A trip through the promised land
Bruce Feiler has been called the new George Plimpton. With his journalistic curiosity in tow, Feiler has managed to infiltrate unique areas of culture, emerging successfully with books that tell an insider's story. In Learning to Bow, Feiler examined Japanese society; in Looking for Class, he profiled the learned atmosphere at Oxford and Cambridge; in Under the Big Top, he cavorted behind the scenes of a traveling circus. More recently, Feiler scored with Dreaming Out Loud, a look at the country music business.
Feiler's latest, Walking the Bible: A Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses, is probably more scholarly in nature than his previous works, but certainly no less a testimony to accepting the journalistic challenge. Part travelogue, part religious history, part geological survey, part commentary on contemporary Mideast sociopolitical realities, Walking the Bible finds Feiler traipsing through the Holy Land, linking hard archaeological facts to the historic people and places found in the Old Testament's first five books. From Jerusalem to Cairo, from the Red Sea to the Nile, from Mount Ararat to Mount Nebo, Feiler wends his way through some of the region's political hot spots, interviewing pilgrims, immigrants, soldiers, farmers, priests and scholars, in his attempt to gain perspective on the spiritual dimensions of Moses' Promised Land.
Yale graduate Feiler has, like many a good journalist, hung his hat in various places: Nashville, Washington, D.C., England, Japan and currently New York. "In 1997, I visited an old friend living in Jerusalem," Feiler says from his Manhattan apartment. "Her husband was teaching a group of high schoolers. When he pointed out that here is the rock where Abraham sacrificed Isaac, I said to myself, These are actual places? These abstractions are real? I decided to take the Bible this embodiment of old-fashioned knowledge and approach it with contemporary methods of learning, essentially plunging into it like any other world I had entered. As in my other books, I learned by doing."
Noah's ark, the burning bush, the Ten Commandments these were the touchstones of Feiler's geographic enlightenment. Key to this education were the various guides who helped him find his way through mountain, desert and military checkpoint. Not the least of these was Israeli archaeologist Avner Goren, a well-known man of scientific knowledge but also one whose recurring search for the Bible perfectly complemented Feiler's own nascent fixation. Feiler grew up Jewish in Savannah, Georgia, claiming a strong religious identity, but no particular spirituality.
"I said over and over, when I started this project, that this was not about me and my religion or my God," he says. "This was supposed to be about me and the Bible. It did not take very long for me to realize that I was being self-protective. If I'd had a religious identity but had not been spiritual before, by the end of this journey, my experience made me more spiritual and less religious."
Besides offering observations on the current social climate of the region, Feiler makes a profound connection with the Bible's stories, lands and characters. Says Feiler: "In the desert you are between being in extreme places, having extreme emotions, and opening yourself up to spiritual ideas that never existed before. That's why the desert is such a powerful place. You're pushed to the limits of your capacity and you crave nonhuman, nonrational support that is, God. That's what Jews, Christians and Muslims all have in common: a single man goes out into the desert and has a transforming experience."
Feiler was also forced to deal with transformation as a journalist. In writing a lengthy volume that earnestly captures the Bible's meaning, the author had to confront his usual methodology. "Before, I was writing about subcultures," says Feiler. "Here I was writing about culture itself. The stakes are a lot higher. In addition, it was a lot more emotional both researching the book and writing it. Finally, it was hard to be funny. I had been a circus clown, after all! To get the tone right, to be wide-eyed and naive and fun, was tricky. The Bible, after all, at its heart, is a great adventure story." But so, it turns out, is Walking the Bible.
Martin Brady is an editor, writer and critic. He lives in Nashville.