It's hard to say which is bolder—Bruce Feiler's writing or the travels that spark it—but Feiler's courage with pen and passport will roll down on anyone holding a copy of his latest book, Where God Was Born: A Journey by Land to the Roots of Religion.
Feiler, a Savannah native who has taken his Ivy League mind and Jewish background across the globe several times, is once again hammering away at God, faith, religion, violence, land—in short, anything that really matters.
Feiler first surveyed the Pentateuch with Walking the Bible: A Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses in 2001. He followed that with Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths in 2002 (a book that was also used to launch interfaith discussions across the country).
And now, in Where God Was Born, Feiler dissects the "moment" when several of the world's great monotheistic religions came into being and—importantly—drew from each other.
"Is there a place where faith and tolerance can live side by side?" asks Feiler. "In short, is religion just a source of war, or can it help bring about peace?"
Words like "war" and "peace" don't just flit off the page. They linger and bore themselves in as Feiler seeks his answers amid conflict in Israel, military operations in Iraq and remnants of revolution in Iran.
As in his earlier books, Feiler's methodology involves deep reading and researching beforehand, then journeying from country to country, Bible in hand, reading passages in the places where biblical events allegedly occurred, and talking to people at any given ground zero. Meaning, he hopes, will emerge.
Feiler is simply a master storyteller. His approach mingles diary, journalism, history and travelogue. His words are rimmed with the exquisite tension of his own understanding of what it means to be Jewish—both on and off the land the Lord God gives.
Lurking on nearly every page is a history lesson, an archeological discovery, or—perhaps most interesting to mainstream Christians—a new reading of an old text. Feiler's discussion of kings David and Solomon, for example, will rock a Sunday-school world.
Readers will rethink much of what lies between the Tigris and Euphrates, as well as the cultures, societies and understandings of God that developed beyond those channels. Just when you think Feiler can't top his explorations in and around Jerusalem, he does. Just when you think nothing could be more interesting than his poking around war-riddled Iraq, there is. And it comes with his visit—accompanied by his wife, Linda—to Iran.
Feiler's chronicle of religious life and history in Iran glues the eyes to the page. He juggles Cyrus the Great, Esther and many more personalities (both past and present) with expected skill, and when those pages run out, he offers a few conclusions, like:
- "We will only understand the threat that religious fundamentalism poses to the world if we understand that those fundamentalists read different versions of history."
- "The first conviction I took from my journey is that the only force strong enough to take on religious extremism is religious moderation."
- "But from the Exodus, through the Exile, to the diaspora, humans and God reach their most intimate moments when they are not on the land."
One of the book's thrusts is that the Bible focuses on community—both how humans commune with each other, and how they commune with God. Feiler illuminates these threads by focusing on the Hebrew prophets, rehashing their stories in fresh ways and using said stories to investigate big-picture religious assumptions and/or traditions—like the "portability" of God or the centrality of a sacred text.
I would take issue with what Feiler seems to identify as the central question for us all: Can the religions live together in peace? If Feiler's literal and figurative digging has unearthed truth, then religions can live side by side comfortably, but I'm unsure this should be the central question.
Can seems less relevant than will, and if the latter is more relevant, a more pressing question would seem to emanate from individuals' identification with religious systems that seem dead-set on making sure we don't all get along.
Quibbles aside, Where God Was Born is a splendid book that will provoke and enrich one's relationship with God. Exposing anything's roots is a dangerous business, but when it comes to religion, Bruce Feiler is definitely the right man for the job.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
Order Where God Was Born from Amazon.com.
Read our review of Abraham, our coverage of the Abraham salons, and our interview with Feiler in 2002.