The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it. Nice slogan, but what if believing the Bible literally meant that you followed every rule of the Bible without interpreting the Bible at all?

A.J. Jacobs did just that. The man who spent one year reading through the entire Encyclopedia Britannica has now read the entire Bible and sought to keep every commandment in it for one year. He’s getting a book out of the experience (“The Year of Living Biblically”), but he got a lot more than that by trying to exactly keep the rules of the Bible every day for one year.

Most of us think of the Ten Commandments as the basic rulebook of the Bible, but a closer reading leads to even more scrupulous demands. Jacobs distilled a list of more than 700 rules he would try to obey completely. The task was arduous and the results mixed. What he learned is what anyone must learn when looking that closely at the Bible: You can take the Bible so literally that you don’t take it seriously.

The Bible is more like a library than a single book. Poetry as well as prose, narrative as well as law, indicative as well as imperative; you read the Bible rightly when you read it in the fashion it is written rather than in one, single way. You wouldn’t read a phone book like a poem or a recipe like a novel, so why would you read a book so rich in metaphor and history and prophecy and hymns and stories as if it were a simple rulebook?

Jacobs found much good about things like observing the Sabbath and giving to the poor. Things like these gave him a new or renewed reverence for the sacred in life, even though he remains agnostic about the existence of God. He ran into trouble with his wife in trying to build a biblical hut in his living room. And he didn’t get far trying to stone a self-confessed adulterer in a park.

We hear from time to time and from here and there the clarion call to get back to biblical morals. We usually call it the Judeo-Christian ethic. In general this is a good thing. Figuring out exactly what that is, however, is the harder part. Is it a list, like the Ten Commandments? Or is it a general principle, like the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”?

It takes work to decipher which rules of the Bible are culturally conditional and which are unchangeable human rules not to be challenged. Should women today all wear hats and remain silent in church, avoiding jewelry and sex with their husbands during the menstrual cycle? Men have to figure whether a diversified investment portfolio is prohibited by the rule not to plant two different seeds in a field, or if sharing leadership in the church with women is forever forbidden.

Honest and devout people of faith will differ on interpretation, even as they seek to live biblically. But living biblically will always end up living faithfully to the biblical summary that you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might; and love your neighbor as yourself. On these two – which Jesus called the one greatest commandment – hang all the law and the prophets.