Neil Strauss On The Year of Living Biblically

Neil StraussNeil

What would it mean to take the Bible literally–in every way–down to the very last word? For starters, it would be extremely difficult–even for the purest among us.

Now try it for a year!

But by studying the literal and understanding the intent could we indeed unravel the “mysteries of the Bible”? Or will we just end up binding $300 dollars needlessly to our hands?

Let’s find out.

Sit up, pay attention, and prepared to receive the body of AJ Jacob’s book in…


The Year of Living Biblically

SUMMARIZED BY Luis Fernando Alejos

I never pray but tonight I’m on my knees, yeah.

Bittersweet Symphony – The Verve

Spirituality is no laughing matter. Actually, if you think about it: not only does the Holy Spirit manifest itself within the believer through laughter, but there are many rules found in the Bible that, if observed today, could be considered outright funny and absurd. A.J. Jacobs knew about the many pitfalls surrounding “biblical literalism”, going back to his uncle Gil: “At some point along his spiritual path, Gil decided to take the Bible literally. Completely literally. The Bible says to bind money to your hand (Deuteronomy 14:25), so Gil withdrew three hundred dollars from the bank and tied the bills to his palm with a thread. The Bible says to wear fringes on the corners of your garment (Numbers 15:38), so Gil bought yarn from a knitting shop, made a bunch of tassels, and attached them to his shirt collar and the end of his sleeves”.

His premise has current relevance. “Millions of Americans say they take the Bible literally”, he writes. “According to a 2005 Gallup poll, the number hovers near 33 percent; a 2004 Newsweek poll put it at 55 percent. A literal interpretation of the Bible —both Jewish and Christian—shapes American policies on the Middle East, homosexuality, stem cell research, education, abortion—right down to rules about buying beer on Sunday”.

Now, Jacobs did not want to attempt biblical literalism for performance theater-like purposes only (even though he becomes a spectacle in many ways, along this year) or just for the sake of writing this book; he had deeper motives associated with trying to find meaning in The Bible, throughout the most widely known rules (love your neighbor, do not steal, honor your parents), as well as those not only “baffling, but federally outlawed. As in: Destroy idols. Kill magicians. Sacrifice oxen”. Not only that: the many contradictory messages, interpretations and rules are part of what the author finds disconcerting. A merciful, yet also cruel biblical personification of God had swayed him from exploring The Bible in the past. I’m sure most of us have shared (or share) this skepticism and confusion.

Now, his preparation, upon taking on this experiment included:

  1. Choosing the appropriate Bible. The first one he picked up was the Revised Standard Version. Ultimately, Jacobs chose to study from a “proverbial stack of Bibles, almost waist high”, from the estimated three thousand English translations available (as well as Bibles friends had sent to him). The author, to keep it safe, also ordered Bible commentaries, The Bible for Dummies and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Bible.
  2. Discovering the meaning of biblical literalism in practice: To take the Bible literally, by definition, would’ve been misleading, Jacobs writes. As an alternative, he proposed “to find the original intent of the biblical rule or teaching and follow that to the letter.” Taking figurative passages aside, he opted to follow the words literally.
  3. Obeying the Old Testament, the New Testament, or both: The author split up his experiment: 8 months for Old Testament, and 4 months for the New Testament. He explains that “the bulk of the Bible’s rules” is found in the Old Testament. Given his Jewish heritage, he felt “more comfortable living and writing about the Old Testament. (Or, as many Jews prefer to call it, the Hebrew Bible, since old implies “outdated”, and new implies “improved”). However, he felt that not exploring the New Testament would have been “to ignore half of the story”. Jacobs highlights the sway, “both for the good […] and, to my secular mind, the notso-good”, of the evangelical movement and its literal interpretation of the Bible.
  4. To seek guides during his journey: Jacobs seeks the aid of spiritual advisors in many shapes and forms: “rabbis, ministers, and priests, some of them conservative, some of them one four-letter away from excommunication”, in addition to new acquaintances and referrals. Not only that, he will seek out guides to provide advice and context, “groups that take the Bible literally in their own way: the ultra-Orthodox Jews, the ancient sect of Samaritans, and the Amish, among others”. The author, nonetheless, will let the Bible have the final word, even if it comes down to a “DIY religion” type of endeavor.

Now, just following a set of rules was not going to cut it for Jacobs. He aimed at experiencing the underlying higher meaning of the rules themselves. As an agnostic, writer and editor of Esquire magazine, this would prove to be an everyday challenge. He had already experienced brief quasimystical experiences, as he describes them, during his teenage years: “The epiphanies would descend on me without warning: One came while I was lying on a blanket in Central Park’s Great Lawn, another while I was riding the bullet train on a family trip in Japan. They were at once utterly humbling (my life so piddling and insignificant) and totally energizing (but it’s also part of something so huge). The glow from these mental orgasms would last several days, making me, at least temporarily, more serene and Buddha-like”.

Jacobs discovers that these divine experiences can be more than a glitch in his brain. Some find this communion with God or the universe by handling snakes (the author witnesses such an event), through observing the Sabbath or by simple and honest prayer.

Cafeteria Christianity

One of the writer’s most predominant hurdles when it comes to the possibility of biblical literalism in modern times, is where to draw the line. Upon visiting The Creation Museum, and meeting its host, group called Answers in Genesis, Jacobs discovers boundaries to what people will believe in. A creationist astrophysicist, Jason Lisle, lets him know that “he’s not geocentric —he doesn’t believe the earth is the center of the universe. ‘Does anyone anymore?’ I asked. He said, yes, there is a group called ‘biblical astronomers’—they believe the earth is stationary because the Bible says the earth “shall never be moved” (Psalms 93:1). Jason considers them an embarrassment.” Jacobs writes: “That was something I hadn’t expected: moderate creationists who view other creationists as too extreme. But it will turn out to be one of this year’s big lessons: Moderation is a relative term”.

Nearing the end of his biblical year, Jacobs reflects upon a term called “Cafeteria Christianity”, a derisive term, he explains, used by fundamentalist Christians to describe moderate Christians. “The idea is that the moderates pick and choose the parts of the Bible they want to follow. They take a nice helping of mercy and compassion. But the ban on homosexuality? They leave that on the countertop”. Some Jews follow this same approach, commanding to follow the complete Torah, “not just the parts that are palatable”.

Jacobs comes to the conclusion that this supposed “inconsistency” is practiced even by fundamentalists. “They can’t heap everything on their plate. Otherwise they’d kick women out of church for saying hello (“the women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak…”—1 Corinthians 14:34) and boot out men for talking about the “Tenessee Titans” (“make no mention of the names of other gods…”—Exodus 23:13).” There’s nothing wrong with choosing, Jacobs points out.

Look Beyond The Weirdness

The point of a law, rule or ritual can somehow overshadow it. There were a couple of spiritual retreats that I took part of, a few years ago, when I remember not getting most of the scheduled activities: the chanting and yelling, the hysterical reactions of some of the attendees. I did, on one occasion, fall on my back. The “brothers” summoned the Holy Spirit and I felt it. I tried to get up, but felt pressure on my chest as if some invincible force was letting me know: “it’s okay, take a breather, rest”. Jacobs experiences, not unlike me, the collective power of a ritual: observing a Jewish holiday, Simchas Torah (as he points out, It’s not in the Bible per se but it refers to the end of the annual reading of the five books of Moses), in a dance-filled-vodka-included celebration “like a Seattle mosh pit circa 1992”. Though he is not close to his moment of surrender, the writer encounters a breakthrough: “I feel something transcendent, something that melts away the future and the past and the deadlines and the MasterCard bills and puts me squarely in the moment”. His guide for the night comforts him, when he calls it a night after three hours of dancing: “sometimes you have to look beyond the weirdness. It’s like the temple in ancient Jerusalem. If you went there, you’d see oxen being slaughtered and all sorts of things. But look beyond the weirdness, to what it means.”

Loving Your Neighbor

As I was telling my wife yesterday, one of many ironies found in Jacobs’s approach: the most widely known rules are sometimes the hardest to follow. E.g. “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18), as the writer recalls, complex and strange mandates are sometimes thrown together with simple teachings, which constitute what he calls “one of the biggest mysteries of the Bible. How can these ethically advanced rules and these bizarre decrees be found in the same book? And not just the same book. Sometimes the same page. The prohibition against mixing wool and linen comes right after the command to love your neighbor. It’s not like the Bible has a section called “And Now for Some Crazy Laws”. They’re all jumbled up like a chopped salad”.

Nevertheless, these simple truths are often passed over, lost in-between rhetoric and dogma. Not only that, it sometimes happens that we commit one sin while trying to avoid others… and that’s okay. The question of authority, after realizing that we pick and choose from the Bible as we see fit, arises: doesn’t that destroy its credibility?, Jacobs asks. Though there is not one satisfying answer, to consider that all possible wisdom is found in the Bible, Robbie Harris  (one of his rabbi advisors) makes a point that brings me comfort: “If you insist that God revealed himself only at one time, at one particular place, using these discrete words, and never any time other than that—that in itself is a kind of idolatry.” Jacobs adds:”You can commit idolatry on the Bible itself. You can start to worship the words instead of the spirit. You need to “meet God halfway in the woods”.

The answers, as it turns out are not always found when and how you expect them, no matter how literally you read into the questions.

The Year of Living Biblically – One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible by A. J. Jacobs