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Lands of the Book

Bruce Feiler


... traveler & writer. In Walking the Bible, a best-seller now also a television special, Abraham and Where God Was Born, Mr. Feiler recounts eight years of exploring the lands and stories of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Zoroastrianism. Among his previous books, Mr. Feiler recounted experiences teaching in Japan, traveling with the circus and participating in America’s country music scene. He is a frequent contributor to public radio, contributing editor at Gourmet and Parade magazines, and lectures widely. A native of Savannah, he and his growing family live in New York.


To untangle the problems religion creates in today's world, Bruce Feiler would have us go back to the roots of the Hebrew Bible in Persia, today's Iran. Why? Because when young, the religions themselves were in dialogue. Mr. Feiler believes that if they could be in dialogue then, today all three could rediscover their heritage and reinvigorate the dialogue that has been lost. It gives him a much needed source of hope that people really can live together.

Mr. Feiler wanted to replant the stories told in the Hebrew Bible in their native soil. He began his journey in 1997 and covered some 10,000 miles, most of it in the company of the great archaeologist Avner Goren. During those years, Mr. Feiler has written three books, one of which has now also been brought to television.

In searching for the physical locations of Biblical stories about Cyrus the Great, Mr. Feiler found an ancient culture of tolerance, openness and something few today note -- the considerable influence Zoroaster had on what would become the three great Abrahamic religions, eons before they spread across the globe. Mr. Feiler came to understand that in the very earliest days of what would become Judaism, Christianity and Islam, they were not the formidable, often unyielding and authority-heavy religious forms often in conflict today. They were open to each other. They shared. They took ideas, rituals, customs, prayers and language from one another. They engaged in a great creative openness which Mr. Feiler says stretched a thousand years, roughly from the time of Moses to the time of Jesus.

These three religions share a second great idea, Mr. Feiler points out. It is the critical importance of wilderness. All three have a central figure -- Moses, Jesus and Mohammed -- who goes into the wilderness. Exile. Who leaves family behind. Who has an awakening. Who then returns to his people with a powerful idea. This central idea among all three of these faiths does not make them identical, Mr. Feiler is quick to acknowledge, but it is at least an opening for conversation and exchange.

Seeking Cyrus the Great in ancient Persia, Mr. Feiler, accompanied this time by his wife, also found inspiration in modern Iran: ordinary Iranians who have a keen sense that church and state must be separate if one is to protect religion; the second largest population of Jews in the Middle East; archaeologists working daily to excavate civilizations older than Sumer. Americans, they discovered, have paid a high price in being cut off from Iran.

The response Mr. Feiler has gotten has been enormous. He thinks there are two reasons. First, he never tries to be "objective" or deliver "the truth." He, like his audiences, is a seeker willing to express deeply personal struggles. And as an eager amateur exploring the Biblical texts, he feels he appeals to a growing reluctance people have to accept authority, religious or otherwise.

One does not have to travel 10,000 miles to learn from wilderness experiences. Unshackle oneself from religious orthodoxies and let the dialogue begin.


[This Program was recorded September 19, 2005, in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.]

Conversation 1

“"Learning by participating" has shaped his life and his work, Bruce Feiler tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell, then explains why he distances himself from theologians.

Conversation 1 RealAudio7:28

Conversation 2

Sharing his experiences in the Middle East, Mr. Feiler describes the task he set for himself in taking stories out of the Hebrew Bible and replanting them in the ground. All kinds of authority, including religious ones, are being challenged, he believes, then remembers archaeologist and traveling companion Avner Goren's unusual enthusiasm for Mr. Feiler's initial idea. The great gift through these travels, he says, is that everywhere they went, someone always showed up. He admires Iran's growing secularization and the wisdom of ancient Persia.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:11

Conversation 3

Celebrating his status exploring the stories of the Hebrew Bible as an amateur free to be subjective, Mr. Feiler offers a valuable tip for engaging in inter-faith conversations. He reports seeing many religious institutions changing their architecture to reflect a growing role for non-professionals. He tells of the warm reception he and his wife got in Iran, particularly among its very large Jewish community. Cyrus the Great's Persia (today's Iran) is a sterling example of a setting in which a people could have their faith, but not need to impose it on anyone else, Mr. Feiler says, recounting how the Israelites inventing their religion in that era.

Conversation 1 RealAudio9:24

Conversation 4

Throwing wide his arms for reference, Mr. Feiler describes the geography of the Middle East, then summarizes 5,000 years of its history. He describes what he believes is the defining moment in Western civilization. The wilderness repeatedly plays a major role in individual's big breakthroughs, Mr. Feiler says, suggesting a powerful tension between being on and off the land. Archaeologists in today's Iran are daily finding civilizations older than Sumer, we are told, then hear how parochial 19th century British and American interests limited what archaeologists have uncovered. With a nod in the direction of Zoroaster, Mr. Feiler then explains his own central idea -- dialogue is vital.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:38

 Conversation 5

Practitioners of all three Abrahamic religions have questioned Mr. Feiler's title, "Where God Was Born", he says. Explaining why he chooses the term "Hebrew Bible," Mr. Feiler uses the story of King David to show the Biblical roots for protecting religion with a clear separation of church and state. It was in Iran that people were most clear, he says, that uniting religion and politics is bad for religions. He expands.

Conversation 1 RealAudio12:21

Conversation 6

For the first time in a long time, Mr. Feiler says, he sees a source of hope, then extends an invitation for others to do likewise. He cites his favorite line in the Bible and underscores his belief -- to disrespect another human is to disrespect God.

Conversation 1 RealAudio4:36


We have had the pleasure of knowing Bruce both professionally through his writing and personally as friends of his family. We've enjoyed how both relationships have evolved and flourished, particularly enjoying his equally talented brother Andrew's exceptional photographic gifts.

Additional Links:

Where God Was Born: A Journey by Land to the Roots of Religion, Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths and Walking the Bible: A Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses, are all published by William Morrow Publishers. The books and related media are available in a wide variety of formats, from hardcover and trade paper print to audio and video. Walking the Bible is also available as a photographic coffee table book, a children's rendition and as adapted for public television.

Enjoy Bruce Feiler's own website and our earlier program with him.

Pulitzer prize winner Richard Ben Cramer looks at politics of the “holy land”which, naturally, has roots in the stories Bruce Feiler shares.

Geneive Abdo looks at religion in the Middle East from the Islamist perspective.

Reza Aslan looks at Iran and at what he characterizes as the "reformation" now occurring in Islam.

Cornel West ties the traditions and religion of the Middle East to current American challenges and opportunities.

Tom Blue Wolf (Goodman) talks at length about our relationship to and responsibility for the Earth from the Native American tradition, as does fiction writer Tony Hillerman.

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