An interview on the book, A Year of Living Biblically

Today I heard a terrific program on WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi show. From WAMU’s website:

A.J. Jacobs says he’s officially Jewish, but “in the same way Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant”. But after being raised in a secular New York City household, he decided to live an entire year following the word of the bible– literally. He joins Kojo to discuss the big rules (thou shalt not kill), the obscure ones (no mixed fibers), and his personal adventures with “the Good Book”.


A. J. Jacobs, Editor-at-Large, Esquire Magazine; and author of “The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible” (Simon & Schuster)


Jacobs previous book was “Know It All,” based on his life experiment of reading the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica. Kojo interviewed Jacobs today for his new book, which involved another kind of intense research, a year trying to follow every rule that can be found in the bible. Jacobs found over 700, and he spent a year trying to follow every one, from not cutting the corners of his beard (and since he didn’t know where the corners were, he simply didn’t shave) to not sitting anywhere his menstruating wife had sat. He tried to follow all ten commandments and every other rule the bible laid out. He found not lying to be particularly difficult, especially when raising a three-year-old boy. (Who’s not tempted to tell the kid that the candy store is closed?) He started all this off as an agnostic jew, and he ended it all in pretty much the same way. But the experience seemed to make him much more appreciative of ritual, sacredness, and other matters spiritual, most of which this writer has little acquaintance. Still, it’s interesting.

Jacobs seems to have gone into the experience partly to show the folly of taking the bible literally. At the same time he wanted to be open and take seriously the sacred rituals in this book that’s the “best seller of all time.” He says he came out of the experience a “reverent agnostic”: appreciative of the difficulty of some of the rituals (just try to follow the commandment not to covet while working at Esquire and living in NYC) and the mystery of other rules (e.g., stoning adulterers). It’s worth downloading the program just to hear his story about how he did, in fact, stone an adulterer — with some pebbles he had in his pocket just for the occasion.

It seems that he went into the experiment partly in bad faith (bent on showing how it was impossible to take the bible literally) yet at the same time open to what might come of it all.

Someone called in a question along the lines, “people spend more time deciding what kind of car they might buy than what kind of god they should believe in — did this experience help you understand that the Christian god offers a better deal than the Jewish god?” To his credit, Jacobs didn’t take the bait. No, he said, he didn’t become a christian; he became a more respectful agnostic.

I’d love to find time to read this book.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.

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