Living Religion - with a Laugh

It has been well over one month since I last made a post to my blog... Much has transpired during this time that would typically be the type of material that I hope to engage and interrogate on this page, but for too many reasons I have chosen to abstain - to simply read rather than write. Nonetheless, I am thankful for the prodigious efforts of bloggers, much more faithful than I, who have continued to offer tremendous insights into a number of occurrences that have piqued my interest, including several obvious incidents:

  • The Violent Break-up of Thomas Weeks and Juanita Bynum
  • The building of a critical mass in support of the Jena Six
  • The appearance of additional "nooses" not only in the South, but up north in such places as Hempstead's Police Headquarters (Long Island) and Columbia University's Teachers College
  • The latest black morality tale in the release of Tyler Perry's most recent movie, "Why did I get married?"
  • ANOTHER scandal connected to my undergraduate alma mater - Oral Roberts University. Oh, ORU...
  • The debut of BET's new show "Exalted" - a behind the scenes look at some of America's most popular black clergy

The list could go on ad infinitum...

However, as I write today I am fresh off the heals of a wonderful retreat with a small group of friends - most of whom are pastors serving churches across the United States - that took place in a small coastal town on Massachusetts' North Shore. We have been meeting as a group for seven years now, and more than anything else the time serves for me as a chance to check in with a group of great colleagues and friends who are as ambitious about being good parents to their children, loving partners to their spouses, and supportive friends to, well, their friends, as they are in their professional lives. Over the weekend we read, prayed, cried, talked, ate and drank with each other. What almost always emerges most powerfully out of these incredibly honest exchanges - which is most important to me - are deep, tear-jerking belly laughs that are not always as easy to find every day. They serve to remind us that our lives need not always be as serious as we are prone to treating them and that, to paraphrase a bible verse "... laughter does the heart good, like medicine..."

In this spirit, I invite you to check out an essay by Hannah Rosin from the Book Review section of the October 14 New York Times. The book under discussion sounds something like "Borat in Bible-Drag" and I hope it will provide plenty of laughs as a balance to all the serious debates about what is up for grabs in the contemporary religious landscape. As I am reminded of a course I took during graduate school in which Cornel West pointed to the fact that not once does Christian scripture record Jesus laughing, just this once I encourage you to - forgive me - Do What Jesus Didn't Do:


October 14, 2007

By the Book


One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible

By A. J. Jacobs.

Illustrated. 388 pp. Simon & Schuster. $25.

If I were to write this review while trying to live biblically, here are some of the rules I would have to follow:

Love thy neighbor. Jacobs is a fellow journalist and thus a neighbor of sorts. I would have to strive to be as generous as possible, and point out right at the outset that this book is an inspired idea and that Jacobs is alarmingly adept at keeping the joke alive for 365 days.

Thou shalt not covet. I would have to confess my jealousy that Jacobs already had a movie contract in place before the book had even been published, and that even though I have spent much more time around young-earth creationists than he has, he thought of a much funnier way to describe them (people who believe in an earth that's ''barely older than Gene Hackman'').

Thou shalt not bear false witness. I would have to admit that every once in a while, as he wrote about walking down some New York street in a shepherd's robe strumming his 10-string harp, or throwing small stones at a random suspected sinner, or eating crickets or burning myrrh each morning, I thought to myself, What's the point, really?

But having a point is slightly beside the point. Jacobs is a stunt journalist, although that term seems belittling to the monumental self-improvement projects he subjects himself to. In his last book, ''The Know-It-All,'' Jacobs read the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica in an attempt to make himself smarter than his showoff brother-in-law.

In ''The Year of Living Biblically,'' he attends to the soul, turning himself from a guy who is ''Jewish in the way the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant'' into a follower of ''the ultimate biblical life.'' This means spending a year strictly following a typed list of more than 700 biblical rules, including the obscure (don't wear garments of mixed fibers, bind money to your hand, pay the wages of your workers every day) and the potentially awkward (don't touch your wife seven days after her ''discharge of blood,'' bathe after sex and don't tell lies, in their many variations).

Unlike Norah Vincent (who wrote a book about passing as a man) and Eddie Murphy (who made himself over as a white man in a classic ''Saturday Night Live'' skit), Jacobs does not take the undercover spy route. Instead he lives out the biblical high life in his usual New York surroundings, among all his wanton, gossiping, blaspheming journalist friends. The result is that he ends up sort of like Kramer on ''Seinfeld,'' a big weirdo who interrupts the normal patter of urban life. Lots of comic relief ensues. He accepts a hug from a homeless woman on the subway, who then accuses him of harassing her. He contemplates taking his cute nanny as his second wife. He grows a beard of ZZ Top-like proportions.

His efforts to obey the injunction against lying are an endless source of sit-com moments. He refuses to tell his son that an English muffin is a form of bagel, prompting a massive temper tantrum. He and his wife run into an old college acquaintance of hers at a restaurant. When the friend suggests they get their kids together sometime for a play date, he tells the friend he'll ''take a pass'' because he doesn't ''really want new friends right now.'' His wife, of course, wants to kill him.

The larger context for this book is that we live in age of flourishing biblical literalism, where a lot of Americans who don't live in New York still believe the Bible to be literally true. Jacobs does make dutiful visits to an Amish community, Jerry Falwell's church in Virginia and a new creationist museum in Kentucky. But his visits yield no tremendous insights about why the United States continues to be such a literal-minded nation, or what comforts people derive from refusing to read between the lines. They merely leave him feeling confused and depressed.

This is a New Testament nation, but most of the rules that make for good comedy are in the other book. So Jacobs's most lively interactions by far are not with red-state America but with his own people: Mr. Berkowitz, the guy who comes over to check for shatnez, or mixed fibers; or his Uncle Gil, the inspiration for Jacobs's project.

Gil is the person Jacobs fears he could become if he really took the project to heart. Gil, too, started out as a secular Jew on a spiritual mission. But then he got in too deep. He careered, Jacobs tells us, from acid head to Hindu to cult leader to born-again Christian to ultra-Orthodox Jew who gathers in the lost souls of Jerusalem. Jacobs has dinner with him, and leaves with the impression that Gil is ''subtly dangerous.''

Jacobs comes closest to transcendence in a crowd of Hasidic men dancing ecstatically all night. But otherwise he skirts around the edges. The truly Orthodox would say you can't do this alone, in your apartment, with your wife rolling her eyes. You need a community, not some stranger rabbis who drop by once in a while. Alone, Jacobs can ponder the big questions, but he usually turns them into a joke. (''If there is a God, why would he allow war, disease and my fourth-grade teacher, Ms. Barker, who forced us to have a sugar-free bake sale?'')

Jacobs begins the book by saying that if his new self met his old at a coffee shop they would think each other ''delusional.'' I'm not sure he makes the case for that much of a transformation. But here and there, through some surprisingly poignant moments, he sees through to the other side, and he stumbles his way to a working definition of what it might mean to become a better person.

At the start of the year, his mind cleansing is yet more sit-com fodder: remove the magazine with Jessica Alba in a skintight bathing suit, the wedding album picture of the friend with cleavage, the Celestial Tea box showing the hot geisha. Stop self-Googling. Don't be jealous of Jonathan Safran Foer's speaking fees. Don't check your e-mail on the Sabbath.

But toward the end, he deepens. A friend e-mails him a YouTube clip of a newscaster who gets smacked in the head by a stage light and falls over. Jacobs can't bring himself to ''lol'' as his friends do. He finds it upsetting. He spends 20 minutes trying to track down the newscaster's e-mail address so he can ask if she's all right, while at the same time worrying that he's become some kind of ''overly virtuous sap.''

After a year of praying every day he becomes by no stretch a believer, but someone who at least accepts ''such a thing as sacredness.'' Sometimes he can even envision a God who might watch over him and care what happens. As a teenager he convinced himself that even when he was alone in his house, the girls he had a crush on could see him, so he listened to David Bowie and brushed his teeth in a ''rakishly nonchalant manner'' to prove he was worthy of their attention. This is how he experiences God now.

God as Mean Girl. It's not exactly biblical, but it's not nothing.

For all I know, Jacobs is already back to his old ways He never gives the impression that, God forbid, his soul is at stake, or anything else of much importance. Certainly his isn't the kind of transformation any real fundamentalist would accept. But for many of us who would never even try, walking with Jacobs is the closest we'll come to knowing what it feelslike to be born again.

Hanna Rosin is the author of ''God's Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America.''