INTERVIEW

'Trying to follow the Bible, you realize how much you sin during a day. You tell so many lies just to keep conversations going.'

A. J. JACOBS TALKS WITH KATE FILLION ABOUT HIS YEAR OF TAKING THE BIBLE LITERALLY, AND WHAT HAPPENED WHEN HE STONED AN ADULTERER

October 8 2007
INTERVIEW

'Trying to follow the Bible, you realize how much you sin during a day. You tell so many lies just to keep conversations going.'

A. J. JACOBS TALKS WITH KATE FILLION ABOUT HIS YEAR OF TAKING THE BIBLE LITERALLY, AND WHAT HAPPENED WHEN HE STONED AN ADULTERER

October 8 2007

'Trying to follow the Bible, you realize how much you sin during a day. You tell so many lies just to keep conversations going.'

INTERVIEW

A. J. JACOBS TALKS WITH KATE FILLION ABOUT HIS YEAR OF TAKING THE BIBLE LITERALLY, AND WHAT HAPPENED WHEN HE STONED AN ADULTERER

QWhy, aside from the fact that you could write a book about it—The Year of Living Biblically—did you try to follow the Bible as literally as possible? A: I grew up in an incredibly secular home, with no religion at all. I’m Jewish, but in the same way the Olive Garden is Italian—not very Jewish at all. I’d always assumed religion would fade away and we’d all live in this neoEnlightenment world, ruled completely by science and reason. Of course I was spectacularly mistaken, and I wanted to understand religion, and why it’s still so influential and powerful.

Q: Did you believe in God when you started?

A: No. I was an agnostic.

Q: Followi?ig the Bible literally isn’t a simple matter. Aren’t there many different interpretations of individual passages?

A: You can find whatever interpretation you want if you look far enough. I even found a website that says it’s okay to smoke dope. But my goal was to get to the original intent of the Bible, to go right to the source.

Q: Which was more difficult: following Biblical rules about food, or physical appearance?

A: I’d have to say physical appearance, though really the Bible changed everything in my life: the way I dressed, the way I ate, the way I talked, the way I touched my wife. By the end I had a huge beard, it was really

quite alarming in terms of volume, because the Bible says not to trim the edges of your beard. I got at least three ZZ Top jokes a week. The Bible also says, “Let oil not be lacking on your head,” so I put a dab of olive oil on my hair every morning. Biblically speaking, your clothing should not have mixed fibres, so I hired this fascinating man, an Orthodox Jew, to come inspect my wardrobe with a microscope and a bunch of tools to be sure none of my clothes mixed wool and linen. It turned out that the suit I’d worn to my wedding did have mixed fibres, so I couldn’t wear it for a year, which is a bigger deal than you might think because it was also my only suit. The other thing is that the Bible says to attach tassels to the four corners of your clothing; the purpose is to remind you of the Commandments, it’s basically the Biblical version of a string around the finger. So I sewed or sometimes safety-pinned tassels to the corners of my shirt. And there’s a line in the Bible that says, “Let your garments always be white.” I tried to wear white all the time: white pants, a white shirt, and by the end, a white robe, because I felt I really had to commit. That was one of my favourite parts of the experience, actually, because wearing white just makes you feel lighter and more pure. You can’t be in a bad mood if you’re walking around dressed like you’re about to play tennis at Wimbledon. You’re happier.

Q: Flow didyou avoid feeling self-consciously ironic about this whole project?

A: Well, there was some irony to the whole thing, because here I was, a guy in Manhattan dressing like someone walking around the Negev desert thousands of years ago. But if you really commit to something for a year, you go beyond irony. You can’t be doing all this stuff without it having an effect on you. That was one of the big lessons: behaviour shapes our ideas. So if you’re acting completely faithful, you will become faithful. And even better for me, no matter where you start on the morality scale, if you force yourself to act like a good person and volunteer at the soup kitchen, you actually take a step toward becoming that person. I certainly am not Gandhi or Angelina Jolie, but it did help me, not gossiping or lying.

Q: Which was harder?

A: Oh, man. I don’t think even Solomon could choose. Trying to follow the Bible, you learn how much you sin during a day. It’s really quite shocking. You tell so many lies just to keep conversations going.

Q: You mean supportive white lies, like, “Oh, you look great.”

A: Exactly. I tried to abolish them from my life, and it was very stressful. As a parent, I almost couldn’t believe how often I lied: “Oh, the toy store’s closed today, we can’t go there,” or, “The TV’s broken.” Lying often saves a temper tantrum, so to be completely honest with my son was a huge hurdle.

Q: Was this whole experience tougher on you or your family?

AI don’t know. My wife said, “You can go Biblical, but I’m not going to,” and she stayed secular. So we had some conflicts. For instance, it’s fun to gossip, so what do you do after a dinner party when your husband won’t talk about the people who were there? It certainly was a strain. Also, the Old Testament has a lot about purity, so I really tried to remain ultra-pure. You’re only allowed to touch women during certain times of the month, but if you really follow the Bible strictly, it says that you cannot even sit on a seat where a menstruating woman has sat. This presented a little problem: all the subway seats and restaurant seats are likely impure, so I had to buy a portable chair, one of those things that’s usually intended for elderly people, and take it with me everywhere I went. During one of those times when I was not supposed to touch her, my wife— who had mixed feelings about this project, to put it mildly—sat on every chair in our apartment in a spirited attempt at getting back at me. I was happy to have my little portable chair.

Q: There was one sentence in your hook I never thought I’d see from an Esquire magazine writer: “I love feeling dead below the belt.”

A: There was something very liberating about completely smothering my libido. It’s not necessarily anti-sex, the Bible, but there are parts that seem to encourage abstinence. My wife was eight months pregnant at the point I decided to try it, so she wasn’t too upset. In fact, there was no interest at all from her side. But it turns out there is something to sublimation: when I was completely chaste, I was the most efficient I’ve ever been.

I could’ve written the whole book in that one month. Interestingly, I discovered there are services that will censor racy movies and music. They take a regular DVD and let you customize your censorship; you can choose whether to censor full frontal nudity or just below-the-belt nudity or erotic dancing, even. They also censor violence. They cut Kill Bill down to just over an hour, it was all Bill, no kill, and made absolutely no sense.

Q: How did you explain your project to your son?

A: Fie was 2V2 at the time, and the only thing I was really worried about was shaving my beard at the end. I thought he wouldn’t recognize me and would run screaming and we’d have a lot of work to do. I did try to slowly make the transition by printing out a photo of myself with no beard, and I put it on a stick and held it in front of my face like a mask, so he would know what I was going to look like. I did that for about an hour a day. My wife thought that I was abso-

lutely nuts and probably scaring him more than if I’d just shaved. On top of that, I was breaking a commandment, because you’re not supposed to make images, and here I’d printed one out. So it was probably a mistake on all levels.

Q: How many people are actually attempting to follow the Bible literally?

A: Millions, in some way or another. Polls say that 50 per cent of Americans believe the Bible is the literal word of God. Think of creationism: millions of people here think that the book of Genesis is not a myth or parable, but straight history. So taking the Bible literally is huge. And although this year was for me a genuine spiritual journey, I also wanted to show that fundamentalism is a flawed approach to religion. By taking the Bible literally, you wind up acting like a crazy person and stoning adulterers.

Q: Did you?

A: I did. I was walking in the park dressed in my full Biblical attire—sandals, white robe and staff—and a guy in his 70s said, “Why are you dressed so queer?” I told him I was trying to follow the Bible as literally as possible, and he said, “I’m an adulterer, are you going to stone me?” I said, “Yes, that would be great!” I wanted to tick it off my list, and I’d been carrying pebbles—the Bible doesn’t stipulate the size of the stone—around in my pocket for that express purpose. I showed the guy these tiny pebbles and he grabbed them and whipped them at me. I mean, he pelted me. I thought, “Well, an eye for an eye,” and tossed a pebble back at him. But I felt that once was enough. It was actually a moderately stressful experience. No matter how small the stone, it’s still a stone and not appreciated.

Q: Which rules were easiest to follow?

AI was never tempted to sacrifice my child to a pagan god. In fact, when I was feeling down about not doing a good enough job, I could always remind myself that there were hundreds of rules I was following to the letter. But the Ten Commandments are pretty hard. “No coveting” is probably the most difficult, because it’s the only one that deals with a state of mind rather than an action. It’s like saying “No breathing”—coveting is that much a part of modern life. One of my favourites was to remember the Sabbath day. I fell in love with the Sabbath, I think it’s a great idea. No matter whether you’re a religious person or an atheist, there’s something really great about a day of rest, when you step back and appreciate what you have.

Q: Are you a believer now?

A: I’m a reverent agnostic. I still don’t

know if there’s a God, but I believe there’s something to the idea of sacredness: rituals can be sacred, the Sabbath can be sacred. Maybe that sacredness is man-made, but it’s still important and meaningful. The Bible is really focused on giving thanks, and that was a huge lesson for me. By the end I was an extreme thanker—I was thanking when the elevator came on time. It’s a great way to live, to focus on the hundreds of things that go right during the day rather than the three or four things that went wrong.

Q: You consulted evangelical Christians, Hasidic Jews, the Amish. Does anyone stand out in your mind?

A: I’m the only person in history, I think, who has out-Bible-talked a Jehovah’s Witness. In New York, they don’t just come to your door, I had to call Jehovah’s Witness head-

‘By the end I had a huge beard—it was really quite alarming. I got at least three ZZ Top jokes a week.1

quarters and ask for someone to visit, which confused them a little, I don’t think they get too many requests of that nature. But he did come, and we had a great conversation, and I learned a lot about his faith. I just wanted to keep talking all night, but after three or four hours, the Jehovah’s Witness looked at his watch and said, “I gotta go.” It’s weird. I’ve kept in touch with a lot of the other religious people I met, but I never heard from him again. M