Biblical Living: Following Every Rule for One Year

After A. J. Jacobs spent a year reading the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica for his book "The Know-It-All," he figured he had the yearlong experiment thing down. How much harder could it be to follow every rule in the Bible? Much, much harder, he soon discovered, as he found himself growing his beard, struggling not to curse and asking strangers for permission to stone them for adultery. Jacobs spent the year carrying around a stapled list of the more than 700 rules and prohibitions identified in the Good Book, and also consulted with religious leaders and spent time with the Amish, Hassidic Jews and Jehovah's Witnesses. He spoke to NEWSWEEK's Jennie Yabroff about his experience and his new book, "The Year of Living Biblically" (Simon & Schuster), which goes on sale Oct. 9. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: It's been a little over a year since your experiment ended and you shaved your beard. How's the life of sin?
A. J. Jacobs: It's all right. I miss my sin-free life, but I guess I was never sin free. I was able to cut down on my coveting maybe 40 percent, but I was still a coveter. Flat-screen TVs, the front yard of my friend in the suburbs, a better cell phone, higher Amazon rankings. And that's not to mention coveting my neighbor's wife. I live in New York, I work in publishing, so there's a lot of coveting, lying and gossiping.

What, if any, rules are you still following?
I'm not Gandhi or Angelina Jolie, but I made some strides. The experience changed me in big ways and small ways. There's a lot about gratefulness in the Bible, and I would say I'm more thankful. I focus on the hundred little things that go right in a day, instead of the three or four things that go wrong. And I love the Sabbath. There's something I really like about a forced day of rest. Also, during the experiment I wore a lot of white clothes, because Ecclesiastes says let your garments always be white, and I loved it, so I look like Tom Wolfe now. Wearing white just made me happier. I couldn't be in a bad mood walking down the street looking like I was about to play in the semifinals at Wimbledon. One thing I learned is that the outside affects the inside, your behavior shapes your thoughts. I also really liked what one of my spiritual advisers said, which was that you can view life as a series of rights and entitlements, or a series of responsibilities. I like seeing my life as a series of responsibilities. It's sort of, "Ask not what the world can do for you, ask what you can do for the world."

There seems to be a great interest in religion and fundamentalism in our culture right now. Why do you think that is?
As far as I can see it, it goes in waves. Now it seems like the third great awakening. Is that right? I've forgotten my encyclopedia knowledge. But I do think we're going through a wave right now. You certainly see it with Islam. I think it's ebbed a little bit because the atheist movement is creating backlash against the religious movement, so it might have peaked a year ago. But it's certainly the defining issue of our time. I hope the book will appeal to both the sacred and the profane.

Are you a more religious person as a result of this experiment?
Well, I don't want to give away the ending, but let's say I started the year as an agnostic, and now I am a reverent agnostic. Whether or not there is a God, I believe in sacredness. Rituals can be sacred, the Sabbath can be sacred however you choose to observe it.

Which is the greater learning tool, the Bible or the encyclopedia?
That's a tough question. The Bible project was a lot more difficult than the encyclopedia project. The Bible affected every single part of my life, it affected the way I walked, the way I dressed, the way I hugged my wife, the way I ate. The year was the most extreme makeover of my life. In terms of which is the better learning tool, the encyclopedia does contain a lot of biblical passages in the different books, so it might contain most of the Bible in it.

Most of the religious figures you met with seemed very willing to help you with your quest. Were you afraid anyone would be offended by the idea of you doing this as a commercial project, or see it as a gimmick?
Yes, I thought I would encounter that. I didn't encounter it that much, and I don't know why. Maybe because I went in really curious, I didn't go in to mock religion. It was much more a journey to understand. There are parts of the book where I take the Bible literally and show that that is not a good way to read the Bible. There are people in America who do read it that way, and I think that is a mistake. So there is that aspect to the book, but at the same time it is an earnest spiritual quest where I'm trying to figure out if something's missing in my life and what I should tell my kids about religion. I actually invited a Jehovah's Witness over to my apartment, and I think I'm the only person in history who out-Bible-talked a Jehovah's Witness. After three hours, he looked at his watch and told me he had to leave.

What rule was the hardest to follow?
Two kinds of rules were hard. Avoiding sins we commit every day like lying, gossiping and coveting was hard, and then there were the rules that were hard to do in modern life, like stoning adulterers. But I did manage to fulfill that one. What happened was, I was in the park, dressed in my white garb, and this man in his 70s came over and asked what I was doing. I explained I was trying to follow every rule in the Bible as literally as possible, including growing my beard, not mixing fibers, stoning adulterers, and he said, "I'm an adulterer, are you going to stone me?" I said, "Yeah that would be great." The Bible doesn't say what size the stones have to be, so I had been carrying around these pebbles in my pocket for just such an occasion. I took the pebbles out of my pocket, and he instantly picked one up and threw it at me, so I decided, an eye for an eye, and I tossed one at him. It did provide an entry for talking to people about capital punishment and the Bible. How could they stone adulterers, what was life like back then, does it apply today. I tried to say to the guy, you shouldn't sleep with other women, but I don't know if it sunk in.

Reading this book, I felt so bad for your wife.
Yes, after "The Know-It-All" she was hoping I'd do a book about eating in every restaurant in New York. She's a saint. It definitely put some stress in our marriage. There was the beard, I had this hedgehog on my face. She wouldn't kiss me for two months. Also, the Bible tells you to build a hut. And since I couldn't get permission to build one on the sidewalks of New York, I built a hut in our apartment. My wife didn't appreciate the construction project in our living room.

Many women say some passages in the Bible can seem pretty misogynistic. Was that a problem for your relationship?
It was. Parts of the Bible say that the man is the head of the household and should make the decisions, which did not translate into reality in our household. She found that a disturbing part of religion. It was something I really had to wrestle with. One of the lessons of the book is, there is some picking and choosing in following the Bible, and I think that's OK. Some people call that cafeteria religion, which is supposed to be a disparaging term, but I think there's nothing wrong with cafeterias, I've had some delicious meals in cafeterias. I've also had some terrible meals in cafeterias. It's all about picking the right parts. You want to take a heaping serving of the parts about compassion, mercy and gratefulness—instead of the parts about hatred and intolerance.

Once the experiment ends, you write about being feeling unanchored without your list of rules. Were you comforted by the restrictions of living Biblically? And do you think that's part of the attraction of organized religion for many people?
Oh, absolutely. We all talk about freedom of choice, but there's something very attractive about freedom from choice. Religion provides structure, mooring, anchoring. Should you covet? No. Should you give 10 percent to the needy? Yes. It really structures your life. After my year I felt unmoored, overwhelmed by choice. I have adjusted, but I'm still overwhelmed by choice, as we all are in America.

What's the next book?
I'm waiting for divine inspiration. Seriously, I happen to love these experiments, and I like reading about other people's experiments as well, so I'd like to stay in the genre for a couple more books. I think it's a really interesting way to approach a subject. These books are like memoir, with added value. You get someone's life, and you also get an introduction to a whole fascinating topic.