Aching for the divine

Winona Ryder’s defense has rested its case — that was one headline this past Nov. 3. A couple of others: A suicide bomber in Israel killed one. (Himself the victim? Isn’t that the definition of suicide bombers, that they always kill at least one?) And the great Indian-born Canadian author Rohinton Mistry halted his book tour because of the “unbearable” humiliation of racial profiling, which caused him to be searched at every American airport he passed through.

More than 400 days have passed since Sept. 11, 2001, and yet that date pervades the latter two headlines like a gloomy fog. It’s the news behind the news. Turning on the television, I feel a deep unease, a skittering kinship with the fall leaves that skate and tremble down the street outside. Poor Winona Ryder. I see your face in the news, and I’m so relieved it’s you. I’d rather see you any day than that skyscraper, under a bright blue sky, with a plane sticking out from its side.

The father of squabbling children

In Bruce Feiler’s new book, Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths (HarperCollins, 2002), Sept. 11 isn’t formally mentioned until page 134. Nevertheless, the events of that day feed this entire fascinating and moving endeavor, a search for common ground between the religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And certainly Feiler, whose previous book, Walking the Bible, was a bestseller, will gain an even wider readership as people normally unconcerned with religious questions turn to his work to make sense of a collision of worlds from which the reverberations can still be felt underfoot. These readers will find themselves in good hands.

“The number one question Americans asked after the attack was, Why do they hate us so much?” writes Feiler. As a New Yorker, he felt a “physical sensation of being invaded, and afraid.

“Then one day I recognized that emotion. It’s the feeling one has every day in the Middle East — the sense of terror, pride, and connection to a place. September 11, 2001, was the day the Middle East came to America.”

Feiler’s book traces this deadly trajectory from downtown Manhattan back to its origin in the Arabian Desert. It’s a journey through time, as well — back 4,000 years or so to the life of a wandering nomad named Abraham.

Middle-aged and childless, Abraham doesn’t seem the stuff of which heroes are made. But one day God speaks to him, and he listens. Even more importantly, he believes. He casts off all other gods.

Following God’s promise, Abraham makes himself an exile, leaving his homeland for Canaan. There, through a complicated chain of events, he fathers two sons (Ishmael and Isaac). And, through an even more complicated chain of events, he also fathers three monotheistic religions.

Jews, Christians, Muslims — whatever their differences, all name Abraham as their paterfamilias. The once childless man stands today as the spiritual (and biological) father of millions.

That all three religions claim lineage from Abraham is even more intriguing when you consider the wide swathes of time involved. As Feiler notes, Judaism didn’t originate until 1,500 years after Abraham’s death. Christianity arose 500 years later still. And the prophet Muhammad lived 500 years after that — 2,500 years after Abraham would have lived.

Despite the best efforts of scholars, the actual, historic Abraham remains in the shadows, shrouded by the sands of time. He is a cipher. And Feiler traces the way each religion has used this essential blankness to recast and remold him — to fill in the blanks, as it were.

In this remoteness, Abraham reminds me of another founding father, George Washington. After all, hasn’t the story of the cherry tree always said more about us, as Americans, than it does about a young boy with an axe? There are some historic figures whose features we seem to prefer in a form as smooth and undetailed as an ancient stone icon. Perhaps because then the life we breathe into them can be our own?

In his quest, Feiler uncovers not one Abraham, but hundreds. The prophet is like a figure spied through a prism, endlessly multiplied by time and circumstance, shaped and reshaped by new generations of believers.

To make sense of this multitude of interpretations, Feiler engages in conversation with a number of religious people about Abraham’s meaning. It makes for fascinating reading. In different chapters, a learned Palestinian cleric and an embittered Israeli settler unconsciously echo each other’s uncompromising stance. A Lutheran minister shares hope, even as she hides hands horribly scarred by a Jerusalem bombing. A fiery Islamic leader concedes the need for reconciliation of the faiths (leaving Feiler stunned and elated). A Jewish archaeologist meditates on the meaning of Sept. 11 as he sits on a rock overlooking the Dead Sea.

If occasionally troubling, these conversations are always compelling — and revealing. Feiler isn’t interested in easy answers of the “we’re all the same in the universal brotherhood” variety. He doesn’t flinch from difference, nor does he hide the troubling details. He seems, instead, to prize the spiritual equivalent of the mountaintop view, with history in all its glory and ugliness laid out for all to see.

From the summit, he seems to say, we can see for miles. Maybe even far enough to know where to go from here.

Are you there God? It’s me, Lauren

Lauren F. Winner’s Girl Meets God: On the Path to a Spiritual Life (Algonquin Books, 2002), takes us on a more personal journey to faith. Winner is the daughter of a Reform Jewish father and a lapsed Southern Baptist mother (a condition that always makes me want to paraphrase Mae West: “I used to be Snow White — but then I lapsed”).

After years of attending synagogue, Winner converts to Orthodox Judaism while in college. She wears long skirts and keeps a kosher kitchen; she embraces all things Jewish. Yet her mind can’t help but return again and again to this strange dream she had about Jesus. And so, after some soul-searching, Winner converts again. She is a Christian, she realizes — and an evangelical Christian at that.

It’d be a joyful epiphany, if it happened in a vacuum. Girl Meets God is at its most affecting when Winner examines how her conversion estranged her from the Jewish friends and community she considered family. (Not to mention her Jewish father’s own consternation on visiting his daughter’s Jesus-festooned apartment.) As we follow Winner through the Christian calendar, we feel how the Jewish rhythms of belief have stayed with her and continue to inform her life as a Christian.

The book sometimes stumbles, though. As a writer, Winner can be easy on herself, letting her prose slide by on a native glibness; and as a memoirist, she’s sometimes maddeningly self-unaware. One example: She candidly admits she’s boy-crazy, but doesn’t examine why, when Jesus appears to her, he looks like Daniel Day-Lewis, nor why she feels compelled to have his image all over her walls like pin-ups — items which seem an awfully rich trove for a modern memoir.

Yet Girl Meets God is often brave and winning, too. It’s not always easy to be a modern woman practicing an ancient tradition. There’s a hilarious scene in which Winner goes to confession and debates with herself whether to admit having “crazy sex one night with an ex-boyfriend who was in town for the weekend.”

Crazy ex-sex. It’s a part of modern life. We know what it’s like to talk about things like this with friends. Winner’s contribution is in letting us know what it feels like to talk about them with God.

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