'I Kneel to the Desert God': Faith's Roots in a Dry Land

Article excerpt

RAISED IN SACRAMENTO, California, the son of immigrants from Mexico, essayist and journalist Richard Rodriguez has always grappled fearlessly with the intricacies of cultural identity--the clash and meld of race, religion, class, and language. He is the author of three critically acclaimed books: Hunger of Memory; Days of Obligation; and Brown: The Last Discovery of America. He was an award-winning essayist for PBS's The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, and is a contributing writer and editor for New America Media and contributing editor of Harper's. He spoke with Sojourners associate editor Julie Polter in April, at Calvin College's Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

JULIE POLTER: You're working on a book about the desert origins of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. What led you to this topic?

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: After Sept. 11, I grew closer to Islam, rather than farther away from it. The most shocking thing for me was that those men were praying as they drilled those 767s into the World Trade Center. When Osama bin Laden began to refer to crusaders, I was reminded that this was a religious war that we were involved in. That seemed so European--killing each other over Protestants vs. Catholic, heretics, Orthodox vs. Roman Catholic, and so forth. But America having a religious war? That was new to me. So I was interested in Islam.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The other thing was that I'd always felt an attraction to the desert. I've hiked through deserts for much of my life and always had a secular curiosity about them--their beauty, their secrets, their survivability. But after Sept. 11, I suddenly realized that maybe I was being drawn to the desert because I'm a Christian.

I'd read so much of my Christian past through Europe. I'm a Roman Catholic; I was raised in an Irish Catholic church; I was schooled in religious controversies that had to do with Geneva, or Zurich, or Zwingli, or Calvin, or Luther. When I went to Union Theological Seminary for two years, it was all European theological drama. It didn't engage this ecological question, that we are people of the desert. Christianity is a desert religion, a Middle Eastern religion.

This interested me because that's how we think of Muslims, basically, as a desert people. I had never gone to the desert looking for Christ. I'd never gone to the desert expecting to find Muhammad. And I'd never gone to the desert expecting to hear the voice of God. But that's precisely what I'm doing now. I have a Palestinian driver who imitates Elvis Presley, and we drive around the Middle East, and I'm enchanted by the desert. I've never felt so close to God as I do there.

I'm asking questions about how the desert protected Jesus, protected Muhammad, protected Moses. How they hid themselves in the desert. How the city--Mecca, Jerusalem--was often at odds with these prophets, these holy people, and how the desert took them in, and how God appears in the desert. The drama of mirage and the drama of dryness.

The first story of Abraham that we read in Genesis is a desert story: The desert God has come to a dry old man and told him that he will be fertile, that his wife is going to bear him a son. Overhearing this--I always imagine her as [the actress] Rhea Perlman--she laughs; the whole idea of becoming a mother is ludicrous to her. …