I have an extremely conflicted relationship with organized religion and the concept of god, yet I am enamored with the Middle East. Mom and I went to Israel for my 30th birthday and it was magical and everything I thought. I was already planning my next trip while still there. When people were curious about it, I explained it as a fascination with history. And that’s a huge part of it in the same way I love Rome. So much happened there. But that’s not all of it, I’m fascinated with reading about the Middle East and you can’t read/experience/know the Middle East without looking at religion. Too many of the world’s faiths are tied there.
I think part of the reason the books about religion don’t bother me and actually interest me in a way church doesn’t is that the titles I’ve opted to read look at the Middle East through a historical lens. It’s not “God said this, therefore it’s true”, but rather “Here’s this artifact found. Here’s a possible correlation in the Bible” or even “here’s a story from the Bible. Here’s some history on which it may be based”. That is fascinating. Some favorites in that vein:
- Bruce Feiler’s Abraham (reviews) which I read while in Israel and has one of the most memorable lines from a book in that it gives me pause nearly four years later. When speaking about the Western Wall/Temple Mount/Mount of Olives he wrote, “The defining spiritual fact of Jerusalem is this: Any panorama, any camera angle, any genuflection that encompasses one of these holy places will necessarily include at least one of the others.” There is no barrier. No physical separation.
- Feiler’s Walking the Bible, which I’m disappointed that I don’t appear to have reviewed online. I hope I still have a copy because I know I loved it. It is, in fact, the book that started my interest in this type of reading.
Notice a pattern?
Some are also through a sociocultural lens — books that get into the people not the stereotypes. They really teach a lesson to people willing to learn and go beyond the propaganda (on both sides). Some favorite titles:
- Donna Rosenthal’s The Israelis
- Martin Fletcher’s Walking Israel (review)
- Michael Muhammad Knight’s Journey to the End of Islam (reviews)
I’ve also read other titles that focused on religious people although they didn’t focus specifically on the Middle East:
- Shalom Auslander’s Foreskin’s Lament
- Binyamin Cohen’s My Jesus Year (reviews: which also had a fascinating fact cited “In the United States more people pray to Jesus on Sunday then attend all the weekend sporting events combined“. I’m not sure I know more than 10 of these people, and certainly not my age. It certainly highlights the difference between the Bible Belt and the rest of the US)
- Robert Eisenberg’s Boychicks in the Hood
I have a ridiculous amount of new additions to my Mt TBR it might as well be considered a new mountain on its own:
- The Swerve – Stephen Greenblatt
- In the Land of Israel – Amos Oz
- Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths (and most of the rest of Karen Armstrong’s books)
- The Year of Living Biblically – A.J. Jacobs (I started this one and couldn’t finish. I may give it another go)
Where did those new additions come from? What was the point of this post? Oh. Yeah. Bruce Feiler’s Where God Was Born which I’ve been reading for the last week. I’ve had it since at least 2009 but always put off reading it. I’m not sure why since I clearly loved Feiler’s other two titles on the Middle East. I got a Kindle copy from the library and began to read it last weekend. I could not put it down. That rarely happens with a non – fiction book, especially a subject I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m fascinated with…
This post was meant to be the review, but thinking about the review sent me in so many directions that the review will follow.