I first became fascinated by the multi-layered story of Abraham when I was studying theology in the early 90's. I found rich and intriguing nuance in the basic story I knew from the Sunday schools of my childhood, of how God promised Abraham that he would become the father of a throng of nations, though he and his barren, aging wife Sarah had long stopped hoping for children. I love this detail, for example: Sarah laughed and imagined herself the object of laughter when God promised her a child in old age — and so the name of the son she bore, Isaac, means in the Hebrew, "she laughed." Isaac became the father of Jacob, who became Israel.
And in those same passages of the Bible, I discovered the moving story I had never been invited to dwell on in Sunday School: of Abraham's first, earlier son, Ishmael, born of his Egyptian servant Hagar. She is banished by Abraham and Sarah and yet rescued in the Bible by God, who promises that Ishmael too will bring forth "a great nation." Ishmael became the ancestor of all Muslims.
I could not guess how resonant and relevant such a story could become to the deepest geopolitical realities of our world. Bruce Feiler is a cartographer of these new realities. A lifelong secular Jew, he had traveled to 60 countries but never been to the Middle East. Then in the late 1990's, he visited a friend in Jerusalem and was astonished to find the biblical stories attached to concrete places he could touch and see and feel. In March 2001, he published a life-changing, best-selling book, Walking the Bible.
Then in ways Feiler could not have foreseen, his discovery of the power of religious stories came to mirror a journey he believes American culture as a whole has been on, especially since 9/11. On that day, he watched the twin towers fall from the windows of his apartment in New York. And in the weeks that followed, as the questions began — Who are they? Why do they hate us? — he heard one name echoing: Abraham.
This crisis had at root to do, he sensed, with religions kindred by genetic spiritual ancestry but in the world at war. Feiler is blunt: the conflict between the "the Muslim world" and "the West" and Israel — a transposition of an age-old recurring conflict between Islam and Christianity and Judaism — is a family feud. And so Bruce Feiler first went looking for Abraham as a figure that might bring the world all together — a hero in the desert, a great oasis he could unveil to the world. But instead of a reconciler, he found hundreds of competing versions of Abraham and his meaning.
Feiler brings the biblical drama to life — and into the present — in many fascinating ways in our conversation, including this real-world story. One of his last journeys was a trip to Abraham and Sarah's tomb in Hebron, which today is the epicenter of Muslim-Jewish conflict. As he was there, he reflected on the Bible's haunting postlude to Abraham's story — in Genesis 25:9 — where Abraham's two sons Ishmael and Isaac, already leaders of opposing nations, come and stand side by side to bury their father together.
Today this is the site of a synagogue as well as a Muslim shrine that Muslims and Jews share. As Feiler tells it, "Jews and Muslims, they split the shrine and ten days a year each side gets unlimited access to it. It ain't pretty, but it does work. And maybe that's the model here. But what's important to me about that [biblical] moment is that they stand side by side. It doesn't say they hugged. It doesn't say they had dinner. It doesn't say they moved in and sat down and said, you know, 'Let's forgive.' And remember, Abraham had tried to kill each of them. To me, that is the model. And, again, the text seems to understand — predict, almost — where we're going to be so many thousands of years later. So it's not that the destination here is not some Esperanto mumbo jumbo of a giant religion. It's standing side by side and respecting that coexistence."
After Bruce Feiler's book on Abraham was released, Abraham study and action groups sprang up across the country. Feiler, his journey, and its resonance represent for me an enlivening paradox at the heart of the spiritual energy of our age — and the complex relationship spirituality and religion have in ways both good and bad. Even as people go back to ancient texts to find meaning the traditions haven't given them, they tend to rediscover the virtues the traditions themselves originally formed around. They rediscover the power of sacred text and story, the need for community to explore and live out these teachings, the power of ritual to commemorate them. Coming back to religion by first going around it, some are reinventing and invigorating its deepest virtues for new generations and a changed world.