PW: Were you surprised by the response to Walking the Bible?
BF: I've been very moved by the reaction. I feel that what's happened to me is the physical embodiment of touching a nerve. The hardest thing about writing Walking the Bible was the personal component. But the number one thing that people have said to me is "Thank you for recounting your struggle." Most people who comment on religion in America do so from a position of certitude, or they adopt a position of certitude because they think that's what people want. But most people in the pews experience doubt, and they struggle.
PW: Why did you choose to focus this follow-up book on Abraham?
BF: Basically, after Walking the Bible came out, and went crazy, I decided to do what I had hoped all along to do: the rest of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. I spent six months working on that and outlining it. I had figured out a way to get back into Iraq and Iran. Then September 11 happened. I was in New York that day and from my apartment saw the towers fall. Like everybody else, I was mute for several weeks. And I began to hear these questions: Who are they? Why do they hate us? Can the religions get along? One name echoed behind that conversation: Abraham. He's the shared father of Jews, Christians and Muslims.
PW: So you went to Israel in the height of the unrest and uncertainty?
BF: I was there in December 2001. My mother cried the night before I went. It was scary, but I felt determined. I felt drawn. The week before I was scheduled to go, there were some bombings and killings, and I decided not to go to Hebron. But when I was in Israel, I decided to go through with this very dangerous trip into Hebron, which is described in the last chapter of the book. I'm the kind of person who gets really consumed emotionally and intellectually by a project. I did several things that I later came to realize were similar to things that Danny [Daniel] Pearl had done. While I'm not a person to take undue risks, I also feel that this is something that I'm called to do, so I experienced a certain peace and comfort despite the danger.
PW: How does this book differ from Walking the Bible?
BF: In Walking the Bible I had been to many of the places. As fruitful as that has been, I decided not to do that this time. Instead, I primarily sought out religious scholars to find out who Abraham was and what he meant to them. The first half of the book is a close reading of Abraham as he appears in the various texts. The second half is about how each of the three religions chose to interpret Abraham over time.
PW: Who were some of the people you interviewed?
BF: By far the most interesting thing I did was to go deep into East Jerusalem, to a secret office, where I spent a morning with the imam of Al-Aksa mosque. It was his first interview ever with a Western reporter. He was nervous; I was nervous. There was a translator there. The imam refused to sit next to me. He kept his jacket on and held his briefcase. It took a long time for him to loosen up, until I was able to ask him about the hajj, which he has done five times. In the hajj , you circumambulate the Ka'ba seven times. I asked him if he felt close to Abraham at that time, and he said that although Abraham built this [Ka'ba], you don't want anything from him. You want something from God. He said: "The message is, if we can just look beyond the details and embrace the spirit of Abraham, we can come together." We almost embraced. And I decided that I would treasure that encounter as a private moment of hope.