A.J. Jacobs may seem gimmicky, but at least he's absurdly committed. For his 2004 book The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest To Become The Smartest Person In The World, he read the entire 32-volume Encyclopedia Britannica. For his latest, The Year Of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest To Follow The Bible As Literally As Possible, the agnostic Jacobs attempted to follow every rule outlined in the Bible for one year, within legal reason. He recently told The A.V. Club what this comic, poignant journey taught him about eunuchs, Gene Shalit, and stoning adulterers.
The A.V. Club: Did you have some idea of what you were in for during the year, or was it harder than you expected?
A.J. Jacobs: It was harder; it was the most extreme makeover of my life. It affected the way I talked, ate, dressed, and touched my wife. Reading the encyclopedia was a brain experiment; this was a life experiment. It was incredibly hard, but it was also a fascinating, amazing year.
AVC: What was your goal?
AJJ: I wanted to show in a hopefully entertaining way that taking the Bible too literally is a mistake. I took it to the logical extreme and tried to show that that's the wrong way to read it. It should be read as a guidebook of wisdom and insight. There's this term, "cafeteria religion," that's used disparagingly for people who pick and choose. I'm all for cafeteria religion. I think there's nothing wrong with cafeterias—I've had some great meals at cafeterias. I've also had some horrible meals, so it's important to pick the right things. Take a heaping helping of compassion and mercy, and leave the intolerance on the table.
AVC: What did you learn?
AJJ: It made the strange familiar, and the familiar strange. I got a sense of the amazingness of ordinary life, and I became aware of the marvel that we're around to begin with. I visited a lot of extreme communities, like the Amish, Hasidic Jews, and serpent-handlers. And I was proud, because I think I'm the first person to ever out-Bible-talk a Jehovah's Witness. After four hours, he said, "Okay, I have to go." It's a strange phenomenon—when you immerse yourself deeply, you can really start to understand different points of view. One of the big lessons of the year is that behavior shapes beliefs.
AVC: At various times, you mention that this wasn't as funny as you thought it'd be. Did it start out as a goof, or did you go into it with a level of reverence?
AJJ: I did want to go into it with an open mind, and I didn't want to only explore these topics in a funny way. I do hope the book is funny, but I also wanted it to have some meat, because it's such a fascinating topic. I think religion is the defining issue of our time. I wanted to examine it firsthand, and I couldn't think of a better way.
AVC: You also talk a lot about the non-Bible-mandated compassion you had for the deeply religious people you spent time with. Did this surprise you?
AJJ: Again, I wanted to go in with an open mind and really get these people's points of view. I grew up in a very secular home with no religion, and it was completely baffling to me how this ancient book could still have a hold on people. I thought religion would eventually wither away and we'd all be worshiping at the altar of science. But that obviously hasn't happened, and that's what spurred me to do this project. I found when you're in this, something happens. When I was with the serpent-handlers in Tennessee, it was the most bizarre method of worship I could think of. Yet when you sit with these people, you can kind of see how it makes sense.
AVC: What was it like to draw so much attention to yourself?
AJJ: It's definitely true I stood out, with my billowing white robe, sandals, and walking staff. I didn't have sheep, but I did do some shepherding when I visited Israel. It was interesting, because even though New York is filled with lots of odd people, like The Naked Cowboy and Gene Shalit, I still stood out because I looked so bizarre. I wanted to say, "I'm sorry I'm dressed so funny, but I'm doing an experiment." But when I went to Israel, it was a little disorienting, because there are so many people who look crazy and were dressed like me. There, I was just one of the apocalyptic crowd.
AVC: What's stuck with you since you stopped the experiment?
AJJ: I've stopped stoning adulterers, and I went back to wearing mixed fibers. But dozens of things have changed me in a hundred ways. One thing is gratefulness. The Bible talks a lot about thankfulness, and I'm more thankful than I ever was. I try to concentrate on the hundreds of things that go right in a day, instead of the three or four that go wrong. I love the Sabbath and its mandated day of rest and reflection. I also wear a lot more white clothes, because Ecclesiastes says your garments should always be white. I've continued to do that, so I tend to look a little like Tom Wolfe. I'm not as committed as Tom Wolfe, but I have to tell you, it's a great feeling. It lifts your mood. It's hard to be in a bad mood when you're walking around looking like you're about to play the semifinals at Wimbledon.
AVC: You stoned an adulterer at one point?
AJJ: I was in the park, and this man in his 70s came up to me and asked why I was dressed so weirdly. I told him, and he said that he was an adulterer. He asked if I was going to stone him. I said, "Yes, that'd be great," and I took out some pebbles I had in my pocket for just this occasion. The Bible doesn't say what size they have to be, so that was my loophole. He grabbed for my pebbles in kind of a preemptive strike. I was taken aback, so I figured I was justified in stoning him. An eye for an eye.
AVC: Didn't you eat some bugs, too?
AJJ: This experiment changed my diet in radical ways. There's a lot of food restriction in the Bible, but it does say you're allowed to eat crickets, grasshoppers, and locusts. I decided to take advantage of that and eat a cricket. It was chocolate-covered, and I'm not sure that's the way they were served in Moses' time. But this was a rule that seemed crazy on the outside, then actually turned out to be pragmatic and compassionate. When the plague of the locusts came during biblical times, they ate all the crops, so people had nothing to eat but the crickets. People think that's why the Bible allows cricket-eating.
AVC: What did you like best about the year?
AJJ: Both the Sabbath and praying. I'm a workaholic, so it was nice to have a command that I couldn't work for one day. I love the Sabbath, and whether you're an atheist or an agnostic, I think there's something really nice about a mandated day of rest that's separated from the rest of the week; a time when you can reflect. Praying was interesting, because I'd never done it before. The only time I'd ever said the word "lord" was when it was followed by "of the rings." I was really trying to commit to this and not just do it as a lark, so I was praying every day. After a while, if you're committed, you start to believe in the things in which you're praying. It's just cognitive dissonance. You can't live a completely religious life and not start to have it sink in. I don't believe that prayers actually change God's mind—if there is a God—but I liked praying for people in need. It was like moral weightlifting. I tend to be self-obsessed, and it was nice to get out of my brain once in a while.
AVC: You write for Esquire, which is kind of the anti-Bible. Wasn't that a conflict of interest?
AJJ: There was definitely a conflict between my job and the Bible project. One time, I had to interview Rosario Dawson. This is one of the most beautiful women in the world, and I tried not to even look at her when I was interviewing her. Then a rabbi I talked to made me feel better, because he told me the Bible isn't always anti-sex. He said that sex can be holy, and there are very racy parts, like the Song Of Solomon. The poetry is like a Henry Miller novel. It's a weak rationalization, but that's how I justified it.
AVC: Which made you smarter, the encyclopedia or the Bible?
AJJ: It depends on how you define "smart." I definitely got more facts out of the encyclopedia—like that opossums have 13 nipples. That's not in the Bible. But the Bible improved my ethical IQ. The fascinating thing about the project is that I started to act like a good person. I tried not to gossip, and lie, and covet, and just by pretending I was a good person, I think I actually became a little bit better of a person. I'm not Gandhi or Angelina Jolie, but it was a baby step.
AVC: What's your next quest?
AJJ: I'm looking for ideas. I'm ready. Some people have told me I should read the Oxford English Dictionary. My brother-in-law suggested I become a eunuch for a year. But I don't know if you can do that for just one year. That may be a lifetime commitment I'm not willing to make. I have some ideas, but haven't settled on one. It probably won't be a eunuch, though.