Saturday, October 31, 2009

Should I Visit the 'Holy Land'?

This week I was interviewed by a Christian magazine about the year in college I spent studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel back in 1992-93. The discussion raises issues relevant for Christians who might, themselves, think one day of traveling to Israel.

EFCA Today: Tell me more about your major and why you picked it.

Andy: Six months after I became a Christian at 17, I sensed a distinct call toward pastoral ministry. Therefore, when I matriculated at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (a very secular school), I thought, “What could I study which would best equip me for ministry?” The results were to focus on ancient, near eastern history and Hebrew. It was through the Hebrew Department that I discovered the opportunity to study in Jerusalem.

EFCA Today: What were you most looking forward to re the year abroad?

Andy: A combination of deepening my academic studies (Hebrew language – biblical and modern, archaeology, ancient history) and pursuing an ‘experience’ of the ‘Holy Land’.

EFCA Today: What was not as you expected it to be about that year?

Andy: Regarding the two anticipations cited above, the first one (academic) exceeded my expectations and deepened my own scholarship considerably. The second pursuit, though, is a different story. Within my first month in Jerusalem I became very disillusioned with what I found there as a Christian. The Christian presence in Israel seemed either wholly accommodating/idolizing of all things Jewish or ignored the Jewish population, seeking only to ‘use’ them and their land in order to create a kind of Zionistic Disney Land (i.e. the American and European Christian tourists in their buses or winding their way through the Old City in their matching tour hats, buying their olive wood cross souvenirs, taking pictures, walking ‘where Jesus walked’, enjoying the commercialism and individualistic narcissism of it all. Most Christians there failed to care for the Jews or Arabs as people, or seek to build relationships with them or even share the gospel with them. As one who was not a tourist but living in a state run university surrounded by Jews and Arabs, I saw the land and its people from a very different perspective.

Eventually, I realized that my initial approach to Israel (to have a ‘spiritual experience in the Holy Land’) was deeply colored by my Dispensational reading of Scripture which I’d inherited from my Schofield Reference Bible which exalts the Jews and the land of Israel in God’s economy. My years at TEDS after my year in Israel helped me understand the Bible and God’s plan described there as a single, cohesive whole which focused on Israel only for a time in the OT for certain gospel purposes to be carried out through them, but only as types and shadows which point to the ultimate chosen people (the redeemed from every tribe, language, people and nation – Rev. 5:9-10) and the ultimate Promised Land (heaven – Hebrews 3-4).

All that to say, that God used my year of Christian disillusionment in Israel as a means to help me regard the Jews and Israel more clearly and biblically. Though I do believe travel to Israel can be very helpful for our scholarship and in order to visually/geographically place the events of the Bible, I think much harm is done by continuing to see Palestine as ‘the Holy Land’ and regarding the Jews as the concessionaires of our spiritual Disney Land.

EFCA Today: What were the highlights of the year — even if only temporary ones — and in what lifelong ways were you affected/ changed?

Andy: I had many highlights academically, the most memorable doing archaeological research at Caesarea on Pontius Pilate’s promontory palace and giving a presentation on our findings in the ancient Roman theater in that city. Still, the greatest highlight was meeting other Christian students at the Hebrew U., forming them into a weekly small group and discipling one another. We were also taken-in by some Southern Baptist missionaries who ran a Christian bookstore who helped us form a home away from home and with whom we experienced some very rich Christian fellowship.

EFCA Today: What would you say to pastors and other Christian leaders (women as well as men) who are considering taking a trip to Israel? What surprising things would you have to say?

Andy: I would encourage any Christians to visit Israel if they have an interest in doing so. I would say, “Go in order to grow your knowledge of biblical geography, so you can better visualize much of the Bible as you read it.” But I would caution them to leave their expectations of a ‘spiritual experience’ of ‘walking where Jesus walked’ and thinking they’ll get closer to God because they’re in the ‘Holy Land’ – leave those expectations in the states before they board the plane. According to Acts 2, the Holy Spirit lives as truly in their hometown in New Jersey or Florida as He does in Israel because His habitation is now with His redeemed people, not any given ethnic people or place – see I Peter 2.

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