When Slate asked me to engage you on the subject of your new book, I’m not afraid to admit I was slightly intimidated because of the title of your last book: The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest To Become the Smartest Person in the World. I’m considerably less ambitious than you are. I went to a B-list state school. I minored in film studies. So, you see why there’d be some cause for concern.
Then I found out what you did to become such a smart guy. You read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. Maybe that’s impressive where you come from, back in the ‘80s. But catch up, bro. These are the ‘90s. Perhaps I’ll cower in fear when you’ve tackled all 2,048,649 entries in Wikipedia, not including the Polish edition. (Do you know what a pas kontuszowy is? I didn’t, either. But then, I don’t pretend to be the smartest person in the world.)
So, I’m accepting this invitation in order to see what happens when two worlds collide, when Christian (me) and Jew (you) come together, breaking matzo and sipping Jesus juice in the spirit of brotherhood, interfaith dialoguing so that we can celebrate both the commonality and distinctions of our shared Abrahamic traditions. Also, I’m hoping that by the time it’s all over and we’ve fostered mutual understanding, walking hand-in-hand by the flickering lamplight of enlightenment, that you’ll renounce your false beliefs and accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior.
Or maybe I’ll let the proselytizing slide. You wouldn’t have much conversion value to my superiors back at HQ. You do, after all, admit in your book that you’ve been a committed agnostic who “is Jewish the same way the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant” and only says “Lord” when “of the Rings” follows it. So, let me start with a compliment.
I’ve just finished The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest To Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. I don’t want to give too much away about your excellent book, but in it, you strive to follow the Bible as literally as possible for a year. And at the risk of overreaching, I’m just going to say it: It’s better than the Bible. Or not better, necessarily. But it is funnier, moves faster, and doesn’t bog you down with any of those genealogies. I know that God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8), but I never understood, with limited space and the pressure of crafting a universal message to resonate throughout the ages, why He would bother squandering valuable chapters telling me that Meraioth begat Amariah, and Amariah begat Ahitub.
At first glance, I thought yours was going to be nothing but a jokey book—a one-note immersion-journalism stunt in which you pin the tail on the fundies and Orthodox Jews, showing the absurdity of the Bible by acting out its strangest parts. (There are many strange parts, and in the interest of running up the score on my Jewish brothers and sisters, I would point out that they’re mostly in the Old Testament.) Wherever did I get that idea? Perhaps from the book’s cover, on which you sport a beard that looks like you’re Rick Rubin or that dude from the Oak Ridge Boys, wearing a white robe with a rope belt, holding stone tablets in one hand and a Starbucks cup in the other.
There are, to be sure, tons of entertaining misadventures. You visit an Amish community, only to be told an Amish joke by a guy named Amos. You hang with rowdy Lubavitchers, who pound Crown Royal and dance the pogo. You alienate your wife while observing Leviticus’ injunction against lying on a bed where a menstruating woman has lain. You contemplate the Bible’s most perplexing rules, such as Deuteronomy’s instruction to always make certain, if you’re in a fistfight and your opponent’s wife grabs your private parts, to cut off her hand without pity.
But you get well past the weirdness, too. At heart, this is a seeker’s book, a doubter’s odyssey. Like most of the best books of the Bible, such as Job and my absolute favorite (and yours), Ecclesiastes, it’s a book about an athletic contest: trying to wrestle God to the ground. Agnostics and atheists tend to think that believers never doubt, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Even Jesus doubted God at Gethsemane, and, according to Christian theology, He is God. If Jesus can doubt Himself, I’m not going to beat myself up for doing the same on occasion.
This vein lends a paradoxical edge to your book. In my experience, most people I know who fall away from religion do so because they are put off by legalism and dogmatism. You, who grew up as a godless heathen, and never suffered any of that, seem to find solace in the almost comically legalistic sections of the Bible—the parts all but the most extreme believers threw on the discard pile centuries ago. It seems to focus you, to get you out of your own head, to provide something that occasionally approximates transcendence.
As a fellow journalist, I know what it’s like to become consumed by a story, to have it completely overpower you. Earlier this year, I spent a fair amount of time in New Orleans and for many weeks was utterly convinced that I was the 10th member of the Rebirth Brass Band, even though I’m white and can’t play an instrument. By the end of your story, you still claim to be an agnostic, albeit one who prays a lot. It has me wondering—can I believe your unbelief?