Walking Where Jesus Walked: Book Review

Kaell, Hillary. 2014. Walking Where Jesus Walked: American Christians and Holy Land Pilgrimage. New York: NYU Press.

By: Jackie Feldman (Ben Gurion University)

“On each trip, certain interpenetrations are articulated and shaped by group leaders, Many, however, are not. At the back of the bus, pilgrims make the experience meaningful in ways that guides and tour operators may not expect and cannot predict. Pilgrims keep these deeply felt connections to themselves, and they color each trip in very personal ways.” (Kaell 2014: 80)

Although I have been working with American Holy Land pilgrims for over three decades, both as anthropologist and as tour guide, Hillary Kaell’s book surprised me. The perspective she has chosen – accompanying and talking with women before, during and after the voyage – places the voyage within a longue durée that was invisible to me as tour guide, and only partially visible as researcher. Rather than privilege the narratives spoken into bus microphones by guides and pastors/priests, Kaell places her microphone with the woman in the back, who rarely expresses her desires or thoughts in public on the tour. This perspective is a useful corrective to scholars who focus on ecclesiastical guidelines, sermons, recited public prayers, guides’ explanations, and the goals made explicit by the pilgrim/tour industry or the pastors who organize and lead groups. Kaell’s concentration on the lived experience of 50-75 year-old Catholic and evangelical American women traveling to the Holy Land demonstrates how the geographical, political or even biblical context of the sites and routes of the Holy Land may serve as the background for an intensely personal trajectory. This personal path is a continuation of the home lives of ‘middle-old’ aged women, who make up a major portion of Holy Land pilgrims. Without ignoring denominational distinctions, Kaell reminds us that the pilgrimage experience is rooted in profoundly American, (mainly) middle-class values that cut across traditional religious lines.

Espousing a multi-disciplinary approach, her explanations of phenomena on the Holy Land tour draw their authority from her broad historical knowledge of American Christianity and her familiarity with contemporary sociological and anthropological literature, as well as the Christian popular press. For example, the proliferation of American groups’ identification with Living Stones Palestinians, or Messianic Jews, is attributed to a common search for historical roots and authenticity in large evangelical megachurches and post-Vatican II Catholic congregations.

The broader view of historical processes in American Christianity also provides an alternative to the narrower focus on the mid-East and church politics of pilgrimage, especially in accounts on the relation between evangelicals and the State of Israel. While mid-East politics may be important in guide and pastor itineraries and narrative choices, they may be marginal for many rank-and-file American pilgrims, including ‘Patty’ in the back seat. Kaell makes the admirable decision of not viewing the pilgrims’ lack of knowledge or engagement with contemporary politics as an expression of support for hegemonic powers in the Middle East; rather, she sees it as a privileging of other spiritual and personal needs deriving from the concerns and life-crises of the participants in their home lives. Moreover, she finds that “while most American pilgrims work to tune out or dismiss conversations that they deem to be overly political, they still find ways to speak in a moral register about local people’s claims to the land.” Among these ways of speaking, she cites ‘trash talk’ – talk about garbage littering sites of the Holy Land, or talk of ‘gaudy’ church decorations. These interactions “allow for broad political participation, though not of the direct political or prophetic sort that outside observers may expect” (149).

As a “native” anthropologist – a long-term tour guide of Christian pilgrimages – I am impressed by how often Kaell gets the facts right. After participating on only a handful of pilgrimages, there is always the risk that the serendipitous may come to stand in for the larger phenomenon, but in Kaell’s case, this rarely happens. Through her conversations and broad reading, she has clearly done her homework.

This is a very mature first book, based mostly on research for her 2010 doctoral thesis. Kaell manages to tell a lively story, and judiciously chooses which of the many possible by-roads in religion and politics should be relegated to short footnotes. As a result, we never lose track of the thrust of her argument. No easy task for young scholars who often feel a need to prove their innovative engagement with contemporary debates and theories (and are trained to do so!), even at the expense of readability. In this text, there are, thankfully, no proclamations of gaps to fill or lacunae to repair.

This is a book that avoids, or at least tones down, conflict. In part this is due to the methodological choices of the author. She chooses the path less traveled in documenting pilgrimage: observing the groups as they form in the United States, accompanying them on their voyage, and following up through many interviews, home visits and observations of church reunions after their return. Kaell identifies with the struggles of the middle-old-aged women who are coping with their own marginalized status in American society, their waning physical force, the demands of loved ones, the proximity of debilitating old age, and the often lukewarm religious commitments of their own children. These women avoid conflict in the Holy Land so as not to ruin the atmosphere of a voyage they have often saved for years to experience. Kaell appreciates them as ‘ritual experts’ for their families and acquaintances (and is acknowledged by them for her sympathetic listening), and the interviews she conducts demonstrate how these women’s voices may be significant for relatives and friends, even if they’re not heard on the tour bus.

As a result of her focus, some voyage phenomena are kept to the sidelines. Several incidents of conflict between participants (172-3) or between the group leader and the Israeli tour guide are played down, and quotes of racism, anti-Semitism or hostility to Arabs or Muslims rarely appear. A deeper look at some of the pastors, travel agents, guides, restaurateurs and shopkeepers might reveal more to be cynical about – as would the somewhat manipulative use of the trip to support narrow nationalist agendas, whether Israeli, Palestinian or American. Furthermore, the desire of the women pilgrims to avoid conflict is assisted by the often intensive efforts at the front of the bus and in the tour office behind the scenes, aimed at maintaining a peaceful and cheerful environment, even in times of high political tensions. Pilgrims’ families at home, worriedly listening to the evening news, are usually more aware of incidents of terrorism or fighting than the pilgrims who may have been no more than a mile away.

But beyond Kaell’s methodological choice, one also senses that the author is not a combative spirit. While the author does – as always, gently – take issue with the blatant harnessing of the pilgrimage to support political agendas, the book, like the pilgrims report of their own experience – avoids conflict in order to preserve the voice of the pilgrims’ experience. Thus: “When pilgrims arrange their albums they perpetuate forms of domination by utterly ignoring local people’s reality, just as they compartmentalize the spiritual and the political in the trip itself. Yet redaction and organization of photos is also a way to exert agency (re)creating the ‘perfect’ trip by selecting photos that eliminate distractions and assert the primacy of the pilgrim’s spiritual goals” (188).

This applies equally well to the author’s approach to academic theory. It is never heavy-handed, and sometimes the syntheses display real virtuosity. Witness the conclusions, which bridge the tension between the discourse of transformation, promoted by guides, travel agents and many scholars on the one hand, and the language of continuity and steady spiritual growth, on the other: “Pilgrims do not take profound change for granted. From a social scientific perspective, however, one might (more cynically) conclude that they are almost always primed for the changes that result. This does not belittle the transformative nature of the experiences, but it does illuminate what transformation means and why pilgrims are so rarely disappointed” (168). One might add Catherine Bynum’s early critique of Victor Turner’s understanding of liminality. Drawing on the experience of medieval women pilgrims, Bynum shows how women’s life courses and their marginalization within social structure lead them to conceptualize pilgrimage (and other rites of passage) as an act of continuity and intensification, rather than one of rupture and transformation.

The avoidance of polemic sometimes downplays the theoretical contributions that the book makes to contemporary debates on pilgrimage and Christianity. For these, the reader must thread his way through the footnotes.

In her conclusions, Kaell summarizes a number of dualities discussed throughout the book: between a spiritual search and the commercialization of a packaged tour; between an interior journey of faith and observable physical action; between material evidence and transcendent divinity; and between domestic relationships at home and global experience traveling to and in the Holy Land (198-99). Kaell elegantly demonstrates how each pilgrimage derives its power and relevance from the interaction of each of the elements in these dualities. She then utilizes these syntheses to question contemporary categories in the literature on religion. It is here, perhaps, that one might wish for a more aggressive positioning, so that the many engagements with contemporary scholarship become more explicit.

I am sure that this book will find a place of pride, not only in the literature on pilgrimage (along with Frey’s Pilgrim Stories) and on contemporary American Christianity, but also on the shelves of returning pilgrims. Even if not all can follow (or are interested in) the anthropological discussion, they will appreciate the respect and sympathy Kaell shows to the individual pilgrims whose voice is rarely heard over the dominant narratives of travel agents, guides, pastors and priests. These men (mostly) would do well to listen to the voices in this book. It will make them aware of what else is going on in ‘their’ tour bus and perhaps teach them, teach us, a measure of humility.

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