Father Abraham

June 4, 2003

The biblical narrative tells us that the beginnings of violence can be traced to the first two people with different religious convictions -- Cain and Abel. Some things never change. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the prospect for peaceful coexistence among the plurality of religions in America and the world has been a topic of ongoing, frequently heated discussion. Unfortunately, the heart of the debate often has centered on the idiosyncrasies of each religion -- not their commonalities. 
Bruce Feiler, in his New York Times best seller, Abraham, correctly realizes that dialogue can begin with differences, but cannot progress without establishing common ground. In his highly readable book, Feiler provides at least one place where the dialogue among Jews, Christians and Muslims can begin -- their shared patriarch, Abraham, with the first two religions following the line through Isaac and the latter through Ishmael. 
Feiler does an excellent job of recapturing the complexity of Abraham's character that is found in the Hebrew Scriptures and in tradition. Too often, popular religion portrays Abraham as a one-dimensional character -- one who dutifully and unquestioningly obeys God. The call of Abraham and the offering of Isaac as a sacrifice are two well-known stories that portray a remarkable picture of this Abraham. However, those who trace their lineage back to Abraham retell these and other stories in a significant number of ways, casting him as a prophet against idols, an astronomer and even the Einstein of his day. 
These stories, which all are rooted in the biblical texts, inspired their communities in different ways. Understanding the stories about Abraham from these various perspectives helps one to appreciate what each different religion values as important. 
Each of these faith traditions shares some of the same stories about Abraham and his descendants, and with Feiler's investigative research, the stories come alive. His descriptions of the geographic and cultural environments in which the stories occur, of modern-day Israel and his interviews with people from each faith draw the reader not only into the original story but also into the stories of Abraham's contemporary descendants.
This double narrative provides a compelling picture of all three religions and a glimpse into the beliefs of some of their adherents. Personalizing the dogma in such a way makes it more difficult to be dismissive. Reading about the convictions of Muslim Sheikh Abu Sneina, the reader can imagine that the sheikh's religious beliefs create in him a similar kind of connection with God that Christians experience. When Daniel Ginsburg, a Jew living in Hebron, describes how he must sandbag the windows of his home to stop stray bullets of terrorists, the reader can feel his anxiety and fear. Both are sons of Abraham, both are making their ways in a difficult and complex world. 
One of the last pictures we have of Christ's time on earth is of Jesus weeping over the Holy City. He longed to gather its inhabitants together as a hen gathers her chicks (Matthew 23:37). Furthermore, much of eschatological teaching in the Scriptures centers around a gathering of all nations under the rule of God. Who is to say that this supernatural gathering will not begin with common dialogue? Feiler's book is an excellent exploration of three religions, their believers and some of their commonalities. From this beginning is an opportunity for genuine dialogue and the establishing of shared history in a world focused largely on differences.