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Friday, November 25, 2011

A.J. Jacobs: The Year of Living Biblically

This is my most favorite podcast of all times. It packs into a short space a few great ideas that influenced me over the past few years, and continue to do so, often on a daily basis. You may recall the highly original experimenter, writer and journalist A.J. Jacobs, who was featured in this blog before. In this talk, he tells a story of an experiment in which he tried for a year to live as closely as possible to the literal interpretation of the Biblical laws.  As a true scientist, A.J. Jacobs dove into the experiment with enthusiasm but without preconceived notions. Here are a few gems I found in this "rediscovery of the Bible". 

  • Thou shalt pick and choose. You cannot follow all the laws in the Bible. A.J. Jacobs started the experiment by collecting all the laws in both Old and New Testaments. These included the famous laws, such as the Ten Commandments (for example, thou shalt not kill), and scores of obscure ones (for example, do not wear clothes made of mixed fabrics). These came down to an astonishing total of more than 700 laws. That number alone makes one wonder if the people who say they follow the Bible literally (45-50% of all Americans) actually do follow all the laws. Some of these laws can get you in trouble in modern day America, while others are simply inhumane (for example, stoning adulterers). The key is to pick and choose the good parts of the Bible, rather than the parts promoting barbaric behavior, violence, and intolerance. Despite scores of laws that are clearly due for an upgrade or a deletion, A.J. Jacobs found that following some Biblical laws had unexpected - and good - effects on his life.
  • Thou shalt give thanks. The practice of praying and giving thanks for all the good things that happened in life made A.J. Jacobs aware of the hundreds of things that went right every day, rather than fixating on a few things that went wrong. His conclusion: be thankful, even for the tiniest things that go right. Be thankful  for those things that could have gone wrong, but did not. 
  • Behavior changes your thoughts. Pretend to be good, and you will become a better person. Following the Biblical laws that require helping the needy, being charitable, not coveting, and not gossiping changed A.J. Jacobs's behavior, and by doing this, changed his thinking. By pretending to be someone, he became that someone. Another example of biblical cognitive psychology that A.J. Jacobs noticed in action: smiling makes you happier (Proverbs).
  • Thou shalt have reverence. It is good to keep some things sacred (whether or not there is a God). A.J. Jacobs noted that the law that requires to keep the Sabbath day holy had a profound effect on his life. As a workaholic, A.J. Jacobs learned to appreciate having a 24 hours sanctuary in life without work.
  • Thou shalt not disregard the irrational. Do not dismiss rituals and traditions, even the ones that do not make sense (unless they are harmful). Not wearing clothes made of mixed fabrics may not make much sense to a non-religious person. But what about our ritual of blowing out candles on a birthday cake? Does that make sense? If the ritual gives you meaning, it is okay to keep it.
There are few topics more emotionally charged than religion, and A.J. Jacobs masterfully navigates these stormy waters with self-deprecating humor and humility. He describes the story more fully in his book, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. I listened to the audio version of this book, and actually like the book less than the talk. The book is more detailed and more entertaining, yet the important messages seem more dilute (or lost) in the book version.
I found myself often coming back to this podcast, and I think that it is deeper than it may appear at first glance. While I did not become religious after listening to this talk, I did become more open minded about many parts of the Bible.
I am very grateful to one of the readers of my blog for sending me the link to the talk by A.J. Jacobs a long time ago. I am now delighted to pass this gift to you!

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