The book I chose to review is Abraham: a journey to the heart of three faiths by Bruce Feiler. Feiler is an interesting author for scholarly books, in that his work is not bound by traditional scholastic guidelines. Rather than studying about something in an educational setting, Feiler immerses himself in an experience. He has written about religious and secular topics, but is best-known for his books on religious topics. In addition to working as an author, he is the writer/presenter of the PBS miniseries Walking the Bible, which is based on his book of the same name. Abraham is one of his most highly critically-acclaimed books and received an unusual amount of attention for a religious-based, non-fiction book. Not only did it become a New York Times bestseller, but it was also featured on the cover of Time Magazine. In the post 9-11 era, many books explored the relationship between the three major Abrahamic religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, and Feiler's was one of the first works to try to emphasize the common background shared by those three seemingly different religions.
Abraham reads a little bit like a history mixed with a travel guide. In it, Feiler goes to the Holy Land, which is still hotly contested, with all three major religious groups seeking some type of control over an area that plays a critical role in the religious history of the groups. Using his experience traveling through the area, Feiler meets with important people of all three religions and asks them for their opinion about Abraham's influence on their religion. However, he also records his observations about the secular and religious events that he sees while making this journey. Most people are aware that the modern Middle East is plagued by war in multiple locations, but Feiler makes it clear that these wars are literally being fought on Holy Land, and many of them are ostensibly religious-based. He discusses the cultural oddities that he finds in each of these countries, and also the suspicious way in which he, a foreigner, is greeted in many of these lands. Feiler notes that, even though there is solemnity to many of these holy sites, particularly in Jerusalem, it is impossible to escape the inter-religious bickering; there is a constant threat that someone will deface or defile a holy site from another religion.
In all of these discussions, Feiler tries to introduce Abraham as he is recognized by all three religions, and as he is characterized by each religion. What is fascinating is that this man who is seen as a significant patriarch in these religions was not a man that one would call unequivocally good. Feiler reminds the reader that Abraham did some things that make his morality seem very questionable; he abandoned his aging father, exiled his first son, tried to kill his second son, and fought a world war. Abraham lacks the moral certitude that exemplifies other religious patriarchal figures, and Feiler examines Abraham's humanity in contrast to God's perfection and the seeming perfection of some later figures. He focuses a significant amount of attention on Abraham's two women: his wife, Sarah, and the concubine, Hagar, and how those relationships impacted Abraham's relationships with his sons Isaac and Ishmael. This is a very interesting discussion, since the conflict between modern Jews/Christians and Muslims can literally be traced to the fact that they descended from different sons of Abraham. Moreover, he delves into the heated division between Christians and Jews, which seems even more difficult to understand than any religious issues with Muslims. However, Feiler suggests that studying Abraham can help explain these divisions, since "the deterioration of the relationship between Jews and Christians can be seen as vividly as anyplace else in their rivalry over their shared father" (Feiler, 2002, p.137).
Finally, Feiler really examines the role that the loss of a child plays in all three of these major monotheistic religions. "All three monotheistic faiths force their adherents to confront the most unimaginable of human pains: losing a child. The binding, the crucifixion, and the dhabih -- often viewed as distinguishing the monotheistic faiths -- actually belie their shared origins" (Feiler, 2002, p.108). He focuses on how the binding of Isaac is interpreted by these faiths. He also challenges the reader to wonder why child sacrifice becomes such a predominant theme in those religions.
Although I had previously engaged in a fairly extensive comparative study of these three religions, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I learned things from reading Feiler's book. Oddly enough, I had never encountered the story of the accidental discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls by a wandering shepherd boy. To discover that this leather could have been used for shoes and the significance of the discovery never revealed helped me realize how much of what modern society knows about history has been learned by happenstance. Moreover, their discovery was relatively recent. It made me wonder whether there are more, equally impressive, discoveries out there, waiting to be uncovered.
One of things I disliked about Feiler's book is that he seemed to assume that people in the Holy Land were somehow more holy than other people, an idea which seems contradicted by Abraham's life. Discussing the Dead Sea Scrolls, Feiler says, "This is the essence of the Abrahamic religions- taking ancient texts and making them timely and timeless, a process that is more vividly apparent in this community than anyplace else" (Feiler, 2002, p.115). However, that statement seems very dismissive of the active and thriving religious communities in other locations around the world. In fact, it would seem that living in a place where religious strife was not a day-to-day occurrence might actually foster a greater appreciation for ancient texts and permit them to be applied in a timely manner without the injection of modern-day grievances. For example, while the Jewish/Muslim clash in Israel may be thousands of years old, the pain that a Palestinian youth who has lost a friend to Israeli Jewish violence or vice-versa is a new grievance, which could poison modern interpretation.
The book also taught me a new perspective on Abraham. While I was familiar with Abraham's story, I honestly had not given it an extensive amount of thought in the past. Instead, I viewed Abraham as a type of untouchable patriarch. When Feiler discussed Sheikh Yusef Abue Sneina's view of Abraham, I learned to think about him in a different way. Sheikh Sneina said, "God didn't just choose Abraham…He tested Abraham. Abraham had problems with the king who worshipped idols, he had problems with his wife, he was old before he had children, God asked him to sacrifice his son. And every time he submitted to God. He was completely devoted to God. This is an example we all have to follow" (Feiler, 2002, p.162). Realizing Abraham's humanity and the challenges that he faced help me humanize him.
The book taught me about the pervasiveness of war in the Middle East. I knew it was a worn-torn area, and I do watch the news, but I had no idea that violence was so common place. For example, when Feiler describes his trip to Hebron, I had not heard of it. Therefore, his description of Hebron as "one of the deadliest cities on the planet, the epicenter of Muslim-Jewish warfare" was a surprise to me (Feiler, 2002, p. 189). His description of Israeli and Palestinian snipers shooting at each other Blood Road opened my eyes to the fact that inter-faith violence is a daily occurrence and a very real threat for the people living in that area, something I really did not understand in any way other than an abstract intellectual manner.
Feiler also introduced me to the idea of multiple Abrahams. Obviously, I was aware that different faiths had different interpretations of Abraham. However, like Feiler, I thought that the religious leaders of the three faiths would be more rigid in their approach to interpreting Abraham. Instead, like Feiler, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that these religious leaders seemed quite accepting of the idea that there was room for all of the different versions of Abraham and that these competing versions of Abraham were not a threat to any of the religions.
The final thing I learned from the book was that Abraham was not Jewish. Reading Scripture, I must have been aware of that fact, but it was something that was never in the forefront of my consciousness. However, Feiler links the fact that Abraham is not Jewish to the reason he was chosen as a critical figure in the newly founded Christian church as the first apostles reached out to the first non-Jews to teach them the gospel. It never occurred to me that Abraham was used as an example because he could demonstrate the inclusiveness of God's love, though the fact that he is linked to these three major religions probably should have had…