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A sinner of biblical proportions

I often used to wonder what I’d go to hell for. Not giving my money to the starving and homeless? Eating animals? Dumping girlfriends? Being a journalist? Then I checked out the Bible and realized how capricious God is: He’s down with slavery, slaughtering children during war and turning people to salt for pitying gays who are being burned alive. I gave up riddling out what ticks off the Almighty.

A.J. Jacobs took the opposite tack. In order to better understand religion, Jacobs spent a year earnestly following every single rule in both testaments, as chronicled in his new book, “The Year of Living Biblically.” To find out just how hell-bound I am, I got Jacobs to take me out for an afternoon in New York and note my every sin.

We went to lunch at the Hawaiian Tropic Zone, where we were served by bikini-clad models. Just eating there, I figured, we would violate several Old Testament rules and probably some New York health codes.

It took six seconds for me to break my first biblical law. The hostess told us about the swimsuit pageant happening that night, and I made a classic dad joke: I offered to model. Jacobs informed me that lying and mockery were clear violations (Proverbs 6:17 and Ephesians 4:29). “If you really want to be safe, mean what you say and say what you mean,” he said. If Jacobs has a problem with mocking people, I fear he is not particularly going to enjoy this column.

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As soon as I sat down, Jacobs shook his head, informing me that it was likely that a menstruating woman sat there recently or -- more likely, considering our surroundings -- a man who hadn’t bathed since last spilling his seed. Either way, sitting there was very bad, according to Leviticus 15:16-20. For a year, Jacobs carried a fold-up chair with him to sit anywhere in public, a trick he probably discovered after starting a dozen or so awkward conversations with: “You seem kind of bloated and irritable. Anything going on you want to talk about?”

Because I was on vacation, I hadn’t shaved in five days, which worked to my advantage. Shaving, according to Leviticus 19:27, was very bad. Jacobs didn’t shave for a full year. I was also fortunate in that there’s nothing in the Bible that expressly forbids looking like a 16-year-old gas station attendant.

I was sure I’d rack up major hell points lusting after the bikinied waitresses, but I wasn’t bold enough to gawk up close. I only got busted for brief ogling at a distance. Also, to my surprise, even though it was loud, Jacobs has found nothing in the Bible against rock music, not even AC/DC.

However, the Hawaiian Tropic Zone did pose an unexpected threat, thanks to Leviticus 20:23. “It does say in the Bible that you should not take the customs of other cultures,” Jacobs said, to which I countered that 1980s suntan lotion ads were not a culture. But my iced tea was tainted; there was no way to be sure that the lemon slice was from a tree at least 5 years old (Leviticus 19:23-25). And, by complimenting me on refraining from sacrificing a goat to the Phoenician god Molech, Jacobs tricked me into saying “Molech” (a violation of Exodus 23:13), which he found hilarious. The Bible, it turns out, is much like other long books, in that reading it apparently turns you into a huge dork.

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I sinned by using a credit card (taking on debts, per Romans 13:8), not giving thanks after -- not before -- my meal (Deuteronomy 8:10), telling the waitress that “I’ll have the burger” without adding “God willing” (James 4:13-15) and “cursing the ruler of thy people,” George Bush (Exodus 22:28). The Republicans should focus more on that Scripture instead of putting so much emphasis on Leviticus and sodomy.

But Jacobs was only truly appalled when I told the waitress that yes, thank you, I enjoyed the burger. “That was terrible!” Jacobs yelled. “That was a flat-out, bald-faced, dishonest fib. Proverbs say that people appreciate frankness more than flattery.” He wouldn’t let it go, mimicking me with a very squeaky, high-pitched tone that I’m sure Leviticus has something to say about. “‘The burger’s good! Oh, it’s dee-licious!’”

At the end of the meal, I asked Jacobs what I was going to go to hell for. “It’s your evil tongue,” he said. I had apparently “slandered” (Leviticus 19:16) the guy who created the 43 Folders organization system by calling him “crazy” even though I know nothing about him, and I made fun of Miss Teen South America. Plus, even though he didn’t know it, I was scribbling notes about Jacobs’ irritating moral superiority.

Having broken 15 biblical rules by the end of the meal, I was actually feeling kind of bad about myself. “The lesson I learned is that you’re going to break laws every 30 seconds, no matter how hard you try,” Jacobs said. And the weird part is that his constant failure has made him more religious -- each sin a little reminder to act better.

As we were walking up 7th Avenue away from the worst burger I ever ate (that did feel good), a man approached us. “I made these for you,” he said, offering a bumper sticker that said: “Believe Jesus. Love one another. 1 John 3:23.” I looked to Jacobs for guidance. But the Bible didn’t have a ruling on this, he said, so I was completely on my own. Which is the one thing I knew before our lunch.

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jstein@latimescolumnists.com


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