For The Year Of Living Biblically, A.J. Jacobs tried to follow, as much as legally possible, all of the rules listed in the Bible. Yes, both the Old Testament and the New Testament.
This project would not work with an inferior writer — it would be boring or miserable writing. But because Jacobs is thoughtful, witty, and surrounded by friends and family who, while ribbing him about some things, naturally, are genuinely helpful — the book comes off as both educational and entertaining, funny yet moving and meaningful.
Did you ever consider quitting this year-long campaign? Or by the time you were living this year were you already contractually obliged to do it and then write the book about it?
I considered quitting the project pretty much every day. Living biblically entailed an enormous lifestyle makeover — just try not coveting for an hour, much less a day. But I kept going because I also found the topic so fascinating. And, well, I did have that book contract. The Bible takes contracts and covenants very seriously.
What was the biggest surprise of the project?
I’d say two things. First, that the year changed me so much. I think partly this is a testament to how powerfully your behavior shapes your beliefs and thoughts. It was impossible to act like I was religious for a year and not have a lot of the lessons rub off on me. Secondly, I’m surprised the book has been received — by and large — pretty warmly by both religious readers and secular/atheist readers. I thought I’d get a lot of letters condemning me to hell. Or, alternatively, saying I took it too easy on religion. Delightfully, that hasn’t happened much.
I love that your photo editor emailed you her cycle so you can avoid touching when she’s impure. Were most people understanding like that?
Not everyone. Especially men. There are some ancient biblical impurity laws that say you’re not supposed to touch men for a day after their ‘emission.’ Men didn’t like talking about when their last emission was.
What did your son, Jasper, make of it all?
He was only two, so he didn’t think the beard was all that unusual. He didn’t know better. In terms of behavior, there are parts of the Bible — notably the Proverbs — that say you should discipline your son with a rod. I couldn’t do that. So I bought a nerf rod and hit him with that. He thought that was funny and hit me back with a Whiffle bat. So that was a fiasco. But I will say, the general biblical idea of instilling more discipline in your kids is a good one. I think I became less of a pushover dad, which is a good thing.
What did you make of this article that seemed to tear into your book and others like it?
Yeah, it seems not everybody loves the genre in which a writer immerses him/herself in an experiment for a year. To paraphrase the Bible, c’est la vie. Personally, I love the genre. I loved Nickeled and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich, and I loved Rodney Rothman’s Early Bird, where he retired to Florida at age 30. I see these books as memoirs with added value. You get to learn about someone’s life, and also about a fascinating topic.
I love that you out Bible-talked a Jehovahs Witness. Was that impressive or scary in retrospect?
A little bit of both, I think.
Did you have many mind-blowing moments like this one:
It’s the seventh Sabbath of my Biblical year. Well,actually, it’s the day after the seventh Sabbath. Icouldn’t type this entry on the Sabbath itself becausethe Bible tells me not to work. (A friend of mine saidthat even observing the Sabbath might be breaking theSabbath, since my job is to follow the Bible. That
gave me a two-hour headache.
I had revelations and epiphanies with alarming frequency. It was like a spiritual quest in fast motion. Sometimes they were little epiphanies. Sometimes they were profound — like the time I had a quasi-mystical experience while dancing with (drunken) Hasidic Jews.
Dare I ask what your next project is?
I’m not sure. My wife says I owe her big time. So she’s saying I should spend a year giving her foot massages. Not sure the publisher is going to go for that, though.
Part 3 — now that I've finished the book and want to get answers to a few remaining issues like how A.J. Jacobs avoids killing an ox — will be published in about one week.