Interview with Bruce Feiler

You'd written a number of other books prior to Walking the Bible that had nothing to do with biblical history. How did you wind up writing Walking the Bible?

I grew up in the age of discount air fare, and for me, the act of joining a culture was a great way about learning about that different culture. So I grew up in the South, and went to college in the North, and found out that I learned about myself as a Southerner by leaving the South and going to the Northeast. After college, I wanted to learned about myself as an American, so I left the United States and went to Japan. And that started this kind of 15 year process of going and joining other cultures - Japan, England, country music, the circus - and somewhere in that process, as a writer, I decided I wanted to be more familiar with the Bible. I hadn't read since I was a kid, which meant that I hadn't really read it. So I took it off my bed and put it on my desk, where stayed untouched for two years, gathering dust, making me feel even guiltier. Then I went to visit a friend in Jerusalem, and my friend took me to this hill overlooking the city and said, "Over there is this controversial neighborhood, and over there is the rock where Abraham went to sacrifice Issac." And as it's described in the show, it was like, "Wow, these are real places that you can touch and visit?" And this crazy way I live my life, I felt, well, here's an idea - what if I travel along the route, and read the Bible along the way. In other words, what if I join the Bible as if it were any other world and seek to become a part of it.

What did people say when you proposed Walking the Bible?

Few people thought this was a good idea. Most of those places [in Walking the Bible] are unsafe. And I think another concern was what do I once I get there. These stories happened three, four thousand years ago. But I have this kind of stubborn streak, and I found this archaelogist, and the two of us made this journey. Between when I had the idea and when I started, I spent a year giving myself a self taught masters degree in the history of the Bible. And I remember this moment at the start of the journey when there I was, in my brand new Banana Republic pants and enough sun block for 40 years in the desert, and there was Avner. He had these sandals and these Bedouin trousers, his hair squiggling everywhere, and I realized that all of my learning was in my head, and all of his learning was in his feet. And if I had to say what happened to me in a sentence with Walking the Bible, it would be that my learning went from my head to my feet. So the big transformation was being on the land, developing this kind of physical connection to this geography, and finding the story in the geography itself. I don't think I ever realized that the Bible consisted of real stories that happened to real people. I think I always thought of it as happening in some kind of mythic time and place. So I think what happened to me, what happened to my relationship with the Bible, was that I just became really grounded.

When did you go from being an author on a journey to being just a person on a journey?

When I went to Haran the first time, which is where God speaks to Abraham in Genesis 12 - and I had been to Mount Ararat and Eastern Turkey - we'd been driving for two days to get to this isolated town, which is one of the oldest cities on Earth. And I just felt this incredible connection to the land, like I just wanted to get out and roll around in the soil. I had this experience of them, going back to the story itself and reading about Adam and Eve. The word for Adam comes from the Hebrew word adama, which means soil. And suddenly that phrase, that is almost a cliché, but I remembered it from my grandmother's funeral - from dust you are, and to dust you shall return - it just had this powerful impact on me. It was like the Bible seems to understand that we come from these places. We carry these places around within us. And maybe - though I had said this was not about me and my God, this was not about me and my religion - that maybe this was going to be this emotional experience that I hadn't even realized I was looking for.

Are you a particularly spiritual person, or were you before Walking the Bible?

I actually was not before. I'm a fifth generation Jew from the South, and I would say that I felt this connection to my religion, but it wasn't a spiritual connection. And I assured everyone at the start that this was not that kind of a journey. That if anything, what drew me in was the geography and the politics and the simple question, "Is it true or not?" The story of Walking the Bible for me is that I went in looking for science, and came out craving meaning, in a nutshell. I went looking for all these rational questions, and could I make it connection with my kind of secular, rational world, and then I realized that was just this kind of crutch that I was relying on. And that what I really learned was that going into the desert, in particular, you have to learn to let go of those crutches and the civilized world, and open yourself up to something higher.

Why the desert in particular?

I think that one thing that Judaism, Christian and Islam have in common is that they are the story of a man - at their heart - the story of a man who leaves the civilized world and goes into the desert, has a transforming experience, and then comes back to the civilized world to share that experience with others. I'm thinking of Moses, Jesus, Mohammad. I had traveled a lot before Walking the Bible - I'd been to something like 50 some-odd countries. But I'd never really been to an extreme place, a place of geographical hardship and desolation. And I think that when you go into the desert is that you become very unsure. How much food do I eat? How much water do I drink? And I supposed to sleep with my head facing into the wind, or facing away from the wind? Everything you've known disappears. And you become very dependent. On the group you're with. You're dependent on nature, and ultimately, on something higher, because I think it's the act of being in an extreme place that opens you up to extreme emotion. And that, I think, was the great surprise for me. That everything I had learned about how to survive, even in foreign places, went out the window when I went to these very extreme places.

What stands out as the most emotionally extreme moment of the trip?

Being in the Sinai in general, particularly the experience of being at St. Catherine's monastery and climbing Mount Sinai itself. Here you've got this desert landscape, you've got 40,000 people living in the Sinai - an area the size of Ireland. It's absolutely empty, desolate. And hundreds of miles from anywhere, in the middle of nowhere, is this monastery. It was built 1,500 years ago by monks who thought that one particular bush was the Burning Bush, where Moses saw the face of God. First of all, it's beautiful. But just the idea that for 1,500 years, pilgrims have come to this place, believing it to have been associated with the Bible - even if it's not the actual place - just that fact gives it incredible spirituality. St. Catherine's still has the oldest operating church in the world, where they still have services five times a day in Byzantine Greek.

Who was the most intriguing person you met during Walking the Bible?

I'd have to say Parachute. Parachute is a Kurd who lives at the base of Mount Ararat in extreme Eastern Turkey. He's sort of the unofficial mayor of Mount Ararat. He took me on this trek to his home village, halfway up Mount Ararat, and he claims to have found a piece of Noah's Ark. I've met him a number of times now, and we tried to have him take us to the Ark, and he wouldn't take us. I tried to get him to show me his pictures, and he wouldn't show me the pictures. I said to him, "You could be the savior of the Kurdish people," and he wouldn't show me the pictures. I said, "Think of all the people from around the world who will flock to this region of the world," and he wouldn't show me the pictures. I said, "My mother is dying" - which is a lie - "and my mother can die in peace if you take her to the Ark." And he's like, "I won't take you." "Even for my mother?" [I asked.] And he said, "You can tell your mother that in all the world, there's one person who's seen Noah's Ark. The Bible is real." Now, I don't believe he found Noah's Ark, and in a lot of ways, I don't even think that's the most important question. To me, what is most interested is that today, 5,000 years after the story, little boys that grew up on this mountain are told that they can have the luck of Noah. And the point is that the stories are still living in these places. This is not a book with black covers and gold on the edge of the pages. The Bible is literally a living, breathing entity is what really comes through if you travel the route, and read the stories around the way.

Have you been surprised by people's reactions to Walking the Bible, and the experience of this journey?

Every day I've been surprised. Every writer dreams of writing a book that will touch people. Walking the Bible spent a year on the New York Times Bestseller List. I would say that the most fascinating and rewarding experience, the hardest thing about writing Walking the Bible, was about my struggle with the story. At times I felt close to God, and times, far away. At times, I really loved the story, and at times, I was really horrified by certain aspects of the story. And it was really difficult to describe that struggle on the page. But the number one thing that people said to me was thank you for talking openly about your struggle. And what I've taken from that experience, and people writing to me on my web site - I mean, people write me in the middle of the night, a month later, two months later. "My husband is dying, and I've been trying to get him to read the Bible for decades. Thank you for opening up to him. Or, "I'm an 86 year-old woman, and I've been dreaming my whole life for making this journey. Thank you for taking me." The things people write to me have been so meaningful…And what I've learned from this experience is that most people who speak about religion in America do so from a position of certitude, either because they have it, or because they feel like they should adopt it. Whereas most of us in the pews, or quite frankly, in the pickup trucks because we're not in the pews, we have struggles and we have doubts. I think what's really going on in America today is that people are really questioning their faith. They want to have a relationship with God, but are sometimes frustrated by their religious institutions and their religious education. So people are going back to the text and reading books like mine, and sitting down in groups and talking about it, or making their own faith.

Has the success of the book been more than you expected?

What scared me was that I could be the guy who retraces the Bible in the desert, and I wouldn't write a book that touched people. I was scared because I assumed that most believers were very convicted in their faith, and weren't interested in the kinds of searching kinds of questions I was asking, and talking about the history, talking about the archaeology. What body of water did the Israelites cross? Which mountain did they climb? Were there really two million people in the Exodus? And really, are these things made up, or are they real? I was kind of removed from the religious community in a lot of ways, and I didn't know if they shared those questions. And of course, what I found is that the vast majority of Americans do ask these kinds of questions, and our kind of understanding of what they really belief and feel is not really well informed. And that most people are in this state of questioning, and trying to make the stories relevant. This is what I think is the great gift of the Bible, to reinvent itself for every generation. Now we're in a time when we can do our own research, we can go on the Internet, we can get books, we can form our own discussion groups, and I think I'm an example of that, and I'm somewhat a beneficiary of that.

You touched on the process of writing these kinds of books. Can you talk more about that?

I meet a lot of aspiring writers in my life, and I find that most of them are much better at aspiring than writing. I was living in Japan 15 years ago, and I started writing letters home of the you're-not-going-to-believe-what-happened-to-me variety. And then I came back home six months later, and everywhere I went, people said, "I really loved your letters home!" And I was like, "Have we met?" People were passing these letters around. And I thought, if this is this interesting to me, I'll sort of write a long letter home, in a lot of ways, that's what my first book is about, a letter about what it's like to live in Japan. I feel my job is first, to do my homework. As I said, I spent a year reading books about the Bible before I made this journey. I have to kind of inform myself, and emotionally open myself up. So that when I'm on top of Mount Sinai, or I'm crossing the red sea, or I'm at the salt pillars of Sodom and Gomorrah, and I'm talking to whoever I meet, I can ask the questions that the reader or the viewer would like to ask. Because I now realize that it's kind of this sacred trust I have with people who would love to make these journeys. And in the crazy way I've been able to live my life, I can, so I feel like it's my privilege and responsibility to be the surrogate for others when I'm in that place. And so, therefore, I ask as many questions and read as much as I can, and just write down raw feelings and raw emotions, and take a lot of pictures. And when I come back, I kind of process it, think it through, and really write what I felt. In the end, what I do is try to offer people an invitation. Whether you read the Bible everyday, or haven't read it in five years - as I had not - come on this journey with me, because I think you'll be changed, too. The landscape and these places are that powerful.

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