The germ of the idea came from my own family: my uncle Gil. Or ex-uncle, to be exact. Gil married my aunt and divorced her a few years later, but he remains the most controversial member of our family. If the rest of my relatives are ultrasecular, Gil makes up for it by being, quite possibly, the most religious man in the world. He's a spiritual omnivore. He started his life as a Jew, became a Hindu, appointed himself a guru, sat for eight months on a Manhattan park bench without speaking, founded a hippie cult in upstate New York, turned into a born-again Christian, and, in his latest incarnation, is an ultra-Orthodox Jew in Jerusalem. I may have missed a phase -- I think he was into Shinto for a bit. But you get the idea.
At some point along his spiritual path, Gil decided to take the Bible literally. Completely literally. The Bible says to bind money to your hand (Deuteronomy 14:25), so Gil withdrew three hundred dollars from the bank and tied the bills to his palm with a thread. The Bible says to wear fringes on the corners of your garment (Numbers 15:38), so Gil bought yarn from a knitting shop, made a bunch of tassels, and attached them to his shirt collar and the ends of his sleeves. The Bible says to give money to widows and orphans, so he walked the streets asking people if they were widows or orphans so he could hand them cash.
About a year and a half ago, I was telling my friend Paul about Gil's bizarre life over lunch at a sandwich shop, and I had my epiphany. That's it. I needed to follow the Bible literally myself. I needed to do it for several reasons.
First, since the Bible requires me to tell the truth (Proverbs 26:28), I must confess that part of the reason is to write this book. A couple of years ago, I came out with a book about reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica , all of it, from A to Z -- or more specifical, from a-ak (East Asian music) to Zywiec (a town in southern Poland known for its beer). What could I do next? The only intellectual adventure that seemed a worthy follow-up was to explore the most influential book in the world, the all-time best seller, the Bible.
Second, this project would be my visa to a spiritual world. I wouldn't just be studying religion. I'd be living it. If I had what they call a God-shaped hole in my heart, this quest would allow me to fill it. If I had a hidden mystical side, this year would bring it out of the closet. If I wanted to understand my forefathers, this year would let me live like they did, but with less leprosy.
And third, this project would be a way to explore the huge and fascinating topic of biblical literalism. Millions of Americans say they take the Bible literally. According to a 2005 Gallup poll, the number hovers near 33 percent; a 2004 Newsweek poll put it at 55 percent. A literal interpretation of the Bible -- both Jewish and Christian -- shapes American policies on the Middle East, homosexuality, stem cell research, education, abortion -- right on down to rules about buying beer on Sunday.