Life-changing Vistas from a Far-away Land1
2009 was an amazing year! In August my oldest daughter, Adeline, was born. Several months before that I went on the trip of a lifetime. I visited Jordan, Syria, Israel, Egypt and Greece with 30 seminary students, 10 lay women and men, and 3 top-notch bible scholars and archeologist. After returning home, I published an article about this trip called, "Life-Changing Vistas from a Far-Away Land."
I stood breathless on the steep cliffs of Mt. Arbel. A cool breeze lifted over the rocks as I stepped past the “Danger – Cliff Edge!” sign. As I peered below I could see the Sea of Galilee and the low lying hills surrounding it. In between acres of green farmland were small cities on the fertile plain of Gennesaret. This three mile plain, called the “Garden of the Prince” in Hebrew, is still filled with walnuts, figs, olives and grapes. During Jesus’ day the area was also full of small fishing villages where he ministered. From our vista I could picture him walking from city to city and sailing across the Sea of Galilee.
This was one of many vistas on our Middle East Travel Seminar. We also climbed to the top of a Syrian Crusader Castle, the Grand Valley View at Petra, and the peak of Mount Sinai. A bird’s eye view of the landscape helped put things in perspective. The vistas also provided moments of fresh air, beautiful scenery, and panoramic views that set the stage for clear thinking. In a similar way I arrived at several “mental vistas” of clarity during our trip. These “aha” moments helped tie together my experiences and see the big picture below. Let’s take a look off some of these cliffs and see what we find.
The Vista of Land
When a man owns land, it owns him. – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Our first vista overlooks the distinctiveness and diversity of the land in the Middle East. These important deserts, hills, mountains and seas were the physical canvas of history. The unique sights, smells, sounds and tastes helped us get into the skin of the ancients. To imagine what it would be like to be a Crusader knight storming through the impregnable Krek de Chevaliers castle on the green mountains of Syria or to be Roman soldier walking through the columnated streets of the desert city of Palmyra—passing by bath houses, pagan temples, ornate tombs, and the glorious amphitheatre. Each day our imaginations were opened to a new world of possibilities. As we moved around I was amazed at the diversity between the green pastures of the Golan Heights, the breezy cities of the Mediterranean, the hilly fishing villages of the Sea of Galilee, and the remote communities around the Dead Sea.
The desert landscape particularly arrested my attention. I remember our first stop in Jordan was the Greco-Roman desert city of Jerash. It was littered with lizards, ants on steroids, animal jaw bones and broken pottery. Other deserts, like that of Sinai, seemed more lifeless. Driving through miles of parched rock and scorching hot sand dunes helped me better understand Israel’s “grumblings in the wilderness." I even complained here and there when we had to leave our air-conditioned buses to take pictures in the heat.
It was interesting to notice how in both ancient and modern times people shape their lives around the land they live on (e.g. timber was used in the forests and agriculture in the healthy soil of Galilee). It reminds me of a fascinating book by Jared Diamond called Guns, Germs and Steel. Basically, he argues the reason Eurasian civilization has survived, prospered, and conquered vastly more than any other civilization is due to their fortunate geography. They had unprecedented access after the Ice Age to agriculturally hospitable land and large domesticated animals. Although Diamond’s thesis is heavily debated, it is interesting how poverty often strikes the desert first. The rural eastern sections of Jordan and Syria seemed especially poor.
At times the barrenness of the desert seemed an apt metaphor for the difficult lives of its inhabitants. We visited the mud hut of one family in the lonesome deserts of Syria. They had no electricity, car, or wealth. Their livelihood depended on the health of their crops, which had not fared well in recent years. And although they dazzled us with their love and hospitality, we could tell they were crushed under the weight of poverty.
There was desolateness to their lives that matched the ground they lived on. I wanted to cry out, “That’s not fair!” As we sat in her mud hut sipping tea in a circle, the mother told us about her life and fielded our questions. She seemed selfless and loving. The beauty of that time together leads us up the hill to our second vista.
The Vista of Relationships
In today’s world people ‘crave connectedness,’ and certainly the desire to be accepted and to belong is a basic need of every human heart. – Trevor J. Burke
Here we stand atop the mountain that gazes at the endless scenery of relationships. I had a plethora of experiences that made me realize the deep sense of familial identity and close-knit relationships in this foreign land. Audrey Schaffer was my “blind date” for a twelve hour flight from New York to Amman. She was a retiree from Southern California who spent her summers digging in the dirt of Jordan for artifacts. The people in the Middle East, she told me, will surprise you with their love, hospitability and strong families.
Ms. Schaffer was right. As we drove through the cities I could see men holding hands (a normal custom) or huddled together for tea and conversation. Children roamed the streets together and women chatted in the background. The vast majority of the stores in major cities were family owned and operated. I remember walking the streets of the old city in Jerusalem and noticing how everyone knew each other. There was a mutual dependence economically and relationally. There were no cowboys there. The “be your own man” or “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality is altogether absent. Instead, identity is formed in community. Personal space, iPods, video games and movies are not their idols because more time is spent together with family and friends.
It was wonderful to chat with shopkeepers, tour guides, religious leaders, and people on the street. Despite popular opinion, the people were incredibly friendly. It is a travesty how many Americans view those from the Middle East. One of my customers at the restaurant I work at in Louisville was actually mad at me for going to the Middle East. He thought I was in some way betraying my country. Give me a break! The spin in the American media and terrorist jokes are unbelievable. Few people understand the political, religious and economic complexities of these peoples’ lives. And yet they smile and laugh and for some reason treat American visitors well. I am convinced if more American left their cozy houses and went there and actually met these people face to face, our policies and prejudices would drastically change.
The opportunity to meet these people was amazing. One of my fondest memories was going up Mount Sinai with Syer, a Bedouin guide. He worked for his uncle who owned several camels including the one I rode. We set out around 2 am with the stars blazing above us like the sky from Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night." As we traversed the wobbly path, Syer told me (in broken English) all about his family, lifestyle and hopes in life. He was extremely friendly and very interested in my life.
Another unforgettable time took place in the city of Damascus. My friends and I were exploring the city for first night and strolled through a small city park. Immediately a local jogged up to us and began talking. His first question was "where are you from?" to which I responded, “America!” Wrong answer, he gave us a long face and snickered. Then he asked us if we knew any Arabic. No, but some of us know a little Hebrew, I mentioned. Oh my. I bit my tongue again and looked for a rock to hide under. Thankfully he soon left and all was well. That is until I was searching for a restroom in the park and he called me to come over to join him and his friends. I nervously walked over to their park bench and prepared for the worst. Surprisingly, they offered me their version of the Native American peace pipe, the hookah. Not wanting to botch another moment, I accepted and their smiles told me they were thrilled. Peace was made and I had several new friends.
Quality conversations were also a staple within our group. Long bus rides and shared meals made for real conversation. Thankfully this was nearly always done in love and respect despite our sincere clashes of opinion. Important but sensitive topics like salvation, gender roles, biblical authority, and epistemology would often come up. But they were always talked about with an open mind and honest heart. The late night conversations I had with my roommate are a case in point. Although we came from opposite seminaries we discovered much common ground. I am convinced the Christian world needs more people talking to each other than by each other, and in that regard this trip was a breath of fresh air. The atmosphere was one of trust where we could share our doubts and be candid with our beliefs. The goal was not to flatten out what everyone held and agree on the lowest common denominator but to attempt to better understand other views and maybe even be challenged here and there.
Overall, everyone got along very well, which is good because we needed to. Our family and friends from home were set on the shelf and new friendships on steroids took their place. Spending so much quality time together brought out much love, laughter, silliness, tears, compassion, debate and occasional conflict.
The Vista of History
I agree with you that it is the duty of every good citizen to use all the opportunities, which occur to him, for preserving documents relating to the history of our country. – Thomas Jefferson
From my next mental vista I could see the days, months and years of history. I learned about the ingenuity of the ancients and how their past has shaped present identities. Indeed, the Middle East is littered with evidence of intelligence and sophistication. As we walked the halls of the National Museum of Damascus I was impressed by the creativity and craftsmanship of Ugarit and Mari. Then there was the Nabateans, on the eastern side of the Dead Sea, who created one of the new Seven Wonders of the World around 100 BCE. We walked through a high and narrow riverbed to get to their city, which opened up into a glorious valley filled with hundreds of chambers. On the outside of these chambers, ornate facades were carved into the sandstone rock. The Nabateans were also masters of water management and created expansive tunnels to bring water to their “rose-red city half as old as time.”
Later in history, the Greeks and Romans designed urban layouts that form the basis for our modern cities. The man-made harbor and long aqueduct of the Mediterranean city Caesarea Maritima was spectacular as was Herod the Great’s massive fortress at Masada and the Herodium. The pieces of literature, art, science and religion we sampled were equally awe inspiring. I was struck by how even a basic knowledge of these things is often lacking in our schools and societies. Too often we view the ancients as naive and simple-minded. But seeing the monumental achievements in the Middle East gave me a whole new perspective on our “Western history.”
Naturally, those who live in Syria, Jordan and Israel do not view their ancestors as we do. They have a deep respect for their heritage. It forms part of their identity. Thus, all of these countries spend good money on archeological and historical preservation (e.g. national museums). Just outside the Dead Sea in Israel is the fortress of Masada, which is on an elevated plateau overlooking the Judean desert. Here, the last Jews withstood the Romans until the spring of 73 AD but when the Romans finally breached the fortress walls, nearly everyone (960 people) had committed mass suicide. The Jews swear in their troops after they completed basic training at the top of Masada. They do this because the nation identifies with the dedication and failure to surrender of ancient zealots who resisted the Romans.
I cannot even begin to comprehend what it's like to be in their shoes. I was teary eyed and in shock when we walked through the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. Jews have gone through so much persecution, war and suffering in the past century that connecting to their history is essential for the strength to make it through.
At same time, we saw firsthand the plight of the Palestinians and the pain and misery they are presently in—trapped behind walls and often without hope. So both the Israelis and the Palestinians feel like “victims” and the walls of religion, history and politics further delay any two-state solution, which I am convinced is desperately needed if peace will ever come.
In this context I noticed how Israel (and her neighbors) spends lots of time and money on archeology, probably to help justify their right to the land. That is, if the biblical stories are accurate, then this supposedly adds weight to their national sovereignty. However, the historicity of the Scriptures is hotly debated among modern archeologist and historians. During Max Miller’s “bus ride lecture series” he gave us the four standard views scholars take. They may argue the Bible is:
- Accurate: These thinkers argue that the Scripture is correct even in its finer details. God has kept the texts error-free.
- Basically Accurate: In this view the biblical narrative is essentially correct. There may be a few incorrect dates and a slip in detail, but the overall backbone of the story corresponds with history.
- Late Narrative: This view goes a step further and argues that the Scriptures are a very late reconstruction of stories. Some of these stories are based upon actual history and others are merely fictitious.
- Just Stories: Here the biblical stories are akin to what children hear about Paul Bunyan. Archeology tells us that there is no real historical nature to these stories. They are merely legends that use the contextual furniture of the Ancient Near East.
It was helpful knowing these because our starting points always affect our conclusions (and hopefully vice versa). For example, there were sites we visited that seemed to support Joshua’s conquest of Canaan (e.g. Hazor) and others that lacked in archeological evidence (e.g. Jericho). People within our group drew different conclusions from Hazor and Jericho because they had different starting points. Some viewed the biblical text as a reliable source of history (1-2) and others were more skeptical (3-4).
At the same time I think we were all trying to be honest. I remember walking through Megiddo in the blazing heat and Max turned to me and said “you know we don’t dig in the burning heat for the hell of it.” His point was well put. Archeologists following (3) or (4) do not spend decades digging in the dirt simply to disprove biblical history. They are trying to follow where the evidence takes them. Likewise, scholars who subscribe to (1) or (2) are aiming for honesty. But for them the Scriptures are a reliable source of history that must be given pride of place.
Honesty does not ensure the correct opinion. The fact is someone is right and someone else is wrong. But in our excitement to argue our case we should never slander others’ motives or fail to give their points a fair hearing—for this only results in conservative or liberal fundamentalism, which is never good. The history of Israel intimates toward the related subject of the history of other religions—our final vista.
The Vista of Religion
If we think of Africa, the Middle East, the Far East, and for that matter Central and South America—in other words, the great majority of the human race—we find that something we could broadly describe as ‘spirituality’ has been a constant factor in the life of families and villages, towns and cities, communities and societies. It takes different forms. It integrates in a thousand different ways with politics, with music, with art, with drama—in other words, with everyday life. – N.T. Wright
Our next vista takes us to the sacred “high places” of religion. Peering off this mountain I would make out the religions of paganism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. As the fog cleared I could see the similarities and differences between these religions. My own relationship with God was informed and enhanced through interacting with other faiths and people.
In some ways the various religions seemed similar. The Temple of Baal in Palmyra (Syria) was akin to Herod’s (now destroyed) Temple in Jerusalem. Both had a large temple wall, Roman styled porticos, a courtyard, an altar and a temple proper. In terms of worship, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all practiced variations of liturgy, veneration, iconography and prayer. Each religion believed that the sacred presence of God somehow dwelt in their holy sites. I felt this when I watched men praying prostrate on the carpet of the Umayyad Mosque and crying out to God against Western Wall. The eerie (and loud!) “call to prayer” in the smaller Muslim cities wouldn’t let us forget their commitment and devotion to God.
Religion in the States is so much different. We can have a bite-sized level of devotion to Jesus and still save face at church. Scripture reading and regular prayer times are rare for most proclaimed Christians and church attendance is irregular. Watching how seriously Christian and Muslim pilgrims took their faith was a real wakeup call for me. I was also challenged and moved by visiting the biblical places. To realize that my Bible is rooted in history and took place “on the ground” was profound. Sitting on the Mount of Beatitudes and boating on the Sea of Galilee made the Gospels more vivid and clear. Walking through the Mount of Olives, Garden of Gethsemane and Via Delarosa was a constant series of “aha” moments. Visiting the two debated sites (i.e., the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Garden Tomb) for the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus was the closest I came to standing on holy ground.
Above these positive aspects of religion hovered a dark cloud of religious division. Of course the three great monotheistic religions have distant and different messages, so separation is to be expected but the ugly face of conflict was unjustified. Not far from the Western Wall was the other Wall that separated the West Bank from Israel. During our ride out of Bethlehem, on the Palestinian side, we could see the Wall was covered with graffiti messages screaming for peace and equality. Of course, the matter is more complicated than simply religion, but it does play a part. The division cut right across Jerusalem and polarizes its people. Navigating the complexities of problems and promoting justice for both Israelis and Palestinians requires great care. Christians especially are called to be a voice for the voiceless and support the downtrodden.
Remembering the Vistas
My mental vistas overlooking land, relationships, history and religion were truly life-changing. I will always cherish the invaluable memories stored up from METS 2009. I encountered people and places that will forever stick in my head and change the way I read Scripture and view the Middle East. I have also begun to understand Western culture differently because I have something else to compare it to now. In short, I am sure this trip will pay dividends for days, years and decades to come.
*Hovey, Brandon, "Life-Changing Vistas From a Far-Away Land" in 2009 Middle East Travel Seminary Reflection Paper (Pittullock Foundation) Stone Mountain, GA, 2009.