Stephen K. Ray was raised in a devout Baptist family and was very involved in the Baptist denomination as a teacher of Biblical studies. Steve and his wife Janet entered the Catholic Church in 1994. Since that time, Steve has been active as an author, speaker, blogger, apologist, and film producer. He is the author of Crossing the Tiber: Evangelical Protestants Discover the Historical Church, Upon This Rock: St. Peter and the Primacy of Rome in Scripture and the Early Church, and St. John’s Gospel: A Bible Study and Commentary, all published by Ignatius Press.
Steve and Janet are currently writing and producing a 10-video series for Ignatius Press called The Footprints of God: The Story of Salvation From Abraham to Augustine, filmed on location in the Holy Land and other parts of the Middle East. His website is www.catholic-convert.com. The most recent film, titled Abraham: Father of Faith and Works, is now available from Ignatius Press. He corresponded recently with Catholic World Report, shortly before departing for another trip to the Holy Land.
CWR: This movie about Abraham is the eighth of 10 videos in this long and challenging project. When did you start filming this series and what sort of time, energy, and effort has gone into the project?
Ray: Long and challenging, indeed! It all began in 1995, the year after we converted to the Catholic Church from Evangelical Protestants. We took our family to Israel to see land of Our Lord and Lady, the land of the Bible and Catholic history. When I stepped off the plane in Tel Aviv I fell to the tarmac and kissed the ground with tears welling up in my eyes. This adventure with our family had a profound impact on all of us. It made me want to share the land and its story with everyone.
The next step came in the year 2000 when I woke up in the middle of the night. I am not certain to this day whether it was a dream, a revelation, an angel, or simply indigestion. But it was all in my head and I knew exactly what I had to do.
As soon as I woke up I grabbed my wife Janet and shook her and said, “We have to do a video documentary on the whole story of salvation for my Catholic perspective!” Shaking and scared since I woke her up so quickly, she said, “You woke me up in the middle of the night, scaring me to death, to tell me that! We can’t even take good pictures — how does God expect us to make movies? Go back to sleep!”
But I couldn’t sleep. I was inspired and trembling. I jumped out of bed and ran to my computer. By the time the sun came up that morning I had put together the outline for the documentary series. I knew the titles, the biblical people we would feature, the places we would film, and the whole drama I wanted to present. My target audience would be the Catholic family. It could not be a boring “talking head” documentary but had to be a rollicking adventure. We wanted to bring the lands of the Bible and the Catholic Church into the homes of every Catholic family.
CWR: Speaking of adventures, what was it like filming in Iraq, Turkey, and Israel?
Ray: We have been to Israel over 130 times and at least 25 times to Turkey, but our trip to Iraq to film for this DVD was our first visit to that country, so I will mention it first. We were unable to enter Iraq for many years because of the war. Visas were not being given except to government officials and military personnel. But we sensed it was time to do this particular DVD in 2013 and with the cooperation and support of Ignatius Press we secured our visas, booked our flights and held our breath. In January of 2014 my wife and I landed in Basra, Iraq with our skeletal crew of two men and with a minimum of equipment.
Our first experience was not pleasant. We were immediately sequestered in a room within a filthy—and for us—primitive airport out in the desert. It took several hours before we were cleared to board a dilapidated bus which drove us to a parking lot in the middle of nowhere. The lot was full of mud from recent rain and we had to slog our equipment and suitcases through trailer security stations before we found our driver and guide waiting for us. They were a sight for sore eyes, to be sure!
The rest of our time in Iraq was exotic and exciting for us four adventurers. We drove all over southern Iraq, using toilets which were all just holes in the ground (my wife is a saint!), getting stopped every 2 or 3 miles for security checks and often wondering if we’d ever get our passports and visas back. But we were able to get all the footage we needed to make this a great documentary.
We visited Ur of the Chaldees, which is where Abram lived for 75 years before he was called by the God of Glory. He worshiped the god of Ur whose name was Nanna, god of the moon. Very few people realize this or know anything about his early life. We are excited to open a whole new curtain for people to gaze into the past of our salvation history. Abram and Sarai, as they were named then, are fascinating characters. I don’t want to say too much that gives the story away, but I know that this first part of the story will be brand new for almost everyone.
Turkey is always exciting and is one of our favorite countries. We flew into Istanbul and then took a “puddle-jumper” plane full of dirty workers out to Urfa which is just 10 miles from the Syrian border in the eastern half of Turkey. ISIS was only 10 to 20 miles across the border, but we had no fear because we knew there would be no incursions into Turkey. We found the temporary hometown of Abraham named Haran. The most memorable part of this leg of the trip for me was an ornery camel who insisted on biting me at every opportunity. You will see it in the DVD, especially in the “Behind the Scenes” feature.
The Israel portion was especially interesting since we usually follow the footprints of Jesus but this adventure took us to new places. Most of the filming took place in the Palestinian West Bank, of Old Testament sites that very few people ever see. Our excellent agent and guide, Amer Shehadeh, gained access to some pretty amazing sites for us.
CWR: Abraham is sometimes described as the father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Why is that so? Why is Abraham important for Catholics?
Ray: Abraham marks the beginning of the three monotheistic religions. Prior to him the people were polytheistic and each land or city-state had its own deity. Abraham’s town of Ur worshiped Nanna but the God of Glory revealed himself to Abraham as the one true and living God who had created the heavens and the earth. He made a covenant with Abraham.
We all know that the Jews trace their lineage back to Isaac, the son of Abraham. Arabs trace their lineage back to Ishmael, the son of Abraham through the servant Hagar. Christians trace their faith back to Abraham through whose lineage came Jesus Christ. Islam picked up on the monotheistic belief and Mohammad started the religion of Islam claiming Abraham as its founder.
In the movie I ask, “Why should we care about these old guys that lived four thousand years ago? What do they have to do with us today?” Abraham is the rock from whom we are all hewn. Jesus called him “Father Abraham” on numerous occasions and St. Paul said he is the father of all who believe by faith.
Abraham is made right with God by faith and works, and is the example for all Christians. St. Paul mentions him by name at least seventeen times in his epistles, more than any other Old Testament character.
CWR: Where was Abraham born and what sort of life did he live?
Ray: Abraham was born in Mesopotamia which today is the land of Iraq. It is roughly the size of California. Mesopotamia is a Greek word meaning “between two rivers” and that is exactly correct. Abraham and Sarah’s homeland was along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers which watered the land and made it like a garden. In fact many scholars and historians pinpoint this area as the Cradle of Civilization and the probable location of the Garden of Eden.
Their city of Ur was an opulent metropolis with great art, metalwork, buildings and culture. Archaeologist Leonard Wooley dug up and discovered much of the city that had been buried in the sand. He found hundreds of tombs, some of which he called “death pits” because of the human sacrifice that took place there. When a royal personage would die they would also kill his servants and retinue and bury them along with the king.
This aspect of human sacrifice in the hometown of Abraham plays a key role in the whole story of God asking Abraham to offer up his son as a burnt offering. Life was cheap both in Mesopotamia and in Canaan where Abraham finally arrived, where they had infant sacrifice.
CWR: What was his original religion before being called by God to the promised land? And how far did Abraham have to travel to reach the land to which God called him?
Ray: Each country or city-state had their own chosen god or gods. As I noted earlier, Ur had chosen Nanna, the god of the moon as their patron god. We still have images of the king with the crescent moon above him representing their god. But Nanna was not the only god. Around the time of Abraham the king of Ur named Shulgi declared himself to be a god. Such was the religious climate.
For the true and living God to call Abraham out of this pagan and polytheistic society was no small matter. Abraham had much to lose by leaving his homeland and the bones of his ancestors, and one can only imagine the fear experienced by someone who knowingly abandoned and denied the god of his homeland. The gods could be vindictive and vengeful and might not Nanna retaliate against Abraham for walking away? This took great faith and courage on the part of Abraham.
CWR: Is it true that Abraham is the only man in the Bible called the friend of God? And why was Abraham’s name change so significant?
Ray: Yes, he is referred to as the friend of God three times in Scripture — to only man to be called that. God walked with others, and others, such as King David, were “after God’s own heart” but only Abraham is called God’s friend. This demonstrates his unique and pivotal role in salvation history.
Not only is he a friend of God but we know from the Catechism (par. 61) that he is also considered a saint in the Catholic tradition, along with other patriarchs and prophets.
A name in the Eastern lands was significant and encompassed something important about the person. It related to his character, his nature or his position. For the first almost 100 years of his life his name was “Abram”, which means “father.” It was kind of a cruel and uncomfortable name since Abram was childless.
But God had promised Abram a son and eventually he delivered as he had promised. When Abram was about 100 years old Sarah—who was 90 years old—gave birth to Isaac. God renamed Abram; his new name was now “Abraham”, which means “father of nations.” This name change was indicative of a change in Abraham’s dignity, standing, covenantal relationship and fortune. He now had not only a son, but through that son all the nations of the earth would be blessed. He was now a patriarch, but also the father of faith and the ancestor of Jesus Christ, the savior of the world.
CWR: What was the covenant established by God with Abraham? And what was the sign of that covenant?
Ray: When God called Abraham out of Ur in Mesopotamia he just said, “Go to a land I will show you.” Abraham could have asked for some negotiators to settle some important questions, such as, “Where am I to go? Will I have the deed to the land? What about my contract and pension? I’d like to see an aerial view of this land to see if it is better than Ur. What assurances do I have?”
Abraham did not ask these questions nor did he make demands of God; he just said, “OK!” (That is why Abraham is the Father of Faith and I am not!) God responded with a covenant which consisted of two parts: 1) God would give Abraham and his descendants the land of Canaan (later called Israel) and 2) he would give him a son through whom the whole world would be blessed. Abraham believed and it was ratified as an everlasting covenant.
Abraham may have been surprised by the sign of the covenant. It was not a signet ring or golden staff — rather it was the painful operation performed with a flint knife. It was circumcision—and Abraham was 100 years old! Can you imagine him calling his 350 men together to say, “Guys, I have some good news and some bad news…”? But with great faith and obedience it says that the next day Abraham and all of his men were circumcised.
CWR: The story of Abraham offering his son Isaac as a sacrifice is one of the most puzzling in the Old Testament. Why was Abraham willing to offer his son as a burnt offering?
Ray: I don’t want to say too much here — not wanting to be a spoiler for the conclusions in the documentary. We wrestle with this issue in great detail, asking, “Why would a good and moral God require such a thing from a father?” And why would Abraham be willing to commit murder by sacrificing and burning his son? Doesn’t this go against everything we know to be moral and ethical?
Human sacrifice was not unknown in those lands; it was a common practice. In Ur human sacrifices were made as well as in Canaan. But there is every reason to believe—actually, to know—that God did not actually plan on having Abraham kill his son. It was only a test and the final test after which God would never test Abraham again. This was the final and most excruciating test.
Perhaps God was saying, “In your land across the river your family would have offered sacrifices to the false god Nanna. Have you really switched your allegiance from Nanna to me? Are you willing to do for me what you would have done for Nanna?” But there is a lot more to this sacrifice, which the Jews call “The Binding of Isaac.” The book of Hebrews says that Abraham believed in God so much, and in his promise, that he believed God would raise Isaac from the dead if necessary.
CWR: Now that this DVD is done how can readers learn more or purchase a copy? What future projects do you have in mind?
Ray: We still have two episodes to finish to complete our 10-part project, “The Footprints of God: the Story of Salvation from Abraham to Augustine.” We still have to finish “Elijah & Elisha: the Conscience of the Kingdom” and “Doctors of the Church: Defining the Faith”.
We hope to complete the next one in 2017 and the last one shortly thereafter. We want to especially thank Mark Brumley, Tony Ryan, and Diane Hanson at Ignatius Press for all their support and partnership. A special thanks also to Joe Reed and the wonderful folks in Midland Texas who helped raise funds to make the Abraham DVD a reality.
The DVDs are available at my website www.CatholicConvert.com and also through Ignatius Press or your local Catholic bookstore. I am also leading many pilgrimages to these biblical lands and invite people to join us at www.FootprintsOfGod.com. I am also available to speak about these and many other topics at parishes and conferences.
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