At the risk of committing a biblical sin, author A.J. Jacobs would like to boast. "I'm on the cover of an evangelical Christian magazine at the same time as I'm in Playboy and Penthouse!" he declares with pride over the phone from Toronto, where he's promoting his latest book.
In The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible (Simon & Schuster), Jacobs chronicles a timely exploration of religion that follows the Esquire senior editor through the ups, downs and quizzical looks of living the ultimate biblical life. Jacobs' appearance will be one of the highlights of the 16th annual Book Festival of the MJCCA, which kicks off this weekend.
Raised in a secular Jewish household in New York City, the closest Jacobs came to religion growing up was, as he puts it, "that paradoxical classic of assimilation: a Star of David on top of our Christmas tree." A spiritually barren college life and a continuing agnostic adulthood led Jacobs to eventually become fascinated by religion, and his own lack of it. With the birth of his son Jasper in 2004, Jacobs realized he wanted to take a closer look at his spiritual vacuum.
The undertaking was the latest in a continuation of Jacobs' projects of obsessive methodology, self-discovery and hilarity. He is known for his immersion-journalism experiments, the most recent being the best-selling 2004 book The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World, an account of his year spent reading the entire Encyclopædia Britannica. In 2005, he wrote the Esquire article, "My Out-Sourced Life," for which Jacobs hired a team in India to handle everything from his e-mails to arguments with his wife.
Afflicted with what he calls a mild case of obsessive-compulsive disorder, Jacobs finds a form of cathartic (and revelatory) joy in his quests.
"I love to sort of dive in head-first and take things to the extreme and see what I can learn from it, and take from it and apply it to my real life," he says.
Ever ambitious, Jacobs wanted to find the Bible's true meaning, opting to follow its rules as closely as possible, and decide what is relevant for modern times. This meant obeying not only the more famous laws such as the Ten Commandments, but more obscure ones as well – a decision that consequentially finds Jacobs unable to wear clothing of mixed fibers and sporting a beard that inspires comparisons to everyone from "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski and ZZ Top members to The Lord of the Rings' Gandalf.
"I wanted to try to do a lot of this myself," says Jacobs of why he chose to embark on his project alone. "The Bible has spawned so many thousands of interpretations. So I wanted to go back to the original source, to the text, and see if I could figure out what the Bible really said and try to follow that." Not surprisingly, this proved to be difficult: "Biblical bedrock is slippery. But the trip itself was fascinating, and I'm glad I tried."
At first glance, it might appear that Jacobs' book, classified as "Humor," is simply that: a clever, if a bit silly, take on fundamentalism by a masterfully witty New York journalist. The cover illustration shows a bearded Jacobs in front of the Manhattan skyline, clad in a white robe and Tevas, with stone tablets in one hand, and a to-go coffee cup in the other.
As Matt Labash, writer at the conservative Weekly Standard, put it, the cover and marketing of the book suggests Jacobs might be out to "pin the tail on the fundies and Orthodox Jews."
Yet the book transcends its novelty. In the vein of David Sedaris, Jacobs deftly uses humor and self-deprecation while still paying his subject, and his experience, the appropriate reverence and respect.
All the perceived silliness of the rules underscores one of Jacobs' main points: Taking fundamentalism to the extreme just might make you crazy. The Year of Living Biblically ends up an exploration of the Bible and biblical rules, but also of different groups of literalist interpreters of the Bible – from the Amish and Creationists to Pentecostal snake handlers. Throughout his own spiritual explorations, Jacobs comes across as genuine and thoughtful as he learns to appreciate such aspects of the Bible as prayer and the Sabbath.
In one passage, Jacobs finds how much his project has changed him while accidentally locked in his own bathroom for four hours:
"By noon I'm sitting on the floor, my back against the shower door. I sit. And sit some more. And something odd happens. I know that, outside the bathroom, the world is speeding along. That blogs are being read. Wild salmon is being grilled. Reggaeton is being explained to middle-aged white marketing executives. But I'm OK with it ... I've reached an unexpected level of acceptance."
Jacobs, once an agnostic, now says he has emerged a "reverent agnostic." It's an outlook that values moderation and the importance of weighing the good with the bad in religion, and one that Jacobs hopes to give to his children.
"In the end," he says of his three sons, "I don't care if they are religious, or Christopher Hitchens-like atheists. I just want them to know what they are accepting or rejecting. So I'm giving them a little religion."
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