Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A.J. Jacobs speaks on The Year of Living Biblically

I love to hear authors speak, especially when their topic involves spirituality or religion, so although I hadn't read AJ Jacob's book, The Year of Living Biblically, when I heard he was coming to town my interest was piqued. Jacobs also wrote The Know-It-All, a book that chronicles his reading the entire encyclopedia, so I liked him already, picturing him as someone like me - nerdy, and perhaps just the slightest bit obsessive. Then I read that the author was scheduled to speak at St. Luke's Church, during Lent, and I was more than a little confused. I thought I had this guy pegged, and that with a name like Jacobs and a book about the bible, he would be a nice Jewish boy. So why was St. Lukes bringing him in? And during Lent? I questioned my usually keen "Jewdar."

When he walked on stage, though, all doubts were put aside. Definitely nice Jewish boy. So, obviously, as the couple of hundred people in St. Lukes last night proved, there is a wide audience for the story of how a nice (secular) Jewish boy tried to follow the letter of biblical law for one year.

Jacobs described himself as a nominal Jew, "a Jew in the way that The Olive Garden is Italian." Before addressing The Year of Living Biblically, he spoke about some of the quirky subjects he has written about in the past and how, he immerses himself in them completely. He said he really enjoyed the time he spent "Outsourcing My Life", hiring help to make his phone calls, and to read bedtime stories to his children. He did not, however, enjoy the time he spent practicing "Radical Honesty", when he not only had to answer every question honestly, but also had to say every single thought he had out loud. He subtitled this particular story, "I think you are fat."

But the story that most profoundly affected his life was The Year of Living Biblically. That year brought many changes to his life. He said he worked to curb his own gossiping and coveting that is standard operating procedure in his New York media circles, and that he experienced a moral makeover. He honored the Sabbath, and by having that one day of rest his life changed. He commented that one of the basic tenets of Judaism, the one that proclaims that your actions should come first, and that your belief, if not already present, will follow, was very true for him. Deed leads to creed, the outer effects the inner. He discovered that many of the obscure rules of the bible ended up having profound meaning for him.

Jacobs told us that what he learned during his biblical year could be summed up in five basic lessons:
1) Give thanks. Focus on being grateful for the hundreds of things that go right during the day rather than the few that go wrong.
2) Have reverence. Jacobs no longer calls himself an agnostic, but a reverent agnostic, believing in the sacredness in our lives.
3) Thou shalt not stereotype. He said that in his investigations he came to understand that his monolithic view of Evangelical Christians no longer held and that he came to appreciate many of the evangelicals he met.
4) Don't take the bible literally, but do take it seriously.
5) Thou shalt pick and choose. Ironically, although the task he set forth to accomplish during his biblical year was to fulfill every letter of the law, he found this impractical and virtually impossible, and defended the concept of "cafeteria religion."

The changes in Jacobs' life that came from writing The Year of Living Biblically have outlasted the year of research he put into it. He happily told us that he and his wife now send their children to a Jewish school and that he continues to try to observe the Shabbat.

Yesterday brought something new and unexpected - a visit to a church during Lent where I heard another Jew speak - to an audience I can only presume was for the most part Christian - of his unexpected reconnection with Judaism.

1 comment:

  1. How facinating! Most intreguing viewpoints. Wish I could've been there too.