For anyone who's forgotten that the events of the Bible happened in real places, Bruce Feiler is on hand -- and on location -- to remind them otherwise. He's also there for those who haven't forgotten -- for those who find joy, entertainment or even enlightenment in visiting these places through his books.
And now he's taken his biblical road show to television, through a miniseries airing this month on PBS.
The three-part "Walking the Bible With Bruce Feiler" follows the recent documentary trend of sending a charismatic host to a series of dangerous or hard-to-get-to places. Accompanied on occasion by archaeologists, scholars, Egyptologists, and theologians, Feiler tracks his way through places in the Middle East where the biblical stories of Genesis and Exodus are assumed to have occurred.
Feiler goes to Mesopotamia, to the lush shores of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the legendary location of the Garden of Eden. He also travels to Mount Ararat, the place that the Bible records Noah's Ark as coming to rest -- and speaks to a Turkish pasha-like figure who is cryptic about whether or not he found remnants of the ark itself. And he goes to the deserts where Abraham walked and into the Dome of the Rock, where Abraham supposedly put his son Isaac on an altar with the intent of sacrificing him to God.
He then journeys to Egypt to scale the pyramids -- and look at hieroglyphics that might have mentioned Moses. He also hops a ride on a decrepit Red Sea fishing boat, from where fisherman trawl for "Moses Fish" -- a flat flounder-like fish that is black on one side and white on the other. It is called Moses fish, the Egyptian fisherman tells him, because when Moses split the sea he also split the fish in half.
Even though the series was filmed within the past two years, it somehow conveys an ancient feel. Scenes are populated by Arabs wearing long robes and kaffiyehs, congregating in marketplaces where cows run amok. Feiler himself camps out in Bedouin tents (there are no five-star hotels in many of these locales) -- where he sleeps on the ground and kneels on a blanket to eat flat bread cooked by his hosts over an open fire. It all seems tremendously authentic, as if not much has changed in 5,000 years.
As a writer, Feiler is no stranger to this territory. In 1998 he set out on his first Bible-inspired adventure, trekking through ancient deserts, mountains, rivers and cities -- resulting in the best-selling book "Walking the Bible: A Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses," (William Morrow, 2001). That's the book on which the current series is based. He followed that up with two books of the same hybrid adventure-archeology-travelogue genre, "Abraham, a Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths" (Harper Perennial, 2004) and "Where God Was Born: A Journey by Land to the Roots of Religion" (Harper Collins, 2005).
For the PBS series, Feiler returned to some of the places he had written about, but this time, in September 2004, he was accompanied by a BBC film crew and American producer Drew Levin.
"I really feel that these [biblical] stories happened in real places, and the power of television is that it puts you in those places," said Feiler in an interview with The Journal from his house in Brooklyn. "For me, part of the goal of 'Walking the Bible' is to take the Bible out of those black covers and replant the story into the ground."
Feiler is not biblical scholar per se. It's more accurate to cast him as an intelligent, curious, educated, spiritual seeker who takes his readers -- and now his viewers -- on both a journey through Bible lore and his personal journey.
"When I set out, I was interested in scientific questions: Was this the actual rock or mountain [where the story took place]? I still find those questions fascinating [but] very quickly ... I became more interested in the meaning of the story," he said. "'Walking the Bible' is in some ways a reluctant spiritual journey."
Feiler "is not a trained scholar of the Bible, but that said, he nonetheless offers thoughtful insights into the biblical narratives," said Carol Bakhos, assistant professor of late antique Judaism at UCLA.
His "take you to where it happened" style has won a following among readers, and PBS is betting the allure will attract television viewers as well.
"We wanted to tell a story that would draw the audience into the region," said Levin. "What I am hoping will be the result of this production is that people will realize there is a place called the Bible, not just a book called the Bible."
The first episode of "Walking the Bible With Bruce Feiler" premiered Jan. 4 on KCET. Subsequent episodes will air on Jan. 11 and 18 at 8 p.m. Consult listings for replay times.