We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Theology, like history, is written by the victors but fixed for the long term by the editors. That’s the essential dilemma faced by Harold Bloom and Bruce Feiler in their very different attempts to engage the sacred texts of Judaism and Christianity (with occasional forays into those of Islam, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism). Both Bloom’s Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine and Feiler’s Where God Was Born: A Journey by Land to the Roots of Religion concede that the Jewish Tanach and the Christian Bible are muddles of omissions, additions, and outright forgeries. Yet the authors insist that these books can be read today for absolute meaning, rather than as a partial, corrupted record of ancient religions that only somewhat resemble their current incarnations. Otherwise, both authors’ literary journeys are just futile meanderings across realms unknowable to modern interpreters.
Feiler’s book is literally a journey, one of many recent travel books that shapes contemporary personal incidents to the framework provided by some venerable text (for example, William Dalrymple’s In Xanadu, which tracks the travels of Marco Polo, and Jonah Blank’s Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God, which follows the path of the Ramayana). A former Washingtonian who has written first-person accounts of his adventures in or with Japan, clown school, and country music, Feiler finally wandered into a franchise with 2001’s Walking the Bible, the bestseller that inspired a current PBS series of the same name. Where God Was Born is the third book in which Feiler tours sites of notable Biblical tales with The Book in hand.
Both writers are Jewish, but in rather different ways. Bloom, an award-laden literary critic, has written often about the Tanach—which, he vehemently notes, “is distinctly not identical with the Old Testament.” His true faith, however, is literature. Jesus and Yahweh is a wide-ranging study that encompasses many writers of many types, but after the unknown authors of the Tanach and the New Testament, the most-mentioned is Shakespeare, followed by Freud, Nietzsche, and Wilde. He loves Yahweh as a literary character—comparing him most often to Lear but also to Prospero—but does not “trust in the Covenant.” Bloom, in fact, rejects almost every aspect of religion, save the human “need (or craving) for transcendence,” and bristles at the soggy universalism that finds all major religions essentially compatible. His book’s purpose is to assert that the Judeo-Christian tradition is a “social myth,” Christian-Jewish dialogue is a “farce,” and that “Jesus, Jesus Christ, and Yahweh are three totally incompatible personages.” Alas, his book is not equal to these three bold claims.
On a trip that includes potential battle zones in Israel and the West Bank, powder-keg U.S.-occupied Iraq, and the anti-Jewish Islamic Republic of Iran, Feiler takes physical risks that wouldn’t have occurred to the library-bound Bloom. Intellectually, however, Where God Was Born is the easier passage. Although his explorations deepen his faith in Judaism, Feiler spends just as much of his time seeking common ground with believers in other gods. “The first conviction I took from my journey,” he writes in the book’s concluding pages, “is that the only force strong enough to take on religious extremism is religious moderation.”
This is an appropriately middle-of-the-road proposition, and it explains why Feiler’s shallow musings have graced both Parade and PBS. Despite his years in hardcover, Feiler is essentially a newspaper feature writer, with all the glibness that connotes. His journeys are rendered in occasionally sloppy prose, are punctuated by recurring tag lines (his favorite is “we pulled out our Bibles”), and lead to tidy epiphanies. “There are many dangers in discussing the Bible in contemporary terms,” Feiler allows, but that’s just what he does. He uses such burnt-to-a-crisp formulations as “morph,” misuses “epicenter” to mean, like, really, really central—it’s actually the spot above the center—and describes mythic King David as “more dreamy than a lovestruck first date,” which is both trivializing and ambiguous. (Who’s lovestruck? David or his date?) He can’t even resist specious clichés about his old hometown, comparing David’s founding of Jerusalem to the establishment of D.C. in a swamp.
In the most egregious example of his misbegotten popularization, Feiler describes “the Fertile Crescent in the second millennium B.C.E. as being like a modern American shopping mall, with an anchor store—Egypt and Mesopotamia—on each end, and smaller, more vulnerable boutique stores—Canaan, Edom, Philistia, Israel, Judah—in between.” He manages to sustain this metaphor for six more sentences, introducing Target (Persia), Wal-Mart (Greece), and the Gap (Jerusalem). Feiler doesn’t get as far as India, but I’ve always liked to think of that country as Bed Bath & Beyond.
Like most mainstream journalists, Feiler relishes conventional wisdom and is a sucker for official pronouncements. Baghdad, he writes, “made me a believer in smart bombs”—because he looked at damaged Iraqi government buildings, not the hospitals or graveyards containing civilian casualties. Offered a brief chat with the U.S. occupation’s then-boss, Paul Bremer, Feiler emerges with flatteries—Bremer “had the air of a Yale-bred diplomat at home in any throne room in the world”—and an appreciation of the man’s Roman Catholic faith. The two also discuss the role of Islam in Iraq’s future, with Bremer estimating that “probably less than 10 percent of Iraqis favor a theocratic government.” It’s probably just as well that Bremer took his Yale-bred air and devout Catholicism back home before a coalition of Shiite religious parties won almost half the seats in the new Iraqi parliament.
Feiler concedes that there is “simply no physical evidence” for any of the stories recounted in the Torah (the first five books of the Tanach). As he travels east, the author comes to accept that Genesis, Exodus, and the rest drew on earlier Sumerian legends and were tempered by Zoroastrian beliefs. He offers a pocket history of the evolution of Hanukkah that’s more sociological than theological. Yet whenever Feiler needs to take a Biblical parable literally, he does. He presents the Exodus, the fall of Jericho, and the first circumcision as fact, just pages away from acknowledging the lack of proof for them.
Curiously, Feiler and Bloom agree almost exactly on two murky Biblical matters: Jesus’ existence and his Davidic bloodline. In his very first sentence, Bloom calls Jesus “more-or-less historical,” even though he soon admits that “nearly everything truly important about him reaches me from texts I cannot trust.” This acceptance of the Christian messiah as a historical figure suits Bloom’s notion that Jesus (or Yeshua) was a real Jew who was later Hellenized into Jesus Christ. While broaching numerous doubts about the integrity of the Tanach’s text, Feiler nonetheless delivers the “knowledge” that Jesus was David’s descendant. Bloom also likes this factoid, contending repeatedly that Jesus was kin to David.
Feiler’s position on Jesus is easily explained. As an exponent of why-can’t-we-all-just-get-alongism, the author doesn’t want to challenge the central myths of anybody else’s religion (at least if it’s a major one). Besides, there are a lot more Christians out there than Jews. Feiler focuses mostly on his own faith, but he’s careful to write in a way that wouldn’t alienate the largest American market for religious books.
Bloom’s acceptance of a historical Jesus is stranger, especially in a book where he writes—accurately—that “[t]here are no verifiable facts about Jesus of Nazareth.” As proof that Jesus is not fiction, he cites only Josephus, even though he later calls the historian “a superb liar” whose work was “falsified by Christian redactors.” So the Jesus we know is a fictional character, even if the myth is somehow based on a real man. Yet Bloom likes the idea of a historical Jesus, even going so far as to indulge such popular heretical whimsies as the theory that he escaped crucifixion and fled to India. This is the route, of course, to The Da Vinci Code.
In short, Bloom’s understanding of Jesus is incoherent, and it’s not the only thing in Jesus and Yahweh that is. In a country where Feiler-like obeisance to all mainline religions is customary, Bloom’s hostility to Christianity is bracing. A few decades older than Feiler, Bloom grew up in an Orthodox home in the Bronx and first read the Christian gospels in Yiddish. His reaction to Christian anti-Semitism is candid—and entirely reasonable. Of the most hateful Gospel, he writes, “John hates me and I respond in kind.”
Such clarity is rare in the book, however. Although largely free of lit-crit jargon, Jesus and Yahweh is poorly structured and aggravatingly repetitive, in both ideas and language. (In one stretch, “dark,” “darkly,” or “darken” appear on virtually every page.) This not a scholarly work—there are no footnotes—but a well-read ramble modeled less on Shakespeare or the Tanach than Nietzsche. Such cracks as “Yahweh had not read Plato” are decidedly Nietzschean in their playfulness, yet Bloom is neither as witty nor as fluid a writer as his predecessor.
If Bloom is primarily concerned with the texts as they can be read today—and he can read most of them in the original—he sometimes wanders into areas of historical perplexity, though he rarely admits it. In addition to the existence of a flesh-and-blood Jesus, he accepts the longstanding Christian claim that the Gnostics were heretics, which is far from clear. (It’s entirely possible that the Gnostics were contemporaneous with the earliest Christians.) And he notes Jesus’ similarity to such pagan “dying and reviving” gods as Adonis and Osiris without ever entertaining the possibility that such myths are the actual basis of the Jesus story rather than a Hellenistic gloss on a real Yeshua.
Feiler strolls such terrain more gracefully, if not always convincingly: He takes the Tanach and the New Testament as history where it suits him and as fable where that’s more convenient. Bloom knows it’s not that easy, although he stops short of quoting a passage from Deuteronomy whose essence has, at various times, been embraced by Jews, Christians, and Muslims: “If your brother, the son of your father or of your mother, or your son or daughter, or the spouse whom you embrace, or your most intimate friend, tries secretly to seduce you, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods’…you must not consent, you must not listen to him; you must show him no pity, you must not spare him or conceal his guilt. No, you must kill him.”
Bloom and Feiler surely know this verse, yet only the former hints that such bloody-mindedness still shadows today’s attempts at interreligious comity. Feiler even argues that next to religious fundamentalism, “radical secularism…seemed equally dangerous and unappealing.” He means fascism and Communism, but those movements operated like religions, with the same emphasis on blind, communal faith. The skeptical approach taken by portions of Jesus and Yahweh and Where God Was Born is more promising. In fact, it’s essential to both writers’ attempts to understand the traditions that they—although Feiler would never put it in these words—partially reject. Of course, to the author of Deuteronomy and to millions of kindred fanatics, partial rejection of the true faith is the same as complete apostasy. That’s a complication that Bloom and Feiler, while taking very different paths, both manage to skirt.CP