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Religions both establish and deny community. By attempting to say something that is universally valid, they potentially embrace the world. At the same time, the religions most conscious of their universalizing claims immediately become the rival, even the enemy, of every contrary claim. Thus we see the irony of religion. Without religion, no community with a catholic perspective takes shape. But with competing religions, community is imperiled. The world is both drawn together and split apart by the same force.
-A.J. Conyers, The Long Truce

Bruce Feiler has established a technique whereby he immerses himself in the life and settings of the stories he's writing about, which so far have included circuses, country music, and the Holy Lands of the Bible. So, on 9-11, when he watched from a Manhattan apartment as the Twin Towers came down, he decided to place himself at the center point from which the three great monotheistic religions had diverged, in order to try to understand why, hundreds and thousands of years later, the tensions between and among them remain so fierce as to motivate such monstrous acts of terrorism. He quickly determined that the "heart" of these three faiths lay in the story (stories) of Abraham:
The great patriarch of the Hebrew Bible is also the spiritual forefather of the New Testament and the grand holy architect of the Koran. Abraham is the shared ancestor of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He is the linchpin of the Arab-Israeli conflict. He is the centerpiece of the battle between the West and Islamic extremists. He is the father -- in many cases, the purported biological father -- of 12 million Jews, 2 billion Christians, and I billion Muslims around the world. He is history's first monotheist.

And he is largely unknown.

I wanted to know him. I wanted to understand his legacy and his appeal. I wanted to discover how he managed to serve as the common origin for his myriad of descendants, even as they were busy shoving one another aside and claiming him as their own. I wanted to figure out whether he was a hopeless fount of war or a possible vessel for reconciliation.

But where could I find him? Abraham, if he existed at all, left no evidence -- no buildings or rugs or love letters to his wife. Interviewing people who knew him was out of the question, obviously; yet half the people alive claim to be descended from him. The Hebrew Bible discusses his life, but so do the New Testament and the Koran -- and they often disagree, even on basic matters. Going to places he visited, as fruitful as that has been for me and for others, also has its limitations, because Abraham's itinerary changed from generation to generation, and from religion to religion.

I would have to design an unconventional journey. If my previous experience in the region involved a journey through place -- three continents, five countries, four war zones -- this would be a journey through place and time -- three religions, four millennia, one never-ending war. I would read, travel, seek out scholars, talk to religious leaders, visit his natural domain, even go home to mine, because I quickly realized that to understand Abraham I had to understand his heirs.
The result is as much a travelogue as a theological investigation and it succeeds on both levels. It is also an attempt, however tentative, to reconcile the three faiths by reference to their common heritage, and only time will tell if that endeavor is possible or whether it's noble but futile.

One of Mr. Feiler's greatest strengths is that he renders potentially dry materials in accessible language and contemporary imagery. For instance, at one point he compares Abraham's life story to the classic structure of film:
[A]braham's life would seem to fit the three-act model that Hollywood demands. Act one is his early life, climaxing in his call from God. Act two is his picaresque adventures on the road to Egypt and back, his growing frustration with God, the arrival of his son, and his dramatic sexual self-mutilation, which marks the culmination of his manhood but casts his potency in doubt. This sets up act three--the most action packed of all--on which Abraham is trapped in a deadly love triangle, confronts a life-or-death decision with his first son, then must make a similar gruesome choice with his second.

The dilemma, for Hollywood, is that for all the action involving Abraham, his women, and their sons, the real story of Abraham is actually closer to an old-fashioned buddy picture involving him and God. Two figures with nothing in common get pushed together under extreme circumstances and are forced to figure out a way, against their natural instincts, to cooperate in order to save the world.
By any measure, these are three of the great stories in all of human history and that they all concern the same man makes them all the more remarkable. Here are the three and then the story of Abraham's tomb, because it too plays a role in disputes between the religions:
Genesis 12

Genesis 16

Genesis 17

Genesis 18

Genesis 21

Genesis 22

Genesis 23

One can readily see in these stories why Abraham is so appealing and so important. Here is a man who bargains with God, who forces God into compromises, whose wife actually laughs ar God. Yet, at the same time, here is a man whose faith is so great that he is willing to venture out into the unknown or to prepare his own son as a sacrifice because God commands it. As Thomas Cahill notes in his excellent book, The Gifts of the Jews, the moment when Abraham goes forth, when he leaves his land, breaks what had been a cyclical and rather unchanging world, and turns Abraham and his people into explorers on a journey of discovery. In essence, it creates the idea of human progress. This may be as important as is the idea of monotheism itself.

What we also see here though are the beginnings of the divide between the monotheisms, as Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael away, and they become the people from whom the Arab Muslims hold themselves to be descended. Or consider how Abraham can be seen as a stand-in for God, and Isaac for Jesus, in the story of the sacrifice and how, by seeming to foretell the coming of Christ, it can be used to delegitimize the Jews who refused to accept Christ as representing the fruition of God's promises to Man. Or look at how you can build a case for Abraham as nearly a coequal of God, when he forces God into covenanting, or, exactly opposite, as utterly submissive to God, as when he binds Isaac.

It is these divisions, still with us after thousands of years, that Mr. Feiler hopes to reconcile by examining the life of Abraham. And to some degree Jews and Christians, though still divided on doctrine, have achieved a modus vivendi, with Jews living comfortably in America, the most Christian nation on Earth, and with Christians being some of Israel's strongest supports. But, as the events of 9-11 and the wave of suicide bombings in Israel over the past several years have demonstrated, the divide between Judeo-Christianity and Islam seems to be as vast as , or vaster than, ever. Here, from Mr. Feiler's appearance on Booknotes, is an account of the most chilling scene in the book:
LAMB: Who is Masud al-Fased (ph)?

FEILER: Masud al-Fased (ph) is this imam that I met deep in Jerusalem.

LAMB: What's an imam?

FEILER: An imam is a leader of a mosque. It is sort of a generic term, sort of like the term rabbi means teacher. It doesn't imply sort of a formal training and I told some Muslims that I know, some Palestinians in Jerusalem that I wanted to meet an imam. And I did this thing that in retrospect may not have been all that smart frankly, but I got into a car with some people I barely knew, drove deep into East Jerusalem, and spent an evening with this gentleman.

He was very cordial at first. He spent time in London. We spoke very eloquent English and we had this yogurt and cinnamon that was just divine actually and we talked about Abraham. Abraham loved God. He submitted himself to Allah and over time, as the conversation went along, it began to turn a little bit and he began to say that Abraham preferred Ishmail to Isaac and that the descendants of Ishmail, who of course are Muslims, worship God in the correct way and the descendants of Isaac do not.

And so, I said well wait a minute, are you saying to me that as a descendant of Isaac that I don't worship God correctly and he said yes and you're going to be punished. And I said well, what's going to happen to me? And, we're sitting just like we're sitting right now and he looked at me and he said, you'll die. I could think of nothing to say. He said you know I began to explore Hitler and I wondered why is it that Hitler loved the Jews so much that he would kill so many millions of Jews and it's because...

LAMB: But didn't he use another word? Didn't he use another word, grill?

FEILER: Oh yes, grill, right.

LAMB: Yes, he said why does Hitler love the Jews so much that he grilled them alive?

FEILER: And he talked about how there is a connection, he said, between Hitler and the prophets. The prophets in the Hebrew Bible said that the Israelites were not worshipping God correctly and that that's the same problem with the Jews today. And, it was this incredible outpouring of hatred in the most calm and relaxed setting I'd ever experienced.

LAMB: Let me read some more of what he said to you because it puts it in context of September 11th. "God gives you the opportunity to submit yourself to him and follow the rule of God but you ignore him because you have become strong." When he says "you" who is he talking about?

FEILER: I think he's talking here about Jews in particular controlling the media and these kinds of stereotypes.

LAMB: "You can deliver your message around the world. You can switch the mind of people. You do the opposite of what God wants. You open banks, sexual places, gambling, evil things. God gives you many chances but, of course, we know that you're not going to follow. And look what happened" he continued "his voice animated but hardly hostile." But hardly hostile you didn't feel a hostility?


LAMB: "He sent people very strong who kill themselves in order to kill you. This is something unbelievable what happened in America but it came from God."

FEILER: You can actually hear these kind of sentiments a lot actually around the Middle East and I was there and these conversations took place in December of 2001 when the event was still raw in people's minds and the kind of hatred and mythologies about the CIA did it, the Massad did it, all these things that we've all heard for so long were still very much in the air.

And, what was so startling to me about that whole conversation was how direct it was. You know it's not like they were going around behind my back saying these things about Jews and, by extension, when you talk about sexual places and things like that the general West, the Judao-Christian West, was that he was saying it to my face, that there was absolutely no reluctance to do that, and I began to think, what am I doing here? Have I been set up in some way? Is this - how am I going to get home?

And I will tell you, Brian, that my original instinct was don't tell anybody this happened. No one has to know. I haven't told my family that I went there. No one has to know. I'll just forget it. I'll erase the tape and I called a journalist friend of mine Yosi Klein Halevi and I said well, what am I going to do?

I mean here I am looking for Abraham and trying to find some message out there of reconciliation and he said you have to put it in. I said, well what do you mean? He said look you can find extremist Jews out there. You can find extremist Christians.

Certainly in Jerusalem there are many but the truth is that this is still a predominant, maybe even the mainstream view in this area at this time. And though you can find moderate voices out there, contrary to what you hear in the press, and as you know I then met some powerful moderate voices. At the same time, this is a powerful mainstream idea and you have to grapple with it.
Mr. Feiler helps us to see where this kind of extremist hatred came from and to understand it, at least a little. But as much as he aids our understanding, I'm afraid he leaves us little hope that any understanding is imminent, or even possible, between Islam and Judeo-Christendom. In the end the divergences from Abraham simply seem more powerful in the Middle East today than do the shared origins of the three great monotheisms in his remarkable life story. We may all be the children of Abraham, but we resemble nothing so much as Cain and Abel, and we know how the story of those brothers ended.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Bruce Feiler Links:

    -AUTHOR WEBSITE: Bruce Feiler
    -BOOK SITE: Abraham by Bruse Feiler (Harper Collins)
    -EXCERPT: Introduction to Abraham
    -EXCERPT: from Walking the Bible By Bruce Feiler: Chapter 1: In the Land Canaan
    -BOOKNOTES: Abraham by Bruce Feiler (C-SPAN, December 1, 2002)
    -ESSAY: The Bible: Myth or Truth?: The Holy Land. For many, a tourist destination. Now, view its mystical power in a new light: Journey on a quest for truth in this special sneak peek at the upcoming book "Walking the Bible". (Bruce Feiler, 3/11/01, USA Today Weekend Magazine)
    -Children of Abraham (Religion and Ethics, PBS)
    -INTERVIEW: Children of Abraham with Bruce Feiler (Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, NPR)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Abraham and Religious Conflict (Kojo Nnamdi Show, 10/09/02)
    -INTERVIEW: Faith and Culture: The Dick Staub Interview: Bruce Feiler (Christianity Today, November 25, 2002)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: with Bruce Feiler (The Fine Print, November 23, 2002, NPR)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: with Bruce Feiler (Diane Rehm, April 5, 2001, NPR)
    -INTERVIEW: A trip through the promised land (MARTIN BRADY, April 2001, Book Page)
    -INTERVIEW: Trekking the Holy Land: Bruce Feiler discusses his new book, Walking the Bible: A Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses (Online Newshour, 4/13/01, PBS)
    -INTERVIEW: An Interview with Bruce Feiler (Cheryl Harvey Hill,
    -PROFILE: Probing the Tale of Abraham, Uniter and Divider (DANIEL TREIMAN, SEPTEMBER 6, 2002, The Forward)
    -PROFILE: Seeking Abraham (Ann Stifter October 13, 2002, Savannah Morning News)
    -PROFILE: Shared kinship of religions a key to peace? (ELLEN KANNER, Oct. 16, 2002, The Miami Herald)
    -PROFILE: Author Bruce Feiler Recounts Personal Journey in Researching New Book Walking the Bible (Judy Epstein, Center for Learning and Leadership)
    -PROFILE: Country music theory put to test: Author looks at Wynonna, Garth -- and they're not happy (Jim Patterson, 5/31/98, Associated Press)
    -READING GROUP GUIDE: to Walking the Bible
    -READING GROUP GUIDE: to Abraham
    -ARCHIVES: "bruce feiler" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths by Bruce Feiler (Jane Lampman, Christian Science Monitor)
    -REVIEW: of Abraham (Bill Williams, Houston Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of Abraham (Scott Nelson, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW: of Abraham (David Klinghoffer, The Jewish Journal)
    -REVIEW: of Abraham (Eric Wargo, Book Magazine)
    -REVIEW: of WALKING THE BIBLE: A Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses by Bruce Feiler (Richard Bernstein, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Walking the Bible (Edward A. Gargan, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of Walking the Bible (Linda Giedl, CS Monitor)
    -REVIEW: of Walking the Bible (Daniel Mendelsohn, New York Magazine)
    -REVIEW: of Walking the Bible (SOLANGE DE SANTIS, Anglican Journal)
    -REVIEW: of Walking the Bible (Mike Mennard, Spectrum)
    -REVIEW: of Walking the Bible (Susan Jeffers, Spirit Restoration)
    -REVIEW: of Walking the Bible (Bruce Fellman, Yale Alumni Magazine)
    -REVIEW: of Walking the Bible (Caroline Fraser, Outside)
    -REVIEW: of Walking the Bible (BERNARD BASKIN, Canadian Jewish News)
    -REVIEW: of DREAMING OUT LOUD: Garth Brooks, Wynona Judd, Wade Hayes, and the Changing Face of Nashville By Bruce Feiler (Robert Christgau, Rolling Stone)
    -REVIEW: of Dreaming Out Loud (STEPHANIE ZACHAREK, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of Dreaming Out Loud (Leonard Gill, Memphis Flyer)
    -REVIEW: of Dreaming Out Loud (Matt Ashare, Boston Phoenix)
    -REVIEW: of Dreaming Out Loud (Martin Monkman, BackBeat)
    -REVIEW: of Dreaming Out Loud (Joshua Klein, Onion AV Club)
    -REVIEW: of Dreaming Out Loud (Jeremy Simon, The (Colorado Springs) Gazette)

Book-related and General Links:

    -ESSAY: Hajj, Feasts, and Pilgrimage: Why Muslims, Jews, and Christians still yearn for their holy places. (Steven Gertz, Christianity Today)
    -ESSAY: You don't need to believe in God to learn from religion: The common messages of Christianity, Judaism and Islam are too valuable to be ignored (Jonathan Freedland, The Guardian)