Oh Lord

Living biblically for Christmas

I’m standing in Oxford Street. Hundreds of shoppers walk past me every minute. I try to catch they eye of the ones who come closest. But most have perfected the art of looking right through me – because I’m holding up a sign that reads: “Thou Shalt Not Covet.”

The tenth commandment: Thou Shalt Not Covet, is the one that most of us break most frequently. Indeed, the modern economy, which depends on constant growth, requires us to covet more or less ceaselessly. Christmas is peak coveting season – which is why I took my sign to Oxford Street, the belly of the beast.

After ten minutes, in which period my nose and fingers gradually turn to ice, I finally get a response to my biblical injunction. A man wearing a raincoat mutters through the side of his mouth as he passes close by: “Well done mate.”

It’s not much, but it helps. The life of a biblical prophet is hard and lonely. Just ask Jeremiah, who walked the streets with a yolk around his head to signify enslavement to the Babylonians. Or Isiah, who walked naked and barefoot for three years for similar reasons.

As a latter-day prophet of only a few days standing, I can’t hope to match those two, but I take satisfaction from this stranger’s muttered support. I decide to stop bossing and prohibiting for a while, in favour of something more constructive. I put away the tenth commandment and hold up instead a sign that reads: “Love Thy Neighbour”.

This one proves much more acceptable to the shoppers. A woman stops in front of me and declares, “Oh, that’s nice.”

If it hadn’t been for AJ Jacobs, none of this valuable and spiritually enriching experience would have occurred to me. In 2005, Jacobs, an agnostic, decided to devote a year of his life to living biblically – to spend 12 months trying to observe the 700 or so rules set out in the Old and New Testaments. Not just the obvious ones – the ten commandments, loving his neighbour – but also rules whose original meaning has been obscured, or which modern law has overtaken, such as (respectively) the prohibition on wearing clothes made of mixed fibres, and stoning blasphemers.

Having completed his experiment, Jacobs has now published a book, The Year of Living Biblically. This combines amusing accounts of his struggles to keep the more obscure rules with a surprisingly reflective and sincere expression of gratitude for the wisdom he gained – sometimes as a result of following those same rules.

For instance, Proverbs asserts that smiling makes you happy. As it turns out, psychology agrees: the theory of cognitive dissonance suggests that if you behave in a certain way, your beliefs will eventually change to conform to your behaviour. This could be taken further, Jacobs suggests: if you act like you’re faithful and God loving, you might actually turn out to be.

In the week before Christmas, I decided to give it a go.

I’ve not been confirmed, nor even baptised. I have attended church, occasionally, for weddings and funerals, but my understanding of the Bible largely stems from studying English literature – and from the feature-length dramas which used to appear on TV at Easter and Christmas.

I did flirt, briefly, with religion as a child. It happened one rainy afternoon, when I was seven, after I’d watched some film about a nun. I formed a steeple with my hands and asked God to supply me immediately with a new toy – or other outward sign of His existence. Nothing occurred.

My lack of faith, though common, is untypical. Almost 4m British Christians regularly meet for worship. That’s only a small proportion of the 39m who call themselves Christians, but still more than all professed Hindus, Jews, Muslims and Sikhs put together. Christianity remains strong: the queen is Supreme Governor of the Anglican church, and – in England and Scotland– this fact confers on Christianity the status of established religion.

But these facts have had less impact on me than Professor Richard Dawkins. It’s almost entirely down to the atheist polemicist that I’ve been drawn to religion recently. I’ve become increasingly fed up reading or listening to him bang on about God not existing. Well, the square root of minus one doesn’t exist either, but that doesn’t mean it’s entirely without interest, or indeed practical use. Dawkins pretends that everybody religious is either an idiot or dangerous, or both, but it’s bad science to ignore the evidence that most believers find religion a useful support in their efforts to be better, and don’t wish to be suicide bombers.

So I’m intellectually curious. But there are other reasons, if you want them, to follow the Bible’s teachings.

Specifically, chapter 28 of Deuteronomy, says that if you don’t, you shall be cursed in the city and in the field, cursed when you come in and cursed when you go out. The Lord will send vexation, make the pestilence cleave unto you, smite you with a consumption, and with the mildew. You shall not prosper. Locusts will consume the trees and fruit of your land. Your sons and daughters shall be given to another people and your eyes will fail with longing for them. You will fear day and night. You will become an astonishment, a proverb and a byword among all nations.

But what exactly does it mean to live biblically? I emailed an assortment of acquaintance for tips. Some seemed to think that avoiding modern conveniences would do the trick. “Write your emails in stone… by candlelight,” said one.

Another drew up a long list of prohibitions. “No deodorants – you can spray frankincense if you get a bit whiffy. No potatoes. No underpants.”

Several thought it necessary to re-enact biblical behaviour. “You could try insisting that your hosts at parties wash your feet when you arrive. Might prove challenging, but worth trying.” I have some friends coming on Saturday night. I’ll offer to wash their feet instead.

Several suggested I should try to sleep in a stable. West Hampstead police station has stables. I phoned them to ask whether it might be possible to stay one night. The man who answered the phone was extremely polite but said no. Would it make a difference that the person in question promised to live biblically, so obviously wouldn’t be breaking any of the ten commandments? Alas, the horses might break out, and there were health and safety requirements to observe, because of the insurance. “I understand the motivation,” he said, “and you have my sympathy” – but then the line went dead. I hoped he’d not fallen into Satan’s hands.

One friend, in the diplomatic service, had little to offer in the way of advice, just this rather unbiblical boast: “By the way, I ain’t living biblically, I got loads of totty on me case doing the let’s-try-to-seduce-the-married-bloke thing; but I am doing what the FCO does in unclear situations…nothing.”

I was glad he’s doing nothing, because if he committed adultery I might need to stone him.

Jacobs set out to stone adulterers in Manhattan but realised this would get him into trouble. His solution was to use very small pebbles and to drop them as if by accident on the adulterer’s shoe. It didn’t work. He encountered an elderly adulterer who, realising what Jacobs was up to, snatched his stones and hurled them back.

Jacobs works on Esquire magazine, which tends to involve working with pictures of scantily clad women. He developed several strategies for dealing with lustful thoughts. First, imagine that the object of those thoughts is simply beyond your grasp. Second, think of her as if she were your mother. (“More effective than strategy one, and more disturbing,” he says.) Third, recite Bible passages to distract yourself. Fourth: do not objectify. Think of her as a complete person. Imagine her childhood, her favourite novel, whether she uses a PC or Mac.

Over the course of a year, these strategies had an unexpected effect. “I figured it would get more and more difficult to suppress my sexuality,” Jacobs reports, “like water building up behind a dam. But it’s more like my sex drive has evaporated.”

Elsewhere, Jacobs writes of the loneliness of not being allowed to touch his own wife for a week after she’s had her period. But he justifies the purity laws that forbid this. It’s not misogynistic, he says, it’s an expression of reverence for life – or rather, a way to respect the ending of life. “When a woman has her period, it’s like a little death. A potential life has vanished.” His wife is unimpressed. On learning that he is not allowed to sit on chairs she has sat on during the seven days she’s unclean, she wilfully sits on every seat in the house.

Mercifully my own wife’s period was two weeks ago. (She never expected to see that in print.)

More enjoyable for Jacobs and his wife alike was his attempt to keep the Sabbath. (A “school’s out for summer” feeling every week.) The strictest keepers of the Sabbath are orthodox Jews, for whom 39 different types of work are off-limits, including cooking, combing and washing. “You can’t tear anything,” Jacobs explains, “so toilet paper must be pre-ripped earlier in the week.”

Does writing for the Sunday Times break the Sabbath? I hope not. My own work finishes long before Sunday – but to cover myself against other infractions I set aside half an hour to pre-rip loo paper.

Speaking biblically requires a total switch in the content of conversation: no lying, no complaining, no gossiping. (The rabbis compare gossip with murder.) For me, this is not a huge problem. I work at home, so there’s nobody to lie or complain to, most of the time, or gossip about.

When it comes to swearing, I decided some time ago to say things like crikey and even cripes. This has now become second-nature, and I really feel less angry as a result. This has certainly been Jacobs’ experience, since he started to say “fudge”. “It sounds so folksy, so Jimmy Stewartish and amusingly dorky, that I can’t help but smile. My anger recedes.”

On Wednesday, I decided to spread the Gospel by showing my four-year-old daughter highlights of Jesus Christ Superstar, the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, on video.

I kept the remote close to hand: tough-minded parents might think she’s old enough to watch a crucifixion, but I don’t. She’s scared enough when a giant snowball blocks the railway tracks on Postman Pat.

Early on, there was a crowd scene with lots of hosannas and cheerful waving of palms. “Why are they so excited about Jesus?” Nancy asked, perfectly reasonably. Alas, the hosannas were soon intercut with a song from the Pharisees which concludes: “Jesus must die.”

Nancy’s obsessed with death, and wanted to know how the naughty black-hat people were going to bring it about. I wished I hadn’t started this. The questions were endless. “Did they make him die or was he just an old man?” No, I’m afraid he wasn’t an old man, he died when he was quite young. “Is he going to die now?” No, he dies a bit later.

When Jesus smashed up the bazaar in the temple I was at a loss to explain. “It’s because you’re not meant to do shopping in temples,” I offered lamely. “Why do you not do shopping in the temple?” Nancy asked. Silence.

Before any actual duffing up begins – let alone the crucifixion – I stopped the film. I told Nancy I don’t want her to watch people hitting other people. The next morning her first words to my wife are a request that they watch the Jesus film together because she wants to show her the bit where the naughty people hit Jesus. What have I done?

It’s time for a spot of prayer. But the words don’t come easily. I sing Morning Has Broken several times, hoping I’m loud enough to bring cheer to my neighbours. Remembering school assemblies, I dig out my old treble recorder, which I’ve not played since I was about 10. Even without written music, I find I’m able to remember the fingering. A miracle!

Half-way through his Bible project, Jacobs came to the conclusion that he was “trying to fly solo on a route that was specifically designed for a crowd”. He had missed out on the feeling of belonging, a key part of religion.

Not so very long ago, as it happens, I carried out my own experiment addressing exactly that feeling of belonging. I spent six months sampling a variety of different Christian denominations, to see which, if any, might appeal to me.

The denominations I sampled were diverse: variously with or without clergy, hymns, musical accompaniment, fine clothes, incense, a broad ethnic and social mix, and transubstantiation – in short, a greater range of Christian experience than many practising believers try.

I worshipped with the Wee Frees in Scotland, and the Church of England in Somerset. Then, realising that I was not daring to try churches that could ever really keep me (a Londoner) I stayed in my home city to sample various others.

I also left behind my notebook, because I feared that I was using it as a kind of armour. And I threw myself into whatever was required: at a Pentecostal church I sang at the top of my voice, palms raised towards the ceiling as if to catch a beach ball. I even fluttered my finger tips, like Al Jolson.

I was given huge encouragement by the many people I met.

“Everything around us is designed to make us selfish, and lie, and think of ourselves first,” a Mormon bishop told me. “But we say, no!, I’m going to love my neighbour and look out for outcasts and the underprivileged. As you do that, you become extremely happy.” He later put this to the test, inadvertently, by introducing me to a man whose hand, I noticed after shaking it, smelled of poo. I regret that I did not become extremely happy.

Another time, I went out with a pair of Mormon “elders”, aged 20 and 24, as they tried to strike up conversation with strangers on the street and public transport.

They were almost constantly rebuffed. People usually turned away when they identified themselves as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. “Around about the ‘Jee-’ of ‘Jesus’,” one said (though I thought it might be as early as the “Chu-” in “Church”). But they didn’t seem the least bit sorry for themselves.

At St Etheldreda’s, a Catholic church in Holborn, Father Kit Cunningham talked to me about Original Sin. The Mormons had been oppressively upbeat; this, to me, was going too far the other way. How about accentuating the positive?

After the Quaker meeting, over coffee, several individuals asked me how I’d liked it. To one, I said truthfully that I’d enjoyed it, and would happily come again – as indeed I did – but that I didn’t believe in God. His answer surprised me: “Oh, well, that doesn’t necessarily matter.”

Would following the Bible make things clearer? Not necessarily. “How can the ethically advanced rules and the bizarre decrees be found in the same book?” Jacobs asks. “And not just the same book. Sometimes the same page. The prohibition against mixing wool and linen comes right after the command to love your neighbour. It’s not like the Bible has a section called, ‘And Now for Some Crazy Laws’.”

Worried that he was devoting too much attention to the weird parts, and neglecting the goodness and justice, he took advice from a rabbi. “Try to make everything you do measure up to the moral standards of the prophets,” he was told.

Hoping to do that myself, and conscious of the need to love my neighbour, I collared the vicar at my local church after the candle-lit carol service last Sunday. I asked him if I could join the board of the old people’s home at the end of my garden. It was a busy week for vicars, but he promised to make the arrangements in January.

And what about prayer? I’d been avoiding this, or pretending that singing, or playing recorder, was sufficient.

Jacobs had difficulty too, initially, but gradually found himself looking forward to prayer sessions. “Prayers are moral weight training – ten minutes in which it’s impossible to be self-centred.”

He learned to say “God willing” whenever making a reference to the future – that is, about 80 times a day. His mother said he sounded like somebody who sends videos to Al Jazeera. “But I find it a profound reminder of the murky instability of the future.”

Being somewhat obsessive compulsive, Jacobs got carried away with thanksgiving. “I’m muttering to myself, ‘Thank you… thank you… thank you.’ It’s an odd way to live. But I’ve never before been so aware of the thousands of good things, the things that go right every day.”

Seeking guidance on prayer, I called some of the big churches and told them I was living biblically.

Perhaps surprisingly, a spokesperson for the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster failed to recommend any of the more outlandish stuff: she said nothing about foregoing deodorant, or potatoes, or underpants.

“It’s not about eating locusts but looking at your heart. That is what makes you happy. You won’t want to stop after a week. This gives you a deep sense of peace and happiness in the long term.”

She said, gratifyingly, that advent was the perfect time to carry out my project. “We are all looking at how we lead our lives, in preparation for Christ’s birth.

“The heart of the Christian life,” she said, “is to love God and your neighbour.” In practice, this means setting aside time to worship, say sorry for mistakes, thanks for the good stuff, and ask for help for people who need it.

“You can pray on your own or in church. You don’t need to follow particular words. The heart of it is to talk to God and share what is on your mind. And listen.”

What, for a voice?

“Be open to the Lord’s nudging and guidance.”

As for loving my neighbour, this means treating others as I would like them to treat me – the Golden Rule. Treat them with kindness and truth, particularly the poor and the suffering.

But I should not be proud in my heart and think myself better than anybody. If I do a good thing, I shouldn’t boast about it. I should focus my mind on the example of Jesus Christ, and if that isn’t enough I could think too of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and my namesake the late Pope John Paul. “He particularly respected the dignity of all people.”

For balance, I found an Anglican website which provided a formula for prayer that uses our digits as prompts. The thumb reminds us to think of our closest friends and relations, the index finger points towards our teachers, the middle finger represents people with power, the ring finger reminds us of the powerless and the poor, and only finally with the little finger do we think of ourselves.

I had several goes at this, only rarely getting to the little finger to think of myself because I got so carried away thinking good thoughts for the teachers, and people in power.

One who came to mind most often was Richard Dawkins. I prayed for Dawkins a very great deal indeed. Always keeping in mind the Golden Rule, I prayed to God the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, to the prophets, to the Blessed Virgin Mary, to my namesake the late Pope, and for good measure to the square root of minus one. I called on them all to shower blessings on the professor, and bring him a Happy Christmas – whether he likes it or not.