While Bruce Feiler did not invent the genre of religious nonfiction for the layperson, his works may be helping to reshape and revitalize it. With books such as WALKING THE BIBLE and ABRAHAM, Feiler has given readers works both intimate and well-researched. Blending biblical study, travelogue adventure and spiritual quest, his latest book, WHERE GOD WAS BORN, continues on the religio-literary journey to understanding the roots of Western religion and its contemporary manifestations.
Whereas in ABRAHAM Feiler set out to discover as much as he could about the biblical Abraham --- patriarch of Judaism, Christianity and Islam --- in this book he sets out to understand the geography of the Hebrew Bible from ancient quests and kingdoms to modern landmarks and battlefields. Here, as in other books, Feiler talks with both erudite scholars and everyday people about religion, biblical interpretation and culture. This particular journey takes him back to the Middle East, now after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a time when religious and political tensions run high. Yet he manages to find common ground --- the common stories and the essential themes and places shared by the three monotheisms in the face of so many violent and long-standing differences
In WHERE GOD WAS BORN, Feiler's guide is the second and third parts of the Hebrew Bible, the Prophets and Writings. However, much of his journey relies on the geography of the first five biblical books as well. He starts in Israel, looking for traces of King David. This takes him to David's hometown of Bethlehem where he meets one of only 100 remaining Palestinian Christians living there. He learns that David would have used a sling, not a slingshot, to slay Goliath if in fact he can be credited with that deed at all. Feiler struggles with the character of David, a flawed hero to be sure, before moving on to explore the nature of the Israelite kings and their accomplishments and legacies.
Next, Feiler travels to war-torn Iraq in search of the Garden of Eden, the birthplace of Abraham and scene of the Babylonian Exile --- the event that gave rise to rabbinic Judaism. In Iraq Feiler talks religion with American soldiers and Muslim tour guides who all acknowledge the same sacred places. Then he travels, along with his wife, to Iran to examine the figure of King Cyrus, the Bible's first messiah, and wrestle with the complicated tale of Queen Esther. Finally, Feiler returns to Israel and confronts his own mixed feelings while standing at Jerusalem's Western Wall.
Everywhere he goes Bruce Feiler meets interesting people with a variety of religious beliefs and opinions. This diversity of belief, as well as the footprints of all the archeologists, scholars and seekers who came before him, challenges and ultimately strengthens his Judaism.
Part academic endeavor, part storytelling and part spiritual meditation (and therefore planting it firmly in Jewish textual tradition), WHERE GOD WAS BORN is open-minded, ecumenical and factual, as well as quite personal. Without seeming preachy, Feiler is ultimately able to suggest that the power of religion should be channeled to overcome differences in favor of tolerance and respect.
Perhaps less successful than ABRAHAM, it is still remarkable and timely, ambitious and readable.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 24, 2011