"Where God Was Born: A Journey by Land to the Roots of Religion" by Bruce Feiler (William Morrow, $26.95).
With daily reports of suicide bombings in Iraq, never-ending violence between Israelis and Palestinians and Iran's nuclear threat, it can be hard to imagine the Middle East as the birthplace of monotheism and all the ethics and piety that implies. But this heritage is exactly what Bruce Feiler explores in his new book.
In it, Feiler writes of his travels to Israel, Iraq and Iran -- accompanied by various archeologists, theologians and historians. He tells the story against the backdrop of regional violence, interspersing observations on the Bible with descriptions of his bulletproof clothing. He shares his fear of being attacked and the very real danger of traveling on Iraqi highways. The book, in places, becomes an extreme travel memoir, depicting in lucid detail both risk and incredible cultural beauty.
Feiler spoke to The Journal by phone while taking a break from moving into his new Brooklyn home, which he shares with his wife and his 6-month-old identical twin girls.
Jewish Journal: Your new work follows on the heels of two that touched on consonant themes: "Walking the Bible, a Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses" (William Morrow, 2001) and "Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths" (William Morrow, 2002). What compelled you to write this new book?
Bruce Feiler: When I did "Walking the Bible," it was a very personal journey. [I wanted to know] were these stories real? Could I find the places where they took place? But between then and now religion no longer has the luxury of being personal. It has really become much more urgent, and much more a matter of life and death, it seems. Conflicts from Afghanistan to Iraq, and even in the United States, everything from the battle over the Ten Commandments to Terry Schiavo to gay marriage [all have to do with religion].
I recently read a Time magazine cover story from 1966 titled "Is God Dead?" that said religions was dead as an influence in world affairs, and would never return again. I wanted to figure out why religion was the dominant story in the world now. The idea was to go back to the roots of religion itself, and to ask: Is it tearing us apart or bringing us together?
JJ: How do you view the Bible -- as history? As a God-written manuscript?
BF: I view it as a story of how God and humans tried to develop a relationship with one another, and I believe that it had to contain great truth, and I think that it contains great meaning for life. I also believe it contains a wide variety of rhetorical techniques -- history, law, poetry, really boring filibusters, a kind of legislative tedium, legend, psalms....
One reason for the Bible's enduring power is that it is not a complete history. If you were turn it in to a newspaper editor, he would say, 'please go out and do more reporting.' What is left out is as important as what is put in. It invites each of us to enter the story.... Every generation can reinterpret it.
The story of Abraham sacrificing his son, for example. If you read that story on Sept. 10, 2001, and on Sept. 12, 2001, you would get a totally different understanding of it.
JJ: How so?
BF: The idea of killing in the name of God is introduced with Abraham, and that is just one story that seems very relevant to the times we live in today.
JJ: Do you think that the current Middle East conflict is a religious one or a political one?
BF: I think that it is primarily a geopolitical conflict, but that all sides use religion when they want to and ignore it when they want to. I don't believe that you can use the Bible to draw borders and solve political problems. It is not what it was intended for.
JJ: Do you think that the ancient cities you visited, such as Jericho in Israel, Nasiriyah in Iraq and Pasargardae and Persepolis in Iran, fostered ancient societies that were more religious than the current communities who live in them today?
BF: That is a very hard question to answer. On the one hand, religion infused ancient society. There had not been science and rationality, nor the enlightenment and modern technology, which have changed the way we experienced religion. And literacy was not as widespread.
When religion was being formed in the middle of the first millennium, great religions were being formed all over the world, and it is pretty clear that the great religions were in dialogue with one another and in dialogue with the cultures around them. And the idea that one religion had an exclusive claim to the truth, I don't think was a very widespread notion. I think that something that Christianity and Islam introduced into the world was that there can be one universal faith and everyone in the world will follow it. That has been a very destructive idea in the world in the past 1,000 years.
JJ: The history that you give of the Jewish people in "Where God Was Born," which comes from a literalist reading of the Bible, is one of a bellicose, combative nation of militants. Does it worry you that our ancient leaders, like King David, were so bloodthirsty? How do you reconcile these bloodthirsty heroes with their current canonization, which is something that is taught in most Hebrew schools and Jewish day schools?
BF: I kind of understand why day school teachers want to teach David as a hero, because young Jews are looking for heroes who are strong and stick up for themselves. But I would say that one of things I have learned about the Bible is that we don't have to accept the way we are taught. The stories are not black and white, and that is why they are interesting. One of the reasons that people don't like the Bible is because they talk about it the same way that they did when they were 5. The fact that David was a failed leader gives me a lot to think about, and that is interesting.
JJ: Tell me about your own Judaism -- how have the journeys taken in your last three books transformed your experience of faith?
BF: I have discovered a number of positive reasons to be Jewish, to balance off a lot of the negative reasons I heard when I was young -- such as the Holocaust, discrimination, Israel is imperiled. The question [I am interested in] is can the religions get along, and Judaism has a very powerful, positive message to contribute to that conversation. We can teach the Christians and the Muslims that it is OK if everyone doesn't agree with you, and it is OK not to impose your faith on others.
In the end, we all have to make our own relationship with God, that we can no longer accept what our politicians tell us, or our journalists tell us, or our parents tell us. We don't have to just accept what our religious leaders tell us either. Each of us has to make our own relationship with God.
Meet Bruce Feiler Oct. 25, 7 p.m. at Vroman's Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. For information, call (626) 449-5320 or visit www.vromansbookstore.com.