A Chinese proverb says, "If you ask a fish if it is wet, it would ask, 'what is wetness'?" In many ways this little proverb aptly describes the Christian subculture so pervasive in America: Christian doctors, Christian yellow pages, Christian music, Christian books, Christian movies, etc. You get the idea. The noun has now come to be used almost exclusively as an adjective. I am reminded of C. S. Lewis' reminder in Mere Christianity, that "We must stick to the original, obvious meaning (of Christian). The name Christians was first given at Antioch (Acts 11:26) to 'the disciples', to those who accepted the teaching of the apostles. There is no question of its being restricted to those who profited by that teaching as much as they should have."
Consequently, it is beneficial for Christians to see how "outsiders" perceive our faith and culture. Several years ago I devoted a blog to A. J. Jacobs, now 41, a self-proclaimed agnostic and writer who works for Esquire, who had written The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible (Simon & Schuster).
Jacobs chronicled how he attempted to live by all the commandments of the Bible, and how this challenged and provoked him. Jacobs still describes himself as an agnostic Jew, but has now attained a certain celebrity status among many conservative Christians. He was recently interviewed by Mark Galli of Christianity Today, and while we may disagree with him on many fronts, some of his observations about faith and life are fascinating. Below are excerpts from that interview:
How does it feel to be invited to places like the National Pastors Convention to tell Christians about their faith?
You're going to make me commit the sin of pride? I'm not supposed to do that. I hadn't thought about it. Now I'm intimidated. Before it was okay. Now I feel terrible. No, I'm very flattered. I have gotten lots of e-mails saying that it strengthens people's faith, and that's great. It's weird, because on the other side I've gotten some agnostics, secular people who say, "Your book showed me how some of the rules in the Old Testament are so crazy. Thanks for reconfirming that." It's interesting that people take away different things from the book. I love breaking down the walls between the secular and the religious.
What are you learning about evangelical culture since your experiment with the Bible?
Certainly one of the things that has really struck me is that I think the secular world sees evangelical Christianity as a monolith-as though everyone believes the exact same thing. I'm continually struck by how varied it is. I actually thought that the media was getting a little better about it, but I think that they went back to the idea that every evangelical Christian is like Sarah Palin.
So why do you think so many conservative Christians have warmed up to you?
I'm speculating, but I think part of it is they were appreciative that I went in with an open mind and an open heart, and I wasn't judgmental. I didn't do a Bill Maher Religulous hatchet job with an agenda. I really did go in to try to just understand and find the allure and what, if anything, I can take from religion. I've also gotten e-mails from Christians who say that they appreciate it because at least in the first half of the book you get to see a really secular mindset. They say, "Thank you for allowing me to see what's inside of a secular person's mind."
I was very nervous before the book came out about the reaction, because I thought that I had done a fair job and I had gone in open-minded and to learn, but mixing humor and the Bible is a risky proposition. But I think that they go very well together.
After your biblical year, you did a project that was featured in Esquire called The Rationality Project, where you tried to fight your gut instinct. Did your spending a year with the Bible shape the new project? Was there a relationship between the two?
I certainly thought a lot about rationality and irrationality during my biblical year. But one of the things that I discovered was, Why would you do this ritual, it's completely irrational, especially when referring to religious rituals. It's not like there is such a thing as a rational ritual. For instance, if a Martian saw a secular ritual like blowing out candles on a birthday cake, then he saw someone eating Kosher, it's not like he would say that one makes sense or that one's irrational. They're both irrational, but that doesn't mean that they're not meaningful. Just because something is irrational doesn't make it bad. Rituals can be meaningful and beautiful even though they don't make logical sense. This rational project was almost exploring the other side. What if you tried to take away all irrationality?
Even with that project, you have to start with kind of a baseline of what constitutes rational and what doesn't constitute rational.
There's the rub. I just became fascinated with this area called Behavioral Economics, where they talk about all of the bad choices that humans make based on, basically, faulty problems with our brain that are built-in design flaws. Like when we focus on the one airplane crash per month as opposed to the 10,000 car crashes per month. And so we totally overestimate the risk of flying. That's just one example of hundreds of what our brain does.
It seems like you have inspired a number of similar projects, such as David Plotz's Good Book and Benyamin Cohen's My Jesus Year. Do you have an idea what the fascination is behind these sorts of things?
I was very excited because there's a church in Massachusetts that did 30 days of living by Leviticus. Then there's Ed Dobson out of Grand Rapids [who wrote The Year of Living like Jesus. I thanked him for giving me credit, and I said, "That was very biblical of you." I think that part of the appeal of this genre is that you get to follow someone. It's almost voyeuristic. It's the idea of walking in someone else's shoes or sandals, as I would say.
So what's the next project? Any other living-with-something?
This next book [The Guinea Pig Diaries] is actually coming out soon, but it's basically a compilation of shorter projects. After the last year-long project, I had people telling me that I had to make amends to my wife because I put her through so much. So this was the month of doing everything she said, so basically the month of foot massages and Kate Hudson movies.