Playing Pin the Tail on the Fundies

Dear Matt,

First, thank you for your offer to convert me.

As I was finishing my book, a business-savvy friend of mine suggested that I write three alternate endings.

1) I accept Jesus as my personal savior.
2) I become a tefillin-wrapping Orthodox Jew.
3) I become a disciple of Christopher Hitchens.

Then, I could sell the different versions in appropriate marketplaces—the Jesus version in the heartland, the Jewish one in Crown Heights, the Hitchens one in some godless terrain like Silicon Valley. It was an appealing idea. But some readers might have noticed, so I decided against it.

Second, at the risk of violating Psalm 12:3 (“May the Lord cut off all flattering lips”), I would like to return your compliments. Your writing on religion and culture is so funny and smart that I am filled with envy. Like this description of your Southern Baptist upbringing: “SBs, as we called ourselves, were steady and without pretense and highly egalitarian—yet still earthy enough to kick dirt on our charismatic, Pentecostal brothers, what with all their emotive pew-jumping and tongues-speaking. If we’d wanted people carrying on from the pulpit in languages we didn’t understand, the SBs reasoned, we’d have become Catholics.”

Third, thank you for not judging my book by its cover. (Incidentally, the cup of coffee I’m holding on the cover is not Starbucks. It is generic gourmet coffee from a generic gourmet coffee outlet. Just in case the Starbucks lawyers are reading this. Apparently, they are sensitive about that stuff.)

I’m delighted that you thought I went beyond the surface to look for deeper meanings and wrestle with the Bible. To be biblically honest, I had two simultaneous—and slightly paradoxical—motivations for the book.

On the one hand, I did want to play pin the tail on the fundies, as you put it. I wanted to show that taking the Bible too literally is a mistake. So, I became the ultimate fundamentalist and pushed literalism and legalism to the absurd extreme. I wanted to do a real-life version of that great e-mail allegedly sent to radio moralist Dr. Laura. In it, the writer thanks her for pointing out that the Bible condemns homosexuality in Leviticus. The e-mail then asks for her guidance on following some other biblical laws. How should he deal with pesky neighbors who complain when he burns a bull in the back yard? How much should he charge when he sells his daughter into slavery? Should he play football with gloves, since he can’t touch the skin of a dead pig?

At the same time, since I grew up a godless heathen, as you say, I wanted to take an earnest spiritual journey. I wanted to see if I was missing anything. I wanted to see what I could find in the Bible that might be relevant and enhance my life.

And that spiritual journey turned out to be a surprising one, as you point out. Yes, I could probably have anticipated some of the revelations. I could have predicted that an extreme moral makeover would be good for me and that I’d find something uplifting about trying not to covet or lie or gossip. I could have predicted that observing the Sabbath would be a beautiful thing.

But you’re right: What I didn’t see coming is how intrigued I became by the less famous biblical rituals and rules. The ancient and perplexing ones. The command not to wear clothes of mixed fibers. And all the food taboos, like the one that forbids eating fruit from a tree younger than four years old.

I think they fascinated me for several reasons. The rules dovetailed with my own mild obsessive-compulsive disorder (I think a lot of ritual-heavy religion has OCD tendencies—the obsession with repetition and purity and separation). As a Christian, what’s your take on the wackier of the Mosaic laws? Do you think they could have any benefit today?

I also began to see the beauty of freedom from choice. We all love to talk about freedom of choice. But there’s something very appealing about limiting your options. After my year was up and my biblically structured life came to a close, I felt unanchored, overwhelmed by choice.

And finally, I became less judgmental about the irrationality of rituals. As one astute reader pointed out, all rituals are irrational. Consider candles on a birthday cake. If a Martian saw Person X blow out candles on top of a cake and Person Y avoid wearing a shirt made of linen and wool, would the Martian be able to detect much of a difference in arbitrariness? As long as the rituals are enriching and not harmful or violent, maybe there’s nothing wrong with their irrationality.

As for your point about being consumed by the story, I think you’re right. I was consumed. My outward biblical behavior began to deeply affect my thoughts. Which also worries me. If I had prayed to Poseidon for a year, would I have found some benefits and connection to Greek polytheism? Would I now be sending my kid to a pre-K school that gives votive offerings to the sea?

By the end of the year, I had moved from my old agnosticism to what a minister friend of mine calls “reverent agnosticism”: Whether or not there is a God, I think there’s something to the idea of sacredness. The Sabbath can be sacred, rituals can be sacred, and there’s an importance to that.

Do you think there’s anything to the idea of being a “reverent agnostic”? Or is it just oxymoronic? And is an agnostic just an atheist without balls, as Stephen Colbert says?   

And by the way, of course I know what a pas kontuszowy is. I’m wearing one right now. I’m also listening to a ballad by Polish singer Jacek Kaczmarski about the multicolored pas kontuszowys produced in Sluck. It rocks.

Eat, eat,
A.J. Jacobs