What would it mean to follow the Bible's hundreds of rules for living—not as they've been interpreted over the centuries, but as they appear in the text? For The Year Of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest To Follow The Bible As Literally As Possible, stunt journalist A.J. Jacobs, who read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica for his last book, The Know-It-All, spends a year trying to do exactly what the Bible says, "even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff," as Flanders once put it on The Simpsons. Jacobs doesn't trim his beard (Leviticus 19:27). He bops his son with a wiffle bat (Proverbs 13:24). He refrains from touching anything a menstruating woman has touched (Leviticus 15:19), which eventually requires him to buy a folding portable seat, since he can't tell who's been on that subway bench. He takes on an unpaid intern as a slave (Deuteronomy 16:12).
It isn't surprising that the Bible contains a lot of rules; the traditional count in Orthodox Judaism is 613, but since Jacobs is looking beyond the Torah, he finds more than 700. And even fundamentalist evangelicals agree that they can't all be followed at once; supercessionist theology dictates that Jesus' rules trump the Old Testament ones, at least those having to do with ritual. If Jacobs' only revelation were that literalism is impossible, it would be a dull, repetitive read. But he has a grander scheme in mind: He wants to find God. Or at least see whether doing godly things will help the supernatural penetrate his secular Jewish defenses.
Almost immediately, certain tensions between the Biblical way and the American way become unavoidable—gender equality, capitalism, personal grooming—and over the course of Jacobs' yearlong experiment, they bear fruit in self-examination. What kind of moral guidance does he want to give his children? Can he suspend logic long enough to try young-earth creationism? Can anyone really avoid all lying? Jacobs' quest for answers, while choppy and episodic, is often laugh-out-loud funny, and nearly always painfully honest. By month 12, he's fulfilled the first divine command, "be fruitful and multiply" (albeit through a test tube), and discovered that sacred power lies within the Bible, even if he can't say for sure whether humans or God created it. If all the institutions that promote the Bible as a cultural panacea had Jacobs' intellectual and physical fortitude, we'd understand it more and misuse it less.