On my trip to Iraq, I went to this army base where the chaplain had requested copies of my interfaith discussion packets produced when the book "Abraham" came out in 2002. Here's a guy who's a Baptist chaplain in the U.S. Army on his own volition going door to door to the leaders of various religious traditions, in the months after the fall of Saddam, asking them if they'd like to have a dialogue.
There's a great question in the world today: Are these different religious denominations in Iraq going to be able to figure out a way to relate to one another, or are they going to kill one another? What I saw in my time in Iraq is that going back to the origin moment [of the beginning of religion] can be very helpful. Sometimes the best way to have a contemporary conversation is to look away from the present and go back to the past to understand how we got here.
A lot of Americans who go to Israel--or a lot of Americans who go to England, too--feel like the past is living there. That's the same in Iraq, and certainly the same in Iran. It's a place where people talk about the past as if it were a week ago. Muslims came to Iran in about the 9th century, but ask any Iranian and they'll still speak bitterly against the Arabs, they'll still be proud of being Persian and having ruled the world under Cyrus the Great 500 years ago. I was in Iran for two weeks, and every day people talked about Cyrus the Great. These ideas are much more on the tips of people's tongues than they are here.
You mention in the book that Americans seem drawn to the past, as evidenced by the popularity of books like yours. Is that because we don't live there, in a place where the past is so present?
I think that the great unspoken shadow over American religion is our geographic distance from the Middle East. It is one factor that makes fundamentalist Christianity more popular in the United States than it is in Europe or the Middle East. And it's another factor why this rediscovery of religious history is so popular now. Those places seem far away, and we don't grow up near them, and some believers feel they don't want to concern themselves with history, they just focus on the text and believe every word is the word of God. And it's a reason that people are so hungry for every morsel of history, every morsel of recreated fantasy, "The Da Vinci Code" or "The Red Tent," or "Walking the Bible." When they discover that there is a real place and real history, they suddenly are insatiable.
What happens is that people move through the discovery of the history looking for the meaning. That's what happened to me in my ten years of doing this. I was fascinated by the history, and I gobbled up the history, but ultimately I moved through the history to discover the meaning that's found in the text. That's why I feel like there is room for dialogue between religious fundamentalists and secular people more concerned with history--because ultimately everyone is concerned with the meaning.
Getting back to the story you told about the chaplain in Iraq, what's the state of interfaith relations today, as compared to when "Abraham" came out?
I definitely subscribe to the idea that 9/11, to use an overused phrase, was a wake-up call. There was a year-long national teach-in on Islam--everyone read books and suddenly talked about Islam, and that was very productive.
But there's no doubt that moment has passed. As often happens with fads, people who were briefly interested in Islam have gone back to caring about Britney Spears or the Supreme Court. And the election sucked up a lot of the energy. But the biggest question in the world today is still: Can the religions figure out a way to live with one another that's not by trying to kill one another?