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.J. Jacobs, whose last book described reading the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica, is accustomed to the Morgan Spurlock-esque participatory style of journalism that tends to sell books and garner appearances on the Today show. But his latest project, to live for a year according to over seven hundred rules from the Old and New Testament of the Bible, reads as the disarmingly earnest journal of a secular guy made a better person by diving headfirst into Judeo-Christian tradition. Jacobs starts big (stoning adulterers) and whittles his way down to what he calls the "best parts" (loving thy neighbor). When it's over, his project looks less like gonzo journalism and more like a roadmap to religion for the uninitiated. Jacobs' ultimate message, that good deeds and good behavior can make you a better person, is a surprisingly pleasant vacation from moral relativism and dime-store psychology. Nerve spoke to him about stoning, tithing and impure women. — Nicole Pasulka promotion Has this project changed the way you live, even now that it's over?
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It changed me more deeply than I anticipated. I started the year as an agnostic, and by the end of the year I was what a minister friend referred to as a "reverent agnostic." Whether or not there's a God, I believe in the idea of sacredness. I still gossip, I still covet, I still lie, but I think I've cut down on that by about thirty or thirty-five percent.
Because of the habits you developed while following the Bible?
Your behavior shapes your thoughts. Because I was acting like a good person by not gossiping, I had fewer negative thoughts about people. I don't think it's the only solution and I don't think it's right for everyone, but the catchphrase "deed affects creed" was true for me, even down to something as trivial as my wardrobe. The Bible at one point says that your garments should always be white, and wearing white affected me. I was in a better mood wearing white. I felt happier, more pure, like I was about to play in the semifinals at Wimbledon.
I worry that religion offers prescriptive solutions, but ignores the root cause of a problem. In the book, you note that it's suggested that someone addicted to Internet porn should get rid of his or her computer. Is elimination of temptation really effective?
I don't think it's that different from some modern psychology. The whole "behavior-shaping emotion" thing dovetails with the idea of cognitive-behavioral therapy. The message is that you don't need to address the cause of a problem. You don't need to go back to childhood and revisit the moment when your fear of heights began because your sister dangled you off the balcony. You just start walking up to the top of the Empire State Building.
At various points in the book, your wife gets frustrated with your project.
In the Old Testament, there are all these laws of purity. There was tension in my marriage because I couldn't touch my wife for certain times of the month.
When she was menstruating.
If you take things really literally, you're not supposed to sit on a seat where an "impure" woman has sat. My wife sat on every seat in our apartment, and I was forced to stand a lot of the time. If I were single, I wouldn't have had that problem.
But would you have been able to have sex as a single man?
In the Old Testament, at least, the laws on sex are unclear. For example, in "Song of Solomon," it's okay to have sex even if you're not married. But others argue that you have to be married. Since I was going with a strict interpretation, it might have been a year of no coveting. That might have been difficult.
Didn't you abstain from sex for part of your year anyway?
Yeah, I did. I decided to try it because there are parts of the Bible that say the ideal is abstinence. I decided to crush my libido. It was fascinating because, first of all, I learned that sublimation is real — I was so productive during those months. I wrote like three-quarters of my book during that time. On top of that, my wife at the time was very, very pregnant with twins, so she had no interest in intimacy. It seemed like a good time to try the abstinence thing.
So you had some accommodating circumstances.
You're never going to be completely successful in suppressing the libido, but I did learn some interesting strategies. One was from a medieval rabbi who said you should picture a woman or man as your mother or father, so you're immediately repulsed, like in A Clockwork Orange. Also, I joined a movie service that will cut out all the naughty parts of movies for you.
But sublimating something just makes it more enticing. Doesn't the libido always re-emerge?
It's an interesting question. Are we built like steam engines so that if we suppress our desires, they'll bust out in some way? Or are we more like a positive-feed mechanism, where there's a snowball effect and the more you think about [sex], the more you're fixated on it, but if you
.J. Jacobs, whose last book described reading the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica, is accustomed to the Morgan Spurlock-esque participatory style of journalism that tends to sell books and garner appearances on the Today show. But his latest project, to live for a year according to over seven hundred rules from the Old and New Testament of the Bible, reads as the disarmingly earnest journal of a secular guy made a better person by diving headfirst into Judeo-Christian tradition. Jacobs starts big (stoning adulterers) and whittles his way down to what he calls the "best parts" (loving thy neighbor). When it's over, his project looks less like gonzo journalism and more like a roadmap to religion for the uninitiated. Jacobs' ultimate message, that good deeds and good behavior can make you a better person, is a surprisingly pleasant vacation from moral relativism and dime-store psychology. Nerve spoke to him about stoning, tithing and impure women. — Nicole Pasulka
Has this project changed the way you live, even now that it's over?
don't use it you lose it? It's hard to say. At one point I tried to censor all the lustful images in my apartment. I went around with masking tape covering up all the pictures of my wife's friend with her cleavage showing and a box of tea with an attractive geisha on the cover — that backfired. Every time I saw the tape I thought about what was under the tape.
During your biblical year, you gave away ten percent of your income after taxes. Are you still tithing?
I am still tithing, but I've whittled it down to about eight percent. Ten percent was hard, but, as a minister friend said, it should be a sacrifice.
In your book, you talk about your fondness for your son's babysitter and mention that your wife has "mootly" given you permission to have an affair with her.
That's right. It's because she's so young and beautiful, my wife knows she doesn't even see me as an option.
Let's pretend she was interested. Would you have had an affair with her before you started this project? After?
I probably wouldn't ever do anything. As beautiful as she is, it would be too disastrous for everyone concerned. The stuff in the Proverbs on adultery is some good stuff, because it's all about how it will ruin your life.
But according to parts of the Bible, married men are allowed have sex with unmarried women.
Yes, according to some parts of the Bible. You're also allowed to marry more than one woman. That was another thing I tried to do that didn't go over with my wife — take home a second wife. I called the head of the polygamy movement in America and he recommended a preemptive strike: just marry the second wife and bring her home. I decided I couldn't do that.
That would be a scene.
He also said that some women like the bad-boy thing and would be attracted to a man who would try that.
What if you'd found out a friend was cheating on her husband while you were doing the project? Would you have stoned her as an adulterer?
In the Old Testament, adultery is a capital offense and punishment is execution. I might have stoned her with pebbles; in the book that's what I do to an adulterer. Now, since I've learned that my relationships can stand more honesty than I previously thought, I may be more willing to bring it up. But not in anger — no rebuking.
Weren't you on Kirk Cameron's Christian Sirius Radio program, Way of the Master?
[Laughs] I was. [Evangelist Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron] were fascinated by the project. They saw that I took the Bible seriously, but they didn't think I went far enough. They wanted me to accept Jesus in the end. I've had amazing feedback from parts of the evangelical community. I don't want to boast because boasting's not biblical, but I'm on the cover of the evangelical equivalent of Rolling Stone. I'm excited because it's my first magazine cover — no, wait, I was also on the cover of MENSA magazine when I wrote about reading the encyclopedia. That's sad, but true.
To order The Year of Living Biblically,
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©2007 Nerve.com and Nicole Pasulka