A. J. Jacobs, author of my second favorite book of 2004, The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World, in which he reads the entire thirty-two volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in one year, has attempted another magisterial feat. However, he quickly finds his new endeavor is easier said than done.
His quest: to live the ultimate biblical life.
Or more precisely, to follow the Bible as literally as possible. To obey the Ten Commandments. To be fruitful and multiply. To love my neighbor. To tithe my income. But also to abide by the oft-neglected rules: to avoid wearing clothes made of mixed fibers. To stone adulterers. And, naturally, to leave the edges of my beard unshaven (Leviticus 19:27). I am trying to obey the entire Bible, without picking and choosing. (3-4)
He begins by reading straight through the Bible over a four week period. He documents “every rule, every guideline, every suggestion, every nugget of advice” (8). The fruit of his labor is a seventy-two page list with over seven hundred rules. This is shy of the 613 rules originally compiled from the Torah by the medieval rabbi Maimonides, but Jacobs includes the whole Bible.
He initially encounters two problems: (1) how to follow some of the “crazier” commands of the Bible, and (2) how to follow commands that call for love and devotion to God.
In regard to following the “crazier” commands, he writes of something that anyone familiar with the Bible knows. He calls it “one of the biggest mysteries of the Bible.
How can these ethically advanced rules and these bizarre decrees be found in the same book? And not just the same book. Sometimes the same page. The prohibition against mixing wool and 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.” (43)
With the help of an earnest shatnez (“mixed fibers”) tester named Mr. Berkowitz, Jacobs soon learns how to keep from mixing two types of material. He also invents a creative way to obey the command to not touch a woman during the time of her period (see Leviticus 15:19). Since he can’t touch his wife or anything she sits on for a week, he buys a portable folding stool that he carries everywhere.
Over time, he comes to discover that even the strangest commandments may have value. After all, should anyone really expect to fully understand every reason behind God’s commands? And perhaps if one searches hard enough, one can find positive reasons for even the oddest commands. For example, in regard to God’s declaration that locusts are “clean” food Jacobs discovers,
The only way for the poor to survive was by eating the locusts themselves. So if the Bible didn’t approve of locust eating, the poorest Israelites would have died of starvation. This I like. More and more, I feel it’s important to look at the Bible with an open heart. If you roll up your sleeves, even the oddest passages—and the one about edible bugs qualifies—can be seen as a sign of God’s mercy and compassion. (176)
The second problem he encounters is his realization that “the Bible commands you not only to believe in God but to love Him. It commands this over and over again. So how do I follow that?” (20) He attempts to act out the faith even though he does not really believe it. This causes him to worry about breaking the Third Commandment: “If I don’t believe the holy words I’m saying, isn’t that taking the Lord’s name in vain?” (21)
During his year-long quest, Jacobs makes some surprising and enlightening discoveries. I recount a few.
He comes to value many of the insights of the Bible. For example, in regard to the Bible’s prohibition on idolatry and suspicion of images in general, he writes,
I think there’s something to the idea that the divine dwells more easily in text than in images. Text allows for more abstract thought, more of a separation between you and the physical world, more room for you and God to meet in the middle. I find it hard enough to conceive of an infinite being. Imagine if those original scrolls came in the form of a graphic novel with pictures of the Lord? I’d never come close to communing with the divine.
The Bible is right: A deluge of images does encourage idolatry. Look at the cults of personality in America today. Look at Hollywood. Look at Washington. I’d like to see the next presidential race be run according to Second Commandment principles. No commercials. A radio-only debate. We need an ugly president. I know we’re missing out on some potential Abe Lincolns because they’d look gawky and gangly on TV. (106)
It is particular touching when he experiences authentic praise welling up from within and gives voice to it. He recounts this realization “that felt like a punch to his stomach:
Here I am being prideful about creating an article in a midsize American magazine. But God—if He exists—He created the world. He created flamingos and supernovas and geysers and beetles and the stones for these steps I’m sitting on.
“Praise the Lord,” I say out loud.
I’d always found the praising-God parts of the Bible and my prayer books awkward. The sentences about the all-powerful, almighty, all-knowing, the host of hosts, He who has greatness beyond our comprehension. I’m not used to talking like that. It’s so over the top. I’m used to understatement and hedging and irony. And why would God need to be praised in the first place? God shouldn’t be insecure. He’s the ultimate being.
Now I can sort of see why. It’s not for him. It’s for us. It takes you out of yourself and your prideful little brain. (220)
This is a surprising discovery from one who begins the book by declaring, “I’ve rarely said the word Lord, unless it’s followed by of the Rings. I don’t often say God without preceding it with Oh my” (21).
He also discovers something that many faithful Christians have yet to acknowledge. In the midst of Jacobs’ feverish attempt to follow the Bible literally, a friend warns that he is treading on thin ice. Jacobs writes, “He told me: Stop looking at the Bible as a self-help book. That is the way I view it a lot of the time. I ask myself, ‘How can religion make me more joyous? How can it give my life more meaning? How can it help me raise my son so he won’t end up an embezzler or a racketeer?’ But religion is more than that” (208).
His most powerful experiences occur when he practices the faith within religious communities. This fact causes him to reflect on what is lacking in his quest – the company of a believing community. He writes,
My quest is a paradoxical one. I’m trying to fly solo on a route that was specifically designed for a crowd. As one of my spiritual advisers, David Bossman, a religion professor at Seton Hall University, told me: “The people of the Bible were ‘groupies.’ You did what the group did, you observed the customs of your group. Only the crazy Europeans came up with the idea of individualism. So what you’re doing is a modern phenomenon.” (213)
Perhaps most importantly, he quickly recognizes that it is impossible to follow the Bible with consistent literalism: He discovers that “when it comes to the Bible, there is always—but always—some level of interpretation, even on the most seemingly basic rules.” This makes it practically impossible for Jacobs – or anyone – to fulfill the goal “to follow the Bible as literally as possible.”
The year showed me beyond a doubt that everyone practices cafeteria religion. It’s not just moderates. Fundamentalists do it too. They can’t heap everything on their plate. Otherwise they’d kick women out of church for saying hello (“the women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak …”—1 Corinthians 14:34) and boot out men for talking about the “Tennessee Titans” (“make no mention of the names of other gods...”—Exodus 23:13).
But the more important lesson was this: there’s nothing wrong with choosing. Cafeterias aren’t bad per se. I’ve had some great meals at cafeterias. I’ve also had some turkey tetrazzini that gave me the dry heaves for sixteen hours. The key is in choosing the right dishes. You need to pick the nurturing ones (compassion), the healthy ones (love thy neighbor), not the bitter ones. Religious leaders don’t know everything about every food, but maybe the good ones can guide you to what is fresh. They can be like a helpful lunch lady who—OK, I’ve taken the metaphor too far. (328)
Jacobs concludes the year having experienced a significant transformation. He recounts, “As with most biblical journeys, my year has taken me on detours I could never have predicted. I didn’t expect to herd sheep in Israel. Or fondle a pigeon egg. Or find solace in prayer. Or hear Amish jokes from the Amish. I didn’t expect to confront just how absurdly flawed I am. I didn’t expect to discover such strangeness in the Bible. And I didn’t expect to, as the Psalmist says, take refuge in the Bible and rejoice in it” (7-8).
In the end, he considers himself “a reverent agnostic,” which “isn’t an oxymoron, I swear. I now believe that whether or not there’s a God, there is such a thing as sacredness. Life is sacred. The Sabbath can be a sacred day. Prayer can be a sacred ritual. There is something transcendent, beyond the everyday. It’s possible that humans created this sacredness ourselves, but that doesn’t take away from its power or importance” (329).
He also possesses a newfound reverence for the Bible: “The Bible may have not been dictated by God, it may have had a messy and complicated birth, one filled with political agendas and outdated ideas—but that doesn’t mean the Bible can’t be beautiful and sacred” (316).
It is a splendid experience to encounter the faith anew with an eager novice willing to dive in completely. A. J. Jacobs is a fun, friendly, and surprisingly insightful companion all along the way.
Quotes excerpted from The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible - A. J. Jacobs
© Richard J. Vincent, 2007