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A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths
Bruce Feiler
Book Review with commentary

To know Abraham, one must also know something of one's self as well as of his scribes. With stunning insights, Feiler leads us through the hundreds of descriptions of Abraham across three faiths. In the end their only consistent agreement about Abraham lies in his belief in God. The many legends of Abraham cannot be stories of a real Abraham, but stories by scribes "intoxicated" by God--to use Feiler's word.

This is where knowing something of one's self comes in. For example, the Bible is silent about Abraham's boyhood, but the Qur'an focuses on it. Christians emphasize the events in Abraham's later life, as the New Testament does. Abraham is the first prophet of each faith; he is the founder of monotheism by most accounts.

According to Feiler, the Qur'an relies on much earlier Jewish and Christian traditions about Abraham that never made it into the Bible. Feiler and others conclude that Mohammed was not trying to establish a religion so much as restoring the faith in one primordial God.

Moreover, the Bible refers to three different kinds of God, no doubt expressions of the scribes using different sources. using different insights, or just striving to be different. Not one, writing down the bible for the first time, actually knew Abraham.

The image of Abraham is larger than life; he received no moral recipes from god as Moses and Mohamed did. What he received according to legend is more akin to a coming of age.

"Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you."

In death, Abraham also looms large. Some of the House of Abraham have killed in their struggle to possess his final resting place, Hebron, by tradition. The last century, especially, has seen deadly riots, drive-by shootings, bombings, and more as fundamentalists on both sides vie for supremacy. Hebron is otherwise an hospitable place.

Like Jessica Stern in her "Terror in the Name of God.", Feiler was changed by his experience writing this book. His Abraham was shattered into a myriad of Abrahams. And that core Abraham emerges as a human as well as a model.

And that could well be the main lesson of this delightful book. History is one thing, religion is another, and each is interpreted by scribes of the time. How humans distort each is insightful in itself. "Throw over the old ways" became Abraham's legacy. And it lives on in our day.

From this background, the Authoritarian Personality illustrated and described so well by Hitler, the personality that Adorno, Milgram, and Zimbardo demonstrated so ably as affecting most of us, can be seen as working behind the scenes. It fits.

Given that situation, the Authoritarian Personality also must have influenced the scribes who embellished the lives of prophets to the point of founding sects and even religions. And they too, were driven by the words of Abraham, as Feiler describes.

"One unintended lesson of Abraham's childhood is that individuals should feel free to liberate themselves from false religions, even in the face of resistance from their families, their, nations, or their political leaders. This moral validates a tension that has existed until this day, with young people rejecting their parents' God in favor of their own. Abraham becomes a model not just for shared origins but also for Fundamentalism, for the notion that Ye who hear God most clearly, hear most correctly. Abraham, while still a boy, is denounced for his beliefs, even burned for his faith. Abraham, in other words, is not just the first monotheist. He's also the first martyr."

In true authoritarian fashion, the scribes appear to have taken Abraham as their model for God their leader as they wrote to the rest of us as their subjects in all things religious. Monotheism itself looks like a logical result of Authoritarianism in our times. This one simple paragraph seems to have helped justify religious strife for two millennia-- for no scribe can follow his father; he must get out of the house!

Nevertheless, Feiler concludes:

"Abraham is prophetic, heroic, charismatic. He is worthy of God."

It is all a matter of power, or fear of being powerless and unimportant. And that is why there were already in 1776 thousands of monotheistic sects redefining themselves apart for their religions of origin.


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