Travel to the Center

Book cover
Where God Was Bornby By Bruce FeilerWilliam Morrow. 405p $26.95

Bruce Feiler is one American determined to find meaning in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the war in Iraq—and he does it in one of the most dangerous places on earth. As a follow-up to his Walking the Bible (2002), Feiler returns to the Middle East to answer the question: “Is religion merely tearing us apart, or can it help bring us together?” Where God Was Born is the product of his search.

Secularism, he says, has proved incapable of bringing peace to the world, as the millions killed in the 20th century attest. Fundamentalism, however, has given way to those who promote religious war. As a travel writer with a heart and soul for the lifeblood of other lands, Feiler guides readers through the volatile countries of Israel, Iraq and Iran, which for most Americans remain an enigma.

Readers will find Feiler a trustworthy and honest guide through the 400 pages of his book. Throughout his journey he consults the Bible and finds reliable sources who can elaborate on the history, archeology, language and architecture of places that have been the center of religion, values, morality and civilization itself. The bibliographic final pages, called “Words of Peace and Truth,” also provide readers with a host of reading materials that Feiler has used to research this book.

Like the Old Testament, Feiler’s book is divided into three sections: the land, the exile and the Diaspora. Through the stories of selected warriors, kings and prophets, readers learn about the Jews’ ever-evolving identity and their relationship to a God who is determined to be one with his people, even when they try to separate themselves from him. Joshua conquers the land of Canaan and establishes a kingdom for the Jews, the legacy of Abraham. Saul, David and Solomon reign as Israel’s kings, but eventually the Israelites are conquered by Nebuchadnezzar and exiled to Babylon. Enter the prophets Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Ezra and Micah.

“You can’t understand religion today without understanding the prophets,” says Feiler as he corrects the common misconception that the prophets were fortune-tellers. Messengers of God, the prophets preach that faithfulness to the Lord requires righteous living and repentance in return for God’s promise of protection of the people and forgiveness for their sins. However, the twist in this story is that this call for morality is addressed not just to the Jews but to all people.

Feiler illustrates this by connecting the story of Jonah and the whale to the saving of the Assyrian city of Nineveh. Both are spared because they repent their sins. This extension of morality to non-Jews is made possible because the Jews were not living on their own lands but as exiles in the exotic, cosmopolitan Babylon, a city that represented “the next evolution in the development of intricate urban societies.” Judaism flowers during the exile, just as it does during the Diaspora under the great Persian king, Cyrus, who ushers in a radical era of peace by bringing unity in diversity. “It’s not that Diaspora is necessarily good, it’s that Diaspora works if there are certain conditions under which the Jews are able to live in peaceful coexistence.”

Feiler’s visit to Iraq is especially intriguing. He risks his own life to go to this 7,000-year-old, war-ravaged country in order to visit Ur (Abraham’s hometown), Babylon and Mesopotamia, site of the Garden of Eden. He learns about the Western world’s continuing narrative about Eden as a refuge. Even our U.S. presidents have recalled the power of this imaginary place, where humanity was closest to God.

Feiler’s obvious love of life elicits hope in his readers; and like the prophets he loves, Feiler encourages readers to believe that even the troubles of our day can be a pathway to God. As Imam al-Ubaidy of Baghdad recognizes: “We need to find our principles—peace, love, justice, and tolerance. We need to realize the future belongs to God, not to us.”

Do not hesitate to read this book. Enjoy the beauty of its prose and ponder its messages about the region as a way to improve your understanding about the Middle East and help you reconcile the conflicts among the three great religions. You may also want to use this book to begin a meaningful dialogue about Sept. 11, the war in Iraq—and now, the catastrophic floods of the U.S. Gulf coast. Or join others in the dialogue through Feiler’s Web site salon, www.brucefeiler.com.

The Middle East is truly a holy land and a place that does not just touch people, but seizes them by the scruff of the neck. Where God Was Born is a guidebook that allows that to happen.

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