live religion rather than study it in hopes of discovering if he was missing out on spiritual life.
After marshaling a group of clergy and academic advisers and taping copies of the Ten Commandments all over his apartment, Jacobs pursued what he called a “moral makeover.”
He tackled myriad rules, both uplifting and obscure. He honored his parents and blew a trumpet once a month. He didn’t cut his beard — more on that in a minute — and immersed himself in religious communities ranging from evangelicals to the Amish to Hasidic Jews.
Some rules proved more difficult than others.
“I think there were two types of rules that were hard to follow,”
said Jacobs, an editor at large at Esquire magazine. “The first was avoiding sins that we commit every day, all the time, like lying, gossiping, coveting, even stealing. … I work in the media, and I live in New York so that’s like 90 percent of my day right there. …
“Trying not to covet was a huge challenge. I coveted everything, you know, the iPhone. I do covet that. And my friends live in the suburbs and they have these front yards and I live in an apartment. I covet other authors’ Amazon rankings. So, it’s a disease, and I tried to get rid of it as much as I could.”
The ancient purity laws proved equally challenging, including a rule not to touch women, since they might be menstruating. In real terms, that meant no sitting on the subway or in restaurants where women may have sat.
“And then my wife took offense to it and she sat in every seat in our apartment, while she was in her quote-unquote impurity, and so I did a lot of standing in our apartment,” he said.
Jacobs also embarked on a ritual of daily prayer. Initially, as a non-believer, it felt awkward, but it was something he eventually grew to appreciate.
“It’s sort of like moral weight training: You’re forced to think about other people. And it trains your mind to be less selfish and to be more thoughtful, so in that sense I got really into it,” he said. “I became an extreme thanker. I was thanking the elevator for coming on time.”
As a result, Jacobs found a new appreciation for “the hundred little things that go right in a day instead of focusing on the three or four things that go wrong.”
Then there was the beard — think Geico caveman meets Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. By the time he was done, it was a foot long.
“I definitely drew a lot of second looks, a lot of raised eyebrows,” Jacobs said. “And I knew that was coming with the territory, but even I got a little self-conscious about it because I was walking around …with this kind of crazy beard that looked like Moses and sometimes I wore robes and sandals and I had my walking stick.”
Jacobs’ wife, Julie, was unfazed by being seen with him in public.
As she explains it, “my husband always had his quirks anyway.”
“When he was at his hairiest, I was also eight months pregnant with twins. So I was not quite the looker anyway. I mean, we were like the freak show, me with this outrageous stomach and he with his beard.”
Despite the challenges, Jacobs said in some ways taking the Bible literally simplified life.
“We talk a lot in this country about freedom of choice, but here I was experiencing some of the benefits of freedom from choice,” Jacobs said. “Because the Bible will tell you, should I give 10 percent to the needy? Yes. Should I read this magazine about Lindsay Lohan? No. Should I lie to make things easier with my wife? No. So it was almost a lovely, paradoxically liberating feeling to have freedom from choice.”
Yet ultimately, extreme literalism does a disservice to the Bible, Jacobs said. “Certitude in any form is kind of dangerous,” he said, recalling one of his advisers telling him that taking the Bible literally sometimes can be like taking Aesop’s Fables literally. “You miss the point.”
Still, Jacobs said he was changed by his year of living biblically.
“I would call myself a reverent agnostic,” he said. “I believe that whether or not there’s a God, there’s something important about the idea of sacredness.”
Copyright 2007 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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