Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Hacking The Good Book

In a recent post, I wrote about the interview Esquire did with George Clooney. 

Today, I read an article about a journalist called A J Jacobs who carried out an unusual experiment. The name caught my attention and it took me a few minutes before I remembered where I had heard it. It was the journalist who had interviewed Clooney.

My mind works in a rather strange pattern. It goes off on tangents and loves experiments based on the obscure. Therefore, Jacobs' decision to spend a whole year living out the doctrines of the bible, both Old and New Testaments, is wildly fascinating to me.

I would have loved to have documented, studied and analysed the results and findings from this experiment. Failing that, I look forward to obtaining a copy of his book, A Year of Living Biblically, to let my mind and imagination roam freely over this fascinating experimental terrain.

A J Jacobs: My year of playing it by the Book 
Last Updated: 12:02am GMT 12/03/2008The Telegraph

It seemed a simple idea. New Yorker A J Jacobs decided to follow the Bible to the letter for 12 months. But, reports Tom Leonard, his sins soon began to find him out.

The thicket of a beard has gone, the clothing is no longer checked minutely for mixed fibres, the wearer hasn't phoned an anti-gossiping counsellor for months.

Arnold Jacobs, possibly the only householder to have ever prompted a Jehovah's Witness to look nervously at his watch and mutter about getting home, has clearly readjusted to the norms of 21st-century life in Manhattan.

'When I stopped gossiping I stopped having negative thoughts'.

It is 18 months since he finished a year-long experiment - for a book that became a US bestseller - in which he attempted to follow the Bible as literally as possible.

Not just the obvious religious and moral imperatives about the Sabbath, murder and thy neighbour's ox, but the more obscure edicts like Deuteronomy 14:25 (to bind money to your hand) and Numbers 15:38 (to wear fringes on the corners of your garments).

He quickly realised he had bitten off more than he could chew. "I had no idea what I was getting into," he says. "I knew it would be challenging but I didn't know it would affect everything in my life - the way I talked, the way I ate, the way I thought, the way I touched my wife Julie. It was totally overwhelming."

Seeing him now, sitting in his beautiful corner apartment overlooking Central Park, one might sympathise with the evangelical Christian he mentions in the book who refused to get involved with the experiment, predicting it would be little more than a protracted stunt unless Jacobs actually invited God into his life.

But Jacobs, who previously wrote a book about reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, insists he approached the Bible project with an open mind and serious - or at least sometimes serious - intent.

He says he became interested in religion after the birth of his first child and also wanted to discover whether America's fundamentalist Christians were following the good book as literally as they claimed.

But well-intentioned curiosity aside, there is a rather obvious flaw to a professed Jewish agnostic New Yorker, and a journalist on a glossy men's magazine to boot, attempting to follow the Bible. How could he hope to succeed if he didn't really believe?

The answer, he insists, is that he did end up believing. Well, sort of. Anyway, having first read both Old and New Testaments, he amassed a list of more than 700 dos and don'ts.
His initial resolve to observe them all soon turned out to be ridiculously over-optimistic so he picked some and discarded others. He later had to redefine the challenge even further, concentrating on certain rules on certain days.

Jacobs, 40, also recruited an advisory board of well-disposed rabbis, priests and ministers. And then he got started. Two areas proved difficult right from the start, he says. "First was the challenge of tackling the little sins we commit every day... lying, coveting, gossiping.

In New York City, that's what we do 60 per cent of the day," he says. By day seven, he was censoring about a fifth of his sentences before he uttered them. He was particularly shocked at how accustomed he was to gossiping - the Bible calls it "evil tongue", he says - and speaking negatively about others.

"When I stopped gossiping, I stopped having negative thoughts about people. It was one of the bigger lessons of the year - how much your behaviour affects your thoughts."

He insists that this even held true when it came to the challenge - for him - of praying. By the end of the year, he says he was praying so much that he was believing in God. When he stopped praying, he stopped believing. "As they say in business, fake it 'til you make it. You do it and then you start to feel it."

On that particular issue of gossiping, Jacobs discovered an emergency phoneline run by Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn which "talks down" callers feeling the urge to gossip.

As with the Jewish professional mixed-fibre checker who came round with a microscope to examine his wardrobe (Deuteronomy 22:11 says: "Thou shalt not wear a garment of divers sorts, as of woollen and linen together"), Jacobs was repeatedly surprised to find that others were observing the most arcane injunctions.

He discovered from the internet that he wasn't the only one looking to praise God on a 10-string harp. He also found an American evangelical Christian film-censoring service that edits anything remotely ungodly out of Hollywood releases.

The second problem area in his observance schedule, he says, was to follow rules that would nowadays get him arrested - stoning adulterers, sacrificing oxen, building a hut on the pavement. Not sacrificing his child to the pagan god Moab and not taking his wife's sister as a wife while the former was still alive were a cinch, he says.

Jacobs may not have got far with stoning - although he did lob gravel at a man sitting on a park bench who had admitted to adultery - but he persevered with not touching his wife, Julie, while she was menstruating.

This went down as well as can be expected. The ban extended to sitting in chairs she had used, prompting her at one point to ring him at work to say she had just sat on every seat and chair in the apartment.

Jacobs bought his own collapsible chair. Julie, who isn't religious either, says she still "felt like a leper". She adds: "When it comes down to it, the Bible is very sexist. It was written a long time ago and to follow it literally now is crazy."

Jacobs's liberal inclinations inevitably coloured what he chose to observe and how. Condemning homosexuality proved particularly galling. Rather conveniently, he found an evangelical gay preacher to convince him that Jesus would have no problem with a modern same-sex couple.

Fundamentalists talk disapprovingly of "cafeteria religions" whose adherents pick and choose what they observe, but Jacobs insists his experience shows it is impossible not to do this.

"It's about picking the right parts - about compassion, loving your neighbour and about the Ten Commandments, as opposed to the parts about homosexuality being a sin."

Meanwhile, he continued in his job as a writer on Esquire magazine, rooted though it is in appealing to feelings of lust, envy and covetousness.

His editor didn't make his mission any easier, at one point dispatching him to Hollywo
od to interview a particularly attractive but sexually frank young actress. "I had to say a lot of prayers that night," says Jacobs.

Jacobs also tried to understand the fundamentalists, visiting an Amish community, Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians. In the case of the Jehovah's Witnesses, they did the visiting.

Even with the Creationists - with whom he completely disagreed - he came away well disposed. And his book has a feelgood ending - some of the spirituality rubbed off.

"I began the year an agnostic and I finished it as what a minister friend called a 'reverent agnostic'," he says. "Whether or not there's a God, I now believe there's something to the idea of sacredness.

" Jacobs, who has been invited to speak to Christian and Jewish groups about his experience, says his life has been changed by the religious concept of gratitude.

"Now, instead of focusing on the three or four things that go wrong every day, I try to focus on the 200 things that went right and that I would usually not notice." Finally, he estimates he has cut down his coveting, gossiping and lying "by 40 per cent".
That sounds like just the wrong sort of boasting (James 4:16) but we shall let it pass.

I did a bit more research and found out that the 700 precepts he tried to follow included:

Wear white. 

"It was like always being dressed for the semifinals at Wimbledon or a P. Diddy party."

Wear a robe and sandals. 

"Reactions varied from raised eyebrows, to people crossing to the other side of the street, to those who thought I was a tourist attraction and took pictures."

Herd sheep.

"It's very good for the ego. Sheep live up to stereotype — they're sheepish. It was a good entry-level job for patriarchs. First they were shepherds, and then they led people out of Israel."

Eat crickets. 

"I chose to eat the chocolate-covered ones. They were crunchy."

I am surprised he managed to hang onto his job with the no lying, no gossiping adherence as that is all we do as journalists. I'm surprised he managed to hang onto his wife with the no touching ban. Not only that but he certainly lived out one of the precepts to the max ... that of be fruitful and multiply.  During the year of living biblically, his wife gave birth to twins.  Maybe God was watching out for him?


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