I started following author A. J. Jacobs’ blog after I read his book The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World, which was about his quest to read the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica in a year. He accomplished his goal, though he’s quick to admit he did not become the smartest person in the world. When he announced on his blog that his next book would be about a year he would spend following the Bible literally, I was amused. Literally? There are many parts of the Old Testament that contain laws that, as a Christian, I am no longer bound to. Thank goodness. Although, I think the idea of leaving home every month during my monthly cycle might actually be a good one. But I digress. I looked forward to reading this next book by Mr. Jacobs, and purchased it shortly after it was released.
This book is funny, extremely interesting, and – oddly enough – very respectful of all faiths. Jacobs admits at the beginning of the book that he is an agnostic Jew – “as much a Jew as the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant” is his exact description. He was uninterested in all things spiritual until he became a father, when he started to wonder if he was denying his son some of his religious heritage. So began his year-long mission to follow the Bible as literally as possible.
He started by compiling a huge list of all commandments in the Bible. Not just The Big Ten, but every portion of Scripture that commands us to do anything, or not to do anything. Needless to say, it was a very long list. He also visited various groups of people who follow the Bible literally – in their own way: the Amish, the Creation Museum, Jerry Falwell’s church, a snake-handling church. As Jacobs discovers, no one follows each and every part literally without exception.
What results is a witty, journal-like book. Along the way, we get to know his theologically-opposed aunts, his wacky guru ex-uncle Gil, and his long-suffering and extremely tolerant wife, Julie. We get to watch him work through the whole fatherhood deal (how protective is too protective?) and work through issues of infertility and the options it presents.
I may not agree with all of his conclusions, but I very much enjoyed going along for the ride. Even though I’ve read the entire Bible several times, I was reminded of some of the passages that we tend to gloss over, and I learned some things along the way.
4 out of 5 stars
Here are my favorite passages:
(From Day 2) Here’s my plan: In college I also learned about the theory of cognitive dissonance. This says, in part, if you behave in a certain way, your beliefs will eventually change to conform to your behavior. So that’s what I’m trying to do. If I act like I’m faithful and God loving for several months, then maybe I’ll become faithful and God loving. If I pray every day, then maybe I’ll start to believe in the Being to whom I’m praying.
So now, I’m going to pray. Even though I’m not exactly sure how to pray. I’ve never prayed before in my life, not counting the few perfunctory uplifted gazes when my mom was sick.
For starters, what do I do with my body? The Bible describes a multitude of positions: People kneel, sit, bow their heads, lift their eyes skyward, put their heads between their knees, raise up their hands, beat their breasts. There’s no single method.
Sitting is tempting, but it seems too easy. I’m of the no-pain, no-gain mind-set. So I settle on holding my hands outstretched like a holy antenna, hoping to catch God’s signal.
As for what to say, I’m not sure. I don’t feel confident enough to improvise yet, so I’ve memorized a few of my favorite prayers from the Bible. I walk into our living room, stand in front of our brown sectional couch, hold out my arms, bow my head, and, in a low but clear voice, recite this passage from the Book of Job: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
It’s a beautiful passage, but I feel odd uttering it. 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.
The whole experience is making me uncomfortable. My palms are sweaty. I’m trying to speak with earnest intent, but it feels like I’m transgressing on two separate levels. First, I feel like I’m violating some sort of taboo issued by the agnostic high priests. Worse, what if I’m 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?
I glance at the clock. I’ve been praying for only a minute. I’ve promised myself I’d try to pray for at least ten minutes three times a day.
So I get back to work. I squint my eyes and try to visualize Him. It’s a fiasco. My mind goes to a series of cliches: the Universe, aka the view from inside the Hayden Planetarium; a fog-shrouded Middle Eastern mountain; something akin to the multicolored special effects from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, when the spaceship went into hyperspace. Pretty much everything but the guy in the flowing white robe and the basso profundo voice.
All I can say is, I hope I get better. p. 21-22
(From Day 198) If the desert is relatively empty (not counting the accumulating first-century detritus), then Jerusalem is the most packed place I’ve ever been. Every square inch seems drenched with people, history, and religion.
This afternoon, as I am walking along some twisty cobblestone streets of the Old City, I turn down a corner and witness what has to be the highest density of spiritual devoutness on planet earth. The scene is this:
Dozens of brown-robed, Franciscan Friars are slowly, solemnly walking the stations of the cross, their hands clasped in front of them. They are singing “Ave Maria,” accompanied by a single-speaker boom box strapped over the right shoulder of one friar. Another friar is swinging a miniature umbrella in the exact same way that altar boys swing incense lamps.
Then, slicing through the crowd of friars comes a family of Orthodox Jews. The father – his head topped by a brown fur hat the size of a manhole cover – leads the way, with eight Hasidic children trailing behind in single file. And, at that same moment, mingling with the “Ave Maria,” comes the Muslim call to prayer over a tinny loudspeaker. A man with a fez edges past the Hasidic Jew. All three Abrahamic faiths intersecting on the same street.
It’s an astounding sight. And it makes me feel more alone than I’ve felt since Project Bible began.
Here I am, a stranger in a strange land, away from my wife and child, in a city where everyone belongs to his or her own gated spiritual community. It drives home a disturbing point: 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.”
I’ve loved that crazy European individualism all my life. To use author Robert Putnam’s phrase, I bowl alone, and I’ve always preferred it that way. It gives me more control, or at least the illusion of it. It’s made me resistant to joining anything. No frats, no Rotary clubs, not even the Kiss Army when I was a kid.
This year I’ve tried to worship alone and find meaning alone. The solitary approach has its advantages – I like trying to figure it out myself. I like reading the holy words unfiltered by layers of interpretation. But going it alone also has limits, and big ones. I miss out on the feeling of belonging, which is a key part of religion. I experienced this most keenly once before, during the biblical holidays of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah back in October. I tried to do them alone. I fasted. I ate sweets. I sent portions to the poor. But I was doing it cluelessly and by myself, and it felt empty. I couldn’t even bring myself to write a chapter about the holidays, because I failed to wring anything approaching the proper level of meaning from them. And many of my more profound experiences have come when I’ve joined a group, even momentarily, whether that group be huge (the Hasidic dance party) or small (Amos, Julie, and I singing “Amazing Grace”).
Maybe I have to dial back my fetishizing of individualism. It’d be a good thing to do; the age of radical individualism is on the wane anyway. My guess is, the world is going the way of the Wikipedia. Everything will be collaborative. My next book will have 258 coauthors. p. 213-214
(From Day 290) Ever since my lying spree on the Falwell trip, I’ve recommitted myself to extreme honesty. In response, Julie has come up with a way to make my honesty more palatable. She’s started to ask me a singularly terrifying question: What are you thinking about? We’ll be walking to the playground, and she’ll spring it on me.
“Hey. What are you thinking about?”
I can’t just respond “nothing much.” I have to tell the truth, the unvarnished truth.
“I’m thinking about that rude guy at the Judaica store on Broadway, and how I should have told him, ‘You just became a villain in my book.’”
“Sounds like vengeance. Isn’t that biblically forbidden?”
Julie loves her new trick. It’s as if she’s found a peephole into my soul and can discover who she’s really married to, no deceptions. Or, as she puts it, “I feel like I’ve picked up a chance card in Monopoly.”
We’ll be unpacking groceries, and suddenly I’ll hear: “What are you thinking about?”
“Oh, business stuff.”
She’s not falling for that. “What business stuff?”
“That I wish I could time travel back to 1991 and buy up hundreds of internet names like flowers.com and beer.com and cabbage.com, then I could sell them for millions of dollars to the flower and beer and cabbage industries, and then I’d never have to work again.” (This is an alarmingly common fantasy of mine.)
“That’s the saddest daydream I’ve ever heard. Plus, that’s greed.”
She’s right. I’m wasting my time with greedy and angry thoughts. Not always, mind you. Sometimes, when Julie pops the question, I’ll be thinking about something noble, like the environment or our son’s future. In fact, compared to my prebiblical life, the percentage of brain space allotted to gratitude and compassion has inched up. But I still have way too many thoughts like this:
“What are you thinking about?”
“The Bible, actually.”
“What about the Bible?”
“The story of Esther.”
“What about the story of Esther?”
“Well…what it would be like to be the king in the Esther story and get to spend the night with each of the most beautiful women in the kingdom, like a test-drive or something, and then get to choose your favorite.”
“You’ve really evolved.”
In the last couple of days, I’ve been focusing on cleaning up my brain. It’s possible that God is monitoring my thoughts, but it’s certain that Julie is. So I’ve commanded myself to think positive thoughts. And today it paid off.
“What are you thinking about?”
“How lucky I am to have a healthy wife and a healthy son and two so-far-healthy babies.”
Julie pretends to gag. But it was true, that’s what I was thinking. (em>p. 291-292