Holy Shtick

“Was there really a place called Sodom?” Bruce Feiler asked himself before traveling 10,000 miles in the Middle East in search of the Bible. And to think that all he needed was a subway token. In Walking the Bible, Feiler, a southern Jew who felt “separated” from the Bible, sets out to show how a physical journey through the modern-day geographies and topographies mentioned in the first five books of the Old Testament became a metaphorical journey to belief. (The combination of travel writing and religious writing may look odd, but when you think about it, the two actually have a lot in common: In both cases, after all, the author has to persuade his audience that the wonders he’s witnessed are real.) I’ve been eager to read Feiler’s book ever since I first heard about it, since like many nonreligious people I harbor a secret, lingering desire to be persuaded. Sadly for anyone who wanted some topical reading during this most biblical of weeks, Feiler’s repetitive, amateurish book takes you through what often feels like 40 years in a narrative desert, without ever delivering you to the promised land. Ironically, of the two books about the Bible being published right now – the other is Benson Bobrick’s Wide as the Waters, a history of the tortured circumstances of the Bible’s translation into English – Feiler’s, which is by far the bigger, and which focuses on real places, artifacts, and monuments, is the less compelling, whereas Bobrick’s, which focuses on evanescent things like words and ideologies, has the satisfying concreteness of a good novel.

It’s not hard to see why Feiler thought that traveling through the places where the Pentateuch is set – Turkey, Egypt, Israel, Jordan; the Nile Valley, the Sinai peninsula, the stone city of Petra; the Dome of the Rock, Orthodox monasteries, Jewish holy places – would bring him closer to God: He’s the author of a number of books, on everything from Japan to circuses to country music, in which the narrative is driven by a sense of place. To his credit, many of the places he encounters during his arduous journey are vividly described. Particularly good are his evocations of the Sinai desert, with its surprising cold and the eerie, endless noise of the sand. And he has a journalist’s knack for the zippy gloss. His description of the organization of the Ancient Near East’s Fertile Crescent, with Egypt and Mesopotamia on either end and a “bunch of smaller nations in between, as structured like a modern American shopping mall – with two anchor stores on either end linked by a string of smaller, more vulnerable stores” – is vividly apt.

The problem with Walking the Bible is that Feiler has neither the scholarly equipment nor the narrative skills to make the leap from the real journey to the metaphorical one, from travel to God. Feiler loves amusing biblical trivia – I’ll bet you didn’t know that the animals on Noah’s ark would have produced 800 tons of manure by the end of the trip – but because he relies entirely on experts for his treatment of serious historical and theological matters, much of his book has the predigested, third-hand feel, to say nothing of the style (“as historian Moshe Pearlman wrote … “), of the Milestones section of Time magazine. One sure sign that Feiler is in over his head is the relentless shtick. His frequent indulgence in jokiness yields, at best, marginal results (glyphs carved into a stone are “perhaps an eye chart”) and, at worst, glib misrepresentations of complicated religious and historical phenomena (“The world’s first pulp novels were carved on the walls of Egypt’s temples.”) And, as in that old grade-school game called telephone, the author’s total reliance on others for his information leads him to get a lot of things just plain wrong. Genesis isn’t from the Greek word geneseosis; it is, unsurprisingly, from the Greek word genesis. (There is no Greek word geneseosis.)

None of this would matter if Feiler had succeeded in showing you the mechanics of how the “places themselves” ultimately moved him “closer to the stories.” Writers who write compellingly about either God or travel – Saint Augustine, say, or Jan Morris – are, first and foremost, good writers; Feiler, with his nervous dependence on canned, Lifetime-television insights (“some journeys we choose, some journeys choose us”) just isn’t up to the job. I sometimes got the feeling that the author hoped that the sheer amount of material would persuade you. Every chapter has a similarly deadening pattern: Feiler goes somewhere, asks questions, meets an adorably eccentric Israeli archaeologist, digresses about pyramid-building or camel-riding, paraphrases the biblical text that takes place there, and finally has a little moment of insight in which he feels a connection to the land and its stories. But from his first mini-revelation after seeing Mount Ararat in Turkey, when “some ill-defined part” of him “suddenly found a place where it felt comfortable,” to his concluding pages, in which his “identity, the land, time, God – came together in a flash,” there’s nothing that compels you to make the connection yourself. Like the authors of those pamphlets you get handed on the downtown No. 1 train, he wants you to take the metaphorical part of the author’s journey completely on faith.

Faith, of course, is fine, but if you had faith to begin with, you might not have picked up Walking the Bible. By the end of his book, Feiler is indulging in the same kind of circular obscurities that repel, rather than seduce, skeptics. After 400 pages, “The Bible lives because it never dies” is not the kind of climactic insight you’re hoping for. Whatever journey you choose – or chooses you? – Walking the Bible is unlikely to be the choice of readers looking for a really good book about the Good Book.

The bible that accompanied Feiler as he schlepped around the Holy Land was in English; how it got to be that way is the subject of Benson Bobrick’s engrossing tale. You don’t need to be religious to marvel at the beauty of the King James Version: What Bobrick grippingly reminds you of here is that bloody political, theological, and intellectual crises marked the translation of the Bible into English. (William Tyndale was executed as a heretic for giving the people a Bible they could actually understand.) There’s plenty of detail here, from mini-bios of Henry VIII’s deliciously corrupt Cardinal Wolsey, the torture-happy Saint Thomas More, and Martin Luther to minute yet fascinating comparisons of translational word choices. (Thank God we didn’t end up with “God is my shepherd, therefore I can lose nothing.”) But the biographical, historical, and lexicographical trees never get in the way of the argumentative forest: Bobrick’s larger point is that giving people the chance to read and interpret the Bible on their own was a first step toward the Glorious Revolution. Tendentious, perhaps, but this fast-paced nonfiction narrative is so engaging that it’s likely to make a believer of any reader.

Walking The Bible:
A Journey By Land Through the Five Books of Moses

By Bruce Feiler.
William Morrow. 451 pages; $26.
Wide As The Waters:
The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired

By Benson Bobrick
Simon & Schuster. 379 pages; $26.

Holy Shtick