Thurber House does this city a fine service with its Evenings With Authors series, a succession of speaking engagements by some of the more high-profile names in the world of literature. Last night's event welcomed A.J. Jacobs, an Esquire editor fond of making himself a guinea pig for his books and features. His latest, The Year of Living Biblically, found him following the Bible as literally as possible for a year.
Jacobs, an agnostic from a Jewish background, had several motives for this stunt. Chief among them was to point out the hypocrisy of fundamentalists who insist on strict interpretations of certain scripture while ignoring less convenient passages about not wearing clothing of mixed fibers and stoning adulterers. With that in mind, I expected Jacobs to be snarky. To my surprise, he was highly respectful, having gained a genuine appreciation for people of faith through his experiment. He now dubs himself a "reverent agnostic."
Just because he's reverent doesn't mean he can't have a laugh, though, and there were plenty of humorous tidbits throughout his lecture. The funniest was the passage he read from his book, in which a bearded, robed Jacobs was accosted by a grumpy old man for dressing "queer." The ensuing conversation revealed that this old codger was an adulterer, giving Jacobs his chance to follow through on the Old Testament mandate to stone a unfaithful spouse. (His loophole: throwing pebbles, not rocks.) Jacobs spun the ridiculous anecdote into something more sober and analytical, which seems to be his M.O. with all of his projects. He also spent a year reading the entire Encyclopedia Brittannica and has experimented with the concept of radical honesty, a practice that requires you to say whatever is on your mind at all times.
Obviously Jacobs' Bible scheme has some kinks in it. He follows the Bible's commands without context and, at least during least night's appearance, ignores how the New Testament alters or invalidates much of the Old Testament law. (He may address this in the book. I'll investigate.) And his pick-and-choose method — keep what works for you, discard what doesn't — seems a little too convenient. But I gained a greater measure of respect for him after hearing him speak, and I look forward to exploring his experiment more fully by reading his book. Furthermore, I hope to make it to more of these Evenings With Authors, especially if Thurber House is able to snag some of my favorites. Jonathan Safran Foer, anyone?
[Alive's interview with Jacobs]