Chapter 1 Introduction

In: Walking on the Pages of the Word of God
Aron Engberg
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Jerusalem, October 10th 2011, Thursday, 19:30

It is a special night in Binyenei HaUma, the International Convention Center in western Jerusalem. There is great excitement in the air as multi-colored spotlights slice through the hall accompanied by a massive soundscape of catchy Evangelical praise music. On stage, the songs are performed by a highly professional 25-piece orchestra and choir, while the 6,000-strong Evangelical audience contributes to the atmosphere by singing the lyrics projected onto three huge television screens that flank the stage. It is the early stages of fieldwork and I have chosen a spot up on the higher balcony with my audio recorder and note book, looking down in fascination at the gathered Evangelicals that are here for the opening night of the Feast of Tabernacles 2011. The theme of this year’s conference is “Israel—light of the Nations”: a title which, according to the accompanying booklet, speaks to the “enormous blessings which emanated from the people of Israel out to the gentiles” and the debt of gratitude that gentiles owe the Jewish people.1 From the stage Jürgen Bühler, the newly appointed executive director of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (icej), announces, “Salvation came from Israel”.

The steady flow of praise music is interrupted as the flags of all the represented countries are paraded, each accompanied by a cheer from a section of the audience as their own national symbol appears on stage. In my notebook I reach a total of 80-something different flags, from all continents, before a major roar from the gathered Christians erupts as the Degel Yisra’el enters the stage. As the band resumes playing and the crowd of Evangelicals stretches their hands towards the heavens in praise I, slightly bewildered by the performance, reflect upon what brings all these Christians from so many countries together here, and what occasions this massive show of solidarity and support. A dance company in traditional-looking Jewish clothing whirls over the stage in a performance that symbolically connects the founding of the state in 1948 with themes centered on restoration and rebirth. It is a professionally choreographed and highly entertaining spectacle, more resembling a gala event or the Eurovision Song Contest than any charismatic service that I have ever had the chance to visit before. It is a powerful manifestation of the energy and momentum of an emerging global Christian movement.

As I leave the event, I am unable to find a taxi driver willing to take me all the way from the convention center in West Jerusalem to the Mount of Olives in the eastern part of town where I rent a room at the Augusta Victoria. Instead the driver drops me off by the Damascus gate and leaves me to walk the last kilometers up the hill by the northern side of the Old Town wall, the valley of Al-Sawana, and through the Arab neighborhoods that climb the slope of the Mount of Olives. As I stroll through the more-or-less silent Jerusalem quarters the sense of wonder still has not left me and I return to my previous musings: What is it about Israel that invokes such strong religious emotions? What is it that makes thousands of Evangelicals travel here to express their solidarity with a state, its culture, and its politics, a state to which they do not belong?

Empirically speaking, there is something enchanting about Israel. Throughout the centuries, the land has occupied an important place in the religious imaginaries not only of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, but also of Bahá’ís, Samaritans, Rastafaris, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, African Hebrew Israelites, and many other groups. The land is profoundly intertwined in the religious narratives of several of the world’s major religions, both as a holy location that God selected as His special dwelling place, and as the locus of the final judgement and the eschatological endgame. These imaginaries have also been enacted in cult and ritual, remembered in testimonies, and praised in liturgies and hymns. In some of these, the “Holy Land” continues to represent a place of particular and unique divine presence. Periodically, Israel has also been a frequent destination for pilgrims from different religious orientations undertaking journeys that were sometimes recorded in text and often in turn became embedded in the cultic use of the land through narrative representation. Historically, however, the land was more often imagined than visited and, outside its borders, often became a mental representation rather than an actual place where people lived and worked. In Christianity, the actual territory to some extent became detached from religious imaginaries and the role it served in religious discourses and practices; the myth often eclipsed the facts (Bowman 1991b). The place also has a considerable history of intermittent religious strife during which religious imaginaries have been translated into a wish for political-territorial control: visible, for instance, in the history of the crusades, as well as in some aspects of the contemporary conflict.

The long religious history of the land is still evident in Jerusalem to the contemporary visitor, not only in the architecture left by different rulers and peoples, but in the multitude of religious, ethnic, and cultural identities that still are represented. In its streets walk Arab Christians and Muslims, Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews, Hassidic Jews of different schools and orientations, and Ethiopians, Armenians, Syrians, Serbs, Russians, and of course tourists and pilgrims of all kinds, religious and secular. This multitude of different and sometimes overlapping identities are, Montefiore writes, “the human equivalent to Jerusalem’s layers of stone and dust” (Montefiore 2011, 16). Some of these groups have lived here for many generations, some for decades, and some are recent immigrants but all these different religious and ethnic identities leave a mark on Jerusalem’s townscape and all have different stories to tell about the city and its special significance.

A relative newcomer to Jerusalem’s mosaic of religious identities is that of Evangelical “friends of Israel”, or what have come to be known as “Christian Zionists” among journalists and researchers. People from this group of Christians—predominantly from Evangelical and/or Charismatic backgrounds—travel to Israel not only because this is the land where Jesus walked, but also because this is the land of the “restoration”. Here God, in the 20th century, restored His special people to the land where they belong, and here Jesus is expected to come again sometime in the near future. For Christian Zionists, Jerusalem’s significance is derived not only from its biblical past but also from its present and expected glorious future.

The contemporary trend of Evangelical travel to Israel is substantial; Faydra L. Shapiro reports that the Israeli Ministry for Tourism “estimates that Evangelical Christians account for a third of American visitors to Israel” (2008, 308). But Americans are far from the only Evangelical visitors; they also come from Europe and increasingly from countries in the Global South: Nigeria, Brazil, Colombia, and the Philippines. Evangelicals often travel to Israel as part of different “biblical” or “prophecy” tours that are tailored to help travellers simultaneously visualize the biblical narratives and the role that Israel will play in the eschatological future (Feldman 2011). Some Evangelicals, however, are not satisfied with taking occasional biblical tours to Israel but instead come to live in the country more permanently as volunteer workers for one of the many international Christian ministries in Jerusalem. These Evangelical volunteers work in many different areas: giving aid to the poorer segments of Israeli society, helping in elderly homes for holocaust survivors, assisting Jewish immigration, or undertaking media and advocacy work. Some of them stay for months, some for years, and some of them go back and forth between their home country and Israel as part of an annual schedule. They see their voluntary work as a practical expression of the love and appreciation they feel towards the Jewish people and Israel, sometimes as a way to participate in sacred history, but almost always as an answer to God’s individual calling. This book is about them.

Walking on the Pages of the Word of God

During the last thirty years, the Evangelical relationship with Israel has drawn much academic and popular attention. Early academic research which focused on this relationship emerged primarily from theological circles that were openly antagonistic towards Christian Zionism, and generally interpreted the phenomenon as a theological departure from sound Protestant doctrine and tradition: a politicization of the gospel rooted in (mis-)interpretations of biblical prophecies (Burge 2003, Chapman 2002, Halsell 2003, Sizer 2004, Wagner 1995, Weber 2004). Later historical works have often criticized this writing as overly ideological, while at the same time keeping the analytic lens focused on discontinuity and the historical development of specific prophetic traditions that have been seen as the main explanatory factor for contemporary Evangelical affinity with Israel (Carenen 2012, Lewis 2010, Smith 2013, Spector 2009, Stewart 2015). Recently, some attempts have also been made to bring this later research together into a more coherent and defined field of inquiry (Gunner and Smith 2014).

The vast majority of these historical works on Christian Zionism have shared a concern with explaining the growth and development of the phenomenon, often, in order to account for its impact on American political culture. Thus, to date, the most influential works have focused on the “roots” of Christian Zionism, creating a historical narrative which, it is felt, explains contemporary manifestations (Lewis 2010, Smith 2013, Weber 2004). While some of these have been very important in revealing some of the theological and hermeneutical currents underlying the development of Christian Zionism, and the extent to which these ideas have permeated North American political discourse, this research tradition has had very little to say about how Christian Zionists experience their dedication to Israel today, and how this particular orientation relates to Evangelical religious forms more broadly. For a more ethnographically oriented observer such academic representations of Christian Zionism also leave many questions unanswered: To what extent can early 20th century prophecy beliefs account for the religious importance many contemporary Evangelicals ascribe to Israel? In what ways are the views of the leading figures also representative of individual believers? What role or roles does Israel play in the formation of Evangelical identities? How does the encounter with Israel as an empirical reality shape Evangelical faith and practice? What are the continuities and discontinuities between broader Evangelical traditions and contemporary manifestations of Christian Zionism? As Hillary Kaell (2014) has recently noted, research that has taken Christian Zionism as its explicit object of study has often prioritized top-down approaches, focused on people in leading positions, and emphasized prophecy-derived politics and the impact of Christian Zionism on American foreign policy towards the Middle East.

Since I began this project, a largely separate and—in quantitative terms—much more limited strand of ethnographic research on the Evangelical relationship with Israel has also developed. The most important works in this field have approached the relationship primarily through the anthropology of pilgrimage (Feldman 2016, Kaell 2014) or inter-religious relations (Shapiro 2015). These works have generally provided a welcome remedy to the dominance of top-down approaches in studies of Christian Zionism, and often provided more sympathetic accounts of Evangelicals engaged with (and in) Israel. As a fieldwork-based project set among Evangelicals in Israel, this project is closely related to these ethnographic accounts but also contributes an original perspective via its focus on the discursive practices and linguistic ideologies of Evangelicals who have profound and extended religious engagements with Israel. This discussion focuses on Israel not only as a place but also as a religious category in itself, and the ways in which this category is integrated with, and negotiated in, Evangelical faith and practice.2 Faydra L. Shapiro (2015), who also takes Christian Zionism as her explicit object of study, has conceptualized the phenomenon as a new—and particularly Evangelical—iteration of ways to navigate the “Jewish-Christian border” which has been so troubled historically. This approach has benefits, but in my view does not sufficiently address Christian Zionism in relation to the forms of religion from which it emerges, and the ways in which it is confronted with the need to negotiate parts of this heritage. The border-crossing tendencies of Evangelical Christians engaged with Israel is not only a reordering of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism but also a more fundamental reordering of the ways in which God is understood to relate to the world. Were it not so, I suspect, it would not give rise to so much controversy within and outside academia.

Part of the cause of the problems outlined above is that most previous studies of Christian Zionism have been largely disconnected from broader conversations about contemporary forms of Evangelicalism taking place in other disciplines, particularly in the emerging Anthropology of Christianity (Cannell 2005, Engelke and Tomlinson 2006a, Jenkins 2012, Robbins 2007). This has left this strand of research poorly equipped to move beyond totalizing characterizations of Christian Zionism as a particular configuration of beliefs centered on biblical prophecy and textual literalism, thereby failing to account for the sociocultural dynamics by which Israel becomes integrated as a central part of Evangelical faith and practice. On the other hand, anthropologists that have participated in this conversation have so far paid very limited attention to how Evangelicals relate to the state of Israel, and what this relationship might have to say about Evangelicalism more broadly. This is a somewhat surprising silence considering both the religious importance many Evangelicals ascribe to Israel, and the relevance this relationship has for many of the theoretical questions that have defined this field of inquiry. As Jon Bialecki and Eric Hoenes del Pinal have recently argued (2011), one of the most sustained and productive areas in the Anthropology of Christianity has been language use and the ways that “language ideologies” and discursive practices shape experiences of faith, agency, and identity. Language ideologies, generally understood as “a culturally determined, historically grounded set of interpretative standards” (Parmentier 1994, 142), enable the interpretation of signs and their functions in the world. Protestant ideologies are naturally actualized, but also negotiated in relation to Israel’s peculiar role as a signifier of divine intent. As I demonstrate throughout this book, for many Evangelicals contemporary Israel is understood to have a unique relationship with the biblical text and with God, a relationship which must be recognized by anyone who holds to principles of scriptural fidelity and God’s active involvement in history. This means that whatever else it is, Israel is also a religious category that is constructed by discursive means, particularly through an ongoing attempt to relate the state, its national ideology, and events in Israeli history to Christian narratives. This process involves questions of biblical reading practices and the meanings of signs and their social functions, and it invites Evangelical Zionists to negotiate the proper location of human and divine agency as well as the relationship between materiality and divine presence. The aim of this book is to describe this process as it occurs in the discursive practices of Evangelical volunteer workers as well as to explain what it contributes to the construction of Evangelical faith and identity.

Walking on the Pages of the Word of God brings two areas of research into conversation with each other through an in-depth ethnographic account of Evangelicals working in Israel and their stories about themselves, the land, and the biblical text. In doing so, this book contributes both to the emerging ethnographic research about Christian Zionism and to the current anthropological conversation about the forms and functions of Protestant language ideologies. The project is based on fieldwork carried out between September 2011 and May 2013 among volunteers at three Christian ministries in Jerusalem—the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (icej), the Bridges for Peace (bfp), and the Christian Friends of Israel (cfi)—all of which consider their work in Israel a natural consequence of biblical promises to Israel and their responsibility as Christians to “bless the Jewish people”. Throughout fieldwork I spent time at the organizations’ headquarters and at other venues where the volunteers gather in Jerusalem: messianic congregations, evangelical workshops and conferences, bus tours in “Judea and Samaria”, sports events, cafés, and bars. I also conducted around thirty in-depth life story interviews with the volunteers and with some of the organizations’ leaders.

Since the narratives of the volunteers are the primary focus of the project, relatively little attention will be paid to the Christian Zionist ministries as institutions, their internal and external power dynamics, their role as domestic and international actors, and the ideological and theological distinctions between them. In Chapter Two I present a brief history of how they have developed in relation to Israeli society and Christian discourses but this narrative is largely offered to provide a context for the volunteers’ stories. A full history of these organizations and their place in Israeli society today would require a different methodological approach. Similarly, the actual work of the volunteers and the organizations is not examined here in any depth; while I have spent time at all three organizations and in some cases taken part in their work, this participant observation was not extensive enough to form the basis of profound analysis. Interesting as these questions are, they will have to be left for another project.

Instead I primarily rely on an up-close portrait of the discursive practices of the volunteers to explore a central problem of Zionist Christianity: the narrative production of Israel’s religious significance and its relationship to Protestant language ideologies. In this book, this problem is approached from three different analytical angles: the religious self, the land, and the biblical text; three perspectives which form the basis of Chapter Three, Four and Five respectively.

Chapter Three explores the volunteer’s coming-to-Israel stories and the ways in which agency and self-transformation is understood therein; Chapter Four discusses the volunteers’ narrative production of Israel as a “sacred space” and the ways in which this special status is being negotiated in relation to the encounter with material realities and with ideas about religious fetishism; and, Chapter Five focuses on “biblical literalism” as a textual ideology and on how this ideology becomes manifest in discourses about Bible prophecy and the “Hebraic roots of Christian faith”. Finally, Chapter Six draws these themes together and offers some conclusions regarding what this means for the broader questions that this book has set out to explore.

Throughout this book I take “Christian Zionism” as an analytical category and legitimate object of academic study but at the same time consider the continuities and discontinuities between this phenomenon and Evangelicalism more broadly a question of empirical investigation. Furthermore, while I opt for close, qualitative readings rather than a broad quantitative sample, the voices explored in the following chapters should not be understood as isolated cases. A central part of my argument is that these voices—albeit highly personal and individual—draw extensively on culturally salient narrative traditions in their effort to make sense of Israel, the world, and their own place in it. Through an exploration of the volunteers’ narrative practices, broader themes about this tradition become visible and light is cast on the ways in which it both emerges from—and also renegotiates—Evangelical religious forms.

Toward an Ethnography of Christian Zionism

While designing and conducting this project it has not been uncommon for my choice of topic to meet with surprise, reluctance, and even disapproval from friends and colleagues: why would I want to study “crazy fundamentalists” who conflate a literalist understanding of the Bible with territorial rights and right-wing political policies? Why would I want to engage in an area of research that is so permeated by ideology that whatever terms one uses, whatever narratives one tells, one is bound to be identified with one or the other end of the political spectrum? In fact, does not this ever-presence of ideology make a nuanced picture of a phenomenon—particularly this phenomenon—nigh on impossible?

To some extent I believe these objections reflect what Susan Harding has described as a modernist bias against the wrong kind of “cultural otherness” in her well-known essay “Representing Fundamentalism: The Problem of the Repugnant Cultural Other” (1991). Harding was perhaps the first to direct the spotlight onto the antagonism between modern academia and fundamentalist or conservative Christianity, as well as some of the difficulties this antagonism presented for ethnographers, but since then several other researchers have reported and discussed similar issues (Coleman 2015, Dalsheim 2013, Howell 2007). In her article, Harding articulates a strong argument for the need for more nuanced, local, and partial accounts of the fundamentalist Other that could successfully deconstruct “the totalizing opposition between us and them” (Harding 1991, 393). However, as Simon Coleman has recently pointed out, at the same time she also commits—perhaps somewhat in tension with her de-totalizing aim—to “the project of designing effective strategies to oppose the positions and policies advocated by conservative Christians” (Coleman 2015, 277). Harding’s project of nuancing representations of the “fundamentalist Other” is framed as an instrument for more sound, and perhaps more effective, political judgement.

While I certainly share Harding’s assessment of the need for nuanced and de-totalizing accounts of conservative Christianities I am less inclined to perceive this task as one in the service of a more effective politics vis à vis such belief systems. In this book I am neither interested in criticizing nor defending Christian Zionist understandings of the Bible, of theological tradition, of Israel, or of the content of “proper” Christian politics. Although I personally do not share many of their understandings in these particular areas, I am genuinely interested in exploring how they imagine the relationship between the biblical text and the world, and I try to represent their perspectives as fairly and honestly as I can.

A second aspect of the wariness of academic colleagues arises more specifically from the context of Israel/Palestine, and especially from the problems associated both with intractable conflict and with the potency of this particular conflict in the Western religio-political imagination. It is frequently assumed, often implicitly or even unconsciously, that wanting to study this context is somehow different from an interest in other contexts: that the interest ultimately emerges not from academic concerns but from political motives or some hidden ideological agenda. However, while it is not difficult to find scholarly accounts dealing with this context that privilege certain narratives over others, or that are overly embedded in ideological discourses, generally speaking, this presupposition seems to me unfounded. I do not mean to deny that researchers come to this field with pre-suppositions, with understandings of right and wrong, with political, religious, and cultural subject positions and identities that structure research and interpretations in particular ways; what I do reject is the inference that this methodological problem is qualitatively different in Israel compared to any other geographical or cultural context. To engage with Israel as though it were somehow methodologically unique is, in my opinion, a position that easily lends itself to the very same cultural dynamics that have historically guided Western representations of the Jewish people as fundamentally different from other peoples, as possessing an identity defined by a cosmological otherness (Bauman 1998, 2009, Haynes 1995). While these historical traditions certainly play a role in Christian Zionist understandings of Israel, and thus are included in the following discussion, the analytic perspective taken here is that uniqueness is something that is produced through discursive processes, not an inherent quality of any people or situation.

At the same time, empirical contexts subsuming ongoing armed struggles and contested historical narratives tend to be permeated with ideology, and present particular problems that call for reflexivity on the part of the researcher. Fran Markowitz et al. (2013a) have described some of these problems—such as the politics of language, the influence of religious and political subject positions, and the profound entanglement of the “religious” and the “political”—in the fine anthology Ethnographic Encounters in Israel. How such questions are approached impacts on how an observer both perceives and presents religious as well as political identities, the terms chosen for these identities, and how they are explained or analyzed. My basic approach here is constructivist: I approach all identities and boundaries as performed and produced in discourse. In relation to Evangelical Zionism this means that I address their discourses about themselves, about the land, and about the biblical text as not merely reflecting a reality but as contributing to the production of that reality. No doubt, such a perspective might also be perceived as ideologically flawed by readers who have invested interest in particular religious identities, and who wish to construct clear boundaries around themselves and others. Nevertheless, this seems to me a better option than to contribute to the essentialization of particular identities, often at the expense of others.

In my case, the interest in Christian Zionism has both a personal and an academic angle to it, which I suppose is the case for most researchers in the humanities and social sciences. I grew up within the Swedish Baptist Church, which is probably best compared to a liberal Evangelical congregation; it put considerable emphasis on the Bible and baptism by immersion, and existed in some small—yet palpable—cultural tension with what at the time was the Lutheran Swedish national church and wider society. I was baptized as a teenager but, since my mid-twenties, have not been a particularly active member of any congregation. As in many churches in Sweden, Israel had a special significance and invoked a particular interest among members of the congregation. The older generation in my family shared this fascination, could at times mention Bible prophecy, called Yassir Arafat a “horrible terrorist” when he appeared on the 9 o’ clock news, and often supported, appreciated, and admired whatever political leadership Israel had at the time. In other words, the State of Israel was considered by some family members both as worthy of special religious interest and as something that should be politically supported. Yet this was never a particularly salient theme and I cannot remember that I ever paid much attention to it in my youth, or could even distinguish Israelis from Palestinians before I grew older and started to become interested in religion in the Middle East.

The academic interest emerges most directly from my interest in inter-religious relations, the relationship between religion and politics, and Evangelical forms of Christianity, dating particularly from when I was travelling and studying in Lebanon and Israel in the mid-2000s. Through these journeys in the Middle East I came into contact with a wide variety of different Christian opinions about Israel and almost immediately became fascinated with the fact that this particular topic seemed to be able to evoke such strong emotions and opinions on both sides of the fence, something which I recognized from my childhood. This is a fascination that has stayed with me until today and probably accounts for much of the academic interest that underpins this book. When I later started to examine what was written about Evangelicals and Israel—at that time not very much—I was surprised to find how limited the picture of this relationship was, how much it emphasized a rather obscure eschatological tradition to explain contemporary manifestations, how overtly negative the accounts often were, and how little the portrayals accounted for the nuances, dynamics, and heterogeneity of Evangelicalism. When entering the doctoral program in 2010, I was already determined to conduct field research in Jerusalem, not because I was particularly attached to the place—although I certainly had nothing against it—but because others were, and I was interested in understanding how that came to be.

“Christian Zionism”: Belief and Practice

There are of course numerous cultural, religious and political reasons for a Christian to feel a particular affinity with the State of Israel and the Jewish people: a familiarity and identification with the stories of the Bible; an interest in the land’s long and winding history; a fascination with its character as a meeting place between the “East” and the “West”; a sense of shared “Judeo-Christian” political and moral values; or simply because one is fond of Israeli culture, food, music, and literature. Many Christians have also, like me, grown up with stories of biblical Israel in Sunday Schools and Bible camps, sung about “Israel” in hymns and praise songs, celebrated the occasional Pesach in an attempt by Bible school teachers to immerse students in the story-world of the Bible, and encountered the metaphorical use of “Israel” in prayer, theological conversations, and Christian education. Additionally, many churches, at least in the West but also increasingly in the Global South, organize biblical tours to Israel where participants can walk in “Jesus’ footsteps”, visit the biblical sights, and get to know contemporary Israel and the peoples that live there (Kaell 2014). In short, for many Christians probably no other country in the world—with the possible exception of their own—has the same place in religious imaginaries as Israel.

In relation to how embedded Israel is in Western Christian culture, contemporary academic representations of “Christian Zionism” have struggled to find an analytical space that at the same time limits the area of inquiry and yet does not exclude this vast and vibrant cultural terrain. Although emphases in these representations differ, there have generally been two defining components in academic understandings of Christian Zionism: a particular configuration of religious beliefs; and political action on behalf of Israel and/or the Zionist movement. The term itself has more than one hundred years of history, first referring to Christians who supported the Zionist movement politically and appearing in the writings of Theodore Herzl who referred to his Christian associates as “Christian Zionists”. Stephen Spector notes that the term was in print as early as 1903 “when it began to appear in the New York Times, first in letters to the editor and obituaries, then, twenty years later, in news stories” (Spector 2009, 2). It was probably first used in a scholarly publication in 1919 in Nahum Sokolow’s History of Zionism 1600–1918 in which he employed the term to describe Christian precursors of Jewish Zionism, in an unusual display of willingness to include Christians in Zionist historiography (Sokolow 1969 [1919]).3 The term surfaces again in the Encyclopaedia Judaica, from 1971–72, in an entry by Yona Malachy where Christian Zionism is simply understood as “the active support of Christians for such a movement [i.e. Zionism]” (Malachy 1971–1972, 2007). Sokolow’s and Malachy’s point of departure was the history of (Jewish) Zionism and, therefore, self-identified Christians who showed sympathy towards the Zionist movement—such as Lord Balfour, Rev. William Hechler, William E. Blackstone and others—were understood as “Christian Zionists”.

Throughout the 1900s, the term also carried weight amongst Christians who identified with the phenomenon. For instance, a partly similar understanding to that held by the historians of Zionism was also demonstrated by the circle surrounding the Christian Embassy. During the ‘80s two “Christian Zionist Congresses” were organized by the icej: the first in Basel in 1985—in the same hall as Theodore Herzl had convened the first Zionist congress almost a century earlier—and the second one three years later in Jerusalem. The third and fourth conferences were also held in Jerusalem in 1996 and in 2001, but the latter had changed the central term to “Biblical Zionism”: a terminological variation that reflects both an awareness of the polemical use of the term that had emerged in some theological circles in the late ‘80s–‘90s, and a willingness to emphasize the biblical roots of Zionism. Among workers at the icej and the other Christian Zionist ministries in Jerusalem these terms continue to be used more or less interchangeably, primarily to denote a particular religious orientation within Evangelicalism that identifies with Zionism.

Early understandings of Christian Zionism, both among insiders and observers, thus emphasized Christian political action on behalf of the Zionist movement, but rarely expounded on what made these activities “Christian” beyond the obvious fact that they were practiced by self-proclaimed Christians. Even though for the icej and other Christians who identified with the term it was always implicit that this support was derived directly from their readings of the Bible, the category “Christian” was rarely problematized. When the term entered more regular academic usage in the ‘90s, however, this wide application of it led to a shift in definitional emphasis to a particular configuration of beliefs that was understood to lead Christians to support Zionism. For instance, Donald Wagner, one of the first who wrote about the icej from an outsider’s—yet essentially polemical—perspective, defined Christian Zionism as “a movement within Protestant fundamentalism that understands the modern state of Israel as the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy and thus deserving of political, financial, and religious support” (2003, 12). Part of this semiotic shift is visible in the frequent emphasis on “biblical literalism”—or, in Wagner’s case, “fundamentalism”—and the history of prophecy interpretation that these academic commentators on Christian Zionism saw as constitutive of the phenomenon (Chapman 2002, Sizer 2004, Wagner 1995). This emphasis on religious beliefs also served to distinguish the phenomenon from Evangelical and Protestant culture more broadly, and it is an emphasis that has remained dominant even in recent accounts of Christian Zionism.

As already mentioned, the vast majority of these works have been primarily historical in nature. The dominant narrative in this tradition has traced contemporary Christian Zionism from John Nelson Darby’s Plymouth Brethren in the United Kingdom, before moving on to various dispensationalist preachers in turn-of-the-century North America—most notably William Eugene Blackstone with his 1891 “Memorial” and C. I. Scofield and his eponymous footnoted Bible editions of 1909 and 1917. The story then typically leaps—more or less abruptly—to Hal Lindsey’s and Carole C. Carson’s The Late Great Planet Earth (1970) and the runaway bestsellers that comprised the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. The general picture painted is one where US Christian Zionism—which is often understood as paradigmatic of Christian Zionism globally—is predominantly prophecy-focused, rather obsessed with Armageddon, essentially political, somehow vaguely sinister, and more or less synonymous with premillennial dispensationalism. However, some recent works have displayed more awareness of problems with this narrative, particularly its dependence on dispensationalism. For instance, Robert O. Smith remarked in his More Desired than Our Owne Salvation that “American attitudes are informed more by what George Marsden has called ‘cultural fundamentalism’ than by adherence to particular doctrinal systems, including premillennial dispensationalism” (Smith 2013, 27). Shalom Goldman arrived at the same realization in Zeal for Zion: “the majority of Evangelicals do not subscribe to dispensationalism; nevertheless they are moved to support Israel, for they see its establishment as the fulfillment of the Biblical promise” (2009, 37, see also: Stewart 2015, Westbrook 2014).

Despite these recent critiques of the paradigmatic focus on dispensationalism in the ideational history of Christian Zionism, most characterizations of the latter still come with an underlying epistemological assumption, namely, that religious beliefs explain political behavior. Belief is understood to lead to practice rather than the other way around, something which is often expressed in terms suggesting an unambiguous and transparent causal relation. As a consequence, the political and religious practices of Evangelicals are presented as secondary; they are the outcome of certain propositions. Stephen Spector, for instance, writes that Christian Zionism denotes “Christians whose faith, often in concert with other convictions, emotions, and experiences leads them to support the modern state of Israel as the Jewish homeland” (Spector 2009, 3, my emphasis). In Spector’s otherwise nuanced account of contemporary American Christian Zionism the political activity of adherents is taken as a more or less direct application of Darbyite dispensationalism (Westbrook 2014, 65 ff.). Another frequently cited example is Smith’s definition of Christian Zionism as “political action informed by specifically Christian commitments, to promote or preserve Jewish control over the geographic area now comprising Israel and Palestine” (Smith 2013, 2). Admittedly, in Smith’s formulation emphasis has moved back from belief to practice, and the causality between the two is less pronounced than elsewhere: “informed by specifically Christian commitments” might be taken to imply that these “commitments” are not the cause of “political action” but rather embedded in the dialectics of interpretation.4 Nevertheless, the dichotomy between Christian beliefs and political action that has been a cornerstone of previous definitions of Christian Zionism is also present in Smith’s work.

Biblical Literalism

Related to the question of propositional belief as an analytic category, and one of the main ways the influence of this perspective is visible in much previous literature on Christian Zionism, is the explanatory value given to “biblical literalism” in much research about the phenomenon. Historian Yaakov Ariel, for instance has argued: “Motivated by a literal reading of the Bible, and adhering to a Messianic faith, many Evangelical Christians view contemporary Jews as heirs to biblical Israel and the object of prophecies about a restored Davidic kingdom in the messianic age” (Ariel 2002, 1). Similar claims have been repeated over and over again in literature on Christian Zionism (e.g. Baumgartner, Francia, and Morris 2008, Clark 2007, Durham 2004, Goldman 2009, Mayer 2004, Perko 2003, Phillips 2008, Shindler 2000, Spector 2009).

It is easy to see where the association arises; Evangelical Zionism emerged—particularly in the American context—within conservative Christian groups that were antagonistic towards the biblical criticism that had become influential within academia in the early 1900s, and these proponents of Bible prophecy frequently argued for “literalism” as an alternative to “allegorical”, “spiritual”, or “historical” readings of the Bible (Ammerman 1994, Marsden 2006). Even today, claims to literalism and antagonism towards allegory are highly salient in Evangelical Zionist milieus (see Chapter Five). One of my first encounters during my fieldwork in Jerusalem, for instance, was with Benjamin, who described himself as a “biblical fundamentalist” and explained that this meant that his “feelings towards people who call themselves ‘Christians’ but treat the Bible like a salad bar, taking the parts they like and ignoring the parts they don’t, are a mixture of pity and exasperation.”5 At first glance, Benjamin’s description of himself as a “biblical fundamentalist” seems to confirm common scholarly identifications of Christian Zionism with “biblical literalism”. What Benjamin’s self-description does confirm, however, is not necessarily that these scholarly understandings of Christian Zionism are correct, but that they are also largely shared by many self-identified Christian Zionists, which includes many of the volunteers in Jerusalem. In this particular area scholars and the people that they are studying have been in substantial agreement (even when they have not agreed on the legitimacy of those readings).

The empirical objectivism of this approach can be traced, as Marsden has done (2006), to the influence of Baconian empiricism on the emerging fundamentalist movement in the early 1900s. Baconian common-sense philosophy was (in theory) dedicated to the observation and classification of facts and argued that reality could be understood through a detached application of an allegedly universal “common sense”. Evangelicals at the turn of the century, Marsden argues, found this epistemological approach fascinating since they believed that an observation of facts, untainted by theoretical (or theological) assumptions, would inevitably lead to a confirmation of the truth of the biblical Scriptures. This theoretical heritage from Baconian ideals is very much alive in the volunteers’ evaluation of Bible reading practices, and understandings of what the Bible says. The “plain reading” of Scripture reflects a Baconian common sense.

While I do not question that different Bible readings might lead to different theological (or political) beliefs, it seems to me that there are several problems involved in taking these emic accounts too literally: first, any textual engagement requires some level of hermeneutic activity, at the very least in the sense of identifying what the phrases and terms of a particular text signify. This assertion is precisely what is denied by appeals to “biblical literalism”. Second, particularly in relation to Bible prophecy, “literalism” is an incomplete (and often inaccurate) description of the hermeneutic practices involved in Christian Zionist interpretations of the Bible because it is with regards to prophetic interpretations that they stray furthest from the norms of literalism with its emphasis on immediately obvious and ultimately decidable referential meaning (Crapanzano 2000, Coleman 2006). Examples of this can be found, for instance, in the highly allegorical readings of “the fig tree” in Mt. 24:32–34, “the valley of dry bones” in Ezek. 37, “the time of Jacob’s trouble” in Jer. 30 and the readings of many other biblical passages that are commonly taken to refer to the relationship between Jewish national restoration and the end times. Third, even with regards to foundational texts such as Gen. 12:1–3, “literalism”, if understood as a description of actual hermeneutical practices, fails to capture the processes involved in these textual engagements.

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”6

Among Evangelical Zionists in Jerusalem, this passage is perhaps the most important biblical text in terms of motivating their political and religious activities in relation to Israel. Yet to interpret it as referring to a religious obligation to express political, moral, and financial support for a contemporary state, and the ways in which divine blessings (and curses) are tied to these practices, is, hermeneutically speaking, very far from a literal interpretation. One might of course well argue that Abram in this text represents “the Jewish people”, and by implication perhaps even “the state of Israel”. One can, furthermore, argue that the meaning of “blessing Abram” is manifested in advocacy work, moral and political apologetics, and charity work on behalf of Israel and the Jewish people, and thus that divine blessings and curses are connected to the ways in which people and nations treat the state. But this is neither a literal interpretation, nor one that is directly accessible from a so-called “plain reading” unless one subscribes to a similar Baconian credo. To interpret it thus is closer to a figurative, or even a typological reading, but one where the signified is the State of Israel rather than the Church as it has been throughout much of Christian tradition. This is a reading that is dependent on a specific interpretative history and the links between the signifier and the signified that this history has established; the reading can only be seen as “plain” or “literal” when one makes that history, and the interpretative practices established by it, invisible. Like any other interpretative practice then, this reading relies on a specific hermeneutical tradition, the inherited conceptual links between specific biblical referents and specific real world (or theological) objects, and a careful selection of relevant passages, as well as theological and ideological preferences.

Thus, treating the self-proclaimed literalism of Christian Zionists as transparent and self-explanatory risks naturalizing what is essentially an ideological claim. For Evangelical Zionists, claims about reading the Bible “as it is”, about the “literal meaning” of Scripture, and about having a “biblical perspective” are all rhetorical—and ideological—arguments in favor of a certain position in an intra-Christian debate about textual ideologies and their applicability in Israel. Consequently, when scholars shorthand Christian Zionists as hermeneutical “literalists” despite evidence to the contrary, this not only naturalizes their ideological position but also effectively hides the impact of the interpretative history, and the social and psychological processes involved in constructing biblical rationalizations in support of political positions.

Christian Zionism as Narrative and Process

While I share the assessment that both Bible prophecy and a culture of biblical literalism are salient and important features of contemporary Christian Zionist formulations of faith and practice, I still find these characterizations of the phenomenon problematic in so far as they analytically separate beliefs from practices and perceive the relationship between the two in causal terms. This, in my opinion, has often led to an over-determination of the beliefs Christian Zionists are supposed to hold, which allows for too little heterogeneity and multiplicity in cultural expression. Moreover, the category of belief, as many authors have noted (Asad 1993, Keane 2009, Lindquist and Coleman 2008), is far from transparent. Not only is belief something interior, invisible, and thus ultimately inaccessible to an observer, it is also a term with a broad palette of entangled meanings. One of the more comprehensive discussions about the problems surrounding belief as an analytic category is provided by Galina Lindquist and Simon Coleman. Drawing on Malcolm Ruel they argue that

… we can see, then, how in Christian history “[t]rust in a personified God becomes conviction about a certain event, the Christ-event of history, becomes an initiatory declaration, becomes a corporately declared orthodoxy, becomes an inwardly organizing experience, becomes values common to all men” (Ruel 1997, 109). All of these connotations are implied when we label orthodoxies, received ideas, collective representations, or ontological foundations of other people’s worlds as ‘beliefs’. It is these implications that make the use of ‘belief’ as applied to others so pernicious, because it carries certain significant and limiting presuppositions. Ruel lists some such fallacious implications: that people’s ideas are necessarily formulated as coherent orthodoxies; that people are committed to them and hold them unquestioningly; that these ideas are experienced as inner states; that they form grounds of personal commitment or group identity and can be cited as explanations of personal and group behavior; that the referents of people’s words and behavior are imaginative projections rather than substantive ‘reality’.

lindquist and coleman 2008, 8

While it is certainly difficult to get around the concept, particularly when studying Evangelical Christians who have often been staunch defenders of “belief”, Lindquist and Coleman argue that the solution to this conundrum might be to write “against” rather than “with” the term (2008, 15). Among other things, this calls for us to avoid understanding beliefs as propositional statements that are representative of a particular culture; to approach “cultural perception and practice” as mutually constitutive; to examine critically the ways in which our interlocutors use the term and the meanings it carries in local contexts; and to be reflexive about the ways in which we use terms such as “belief” in our writing and analysis.

While the question of how a religious phenomenon such as Christian Zionism should be defined is of less interest at the onset of an ethnographically oriented project—since most fieldworkers prefer definitions and categories to emerge from ongoing empirical observation rather than being specified beforehand—the question of belief and practice in Christian Zionism is still important in terms of reflexivity and analytic transparence. When I started fieldwork I simply searched for places where I thought it likely that I would find Evangelicals identifying with Zionist narratives and with long-term commitments to Israel. Since the icej, bfp, and cfi are the largest and most influential self-identified Christian Zionist organizations in the land, and since a large part of their staff is constituted of volunteers, these organizations seemed like a good place to begin. For me it was not necessary at this stage to determine whether these organizations or the volunteers working there could be considered to fit prevalent categorizations of Christian Zionism, whether they conformed to a certain set of doctrinal statements, or extent to which they were involved in “political action … to promote or preserve Jewish control over the geographic area now comprising Israel and Palestine” (Smith 2013, 2). My departure point was, rather, Christian Zionism as a socio-culturally transmitted “narrative tradition” (Bruner 1991a) concerned with the connection between contemporary Israel, its formative ideology, and Christian sacred history. As the organizations actively draw upon, and contribute to, the production of this narrative tradition, and as the volunteers are confronted with a need to take part in this conversation, I considered this setting suitable for the exploration of contemporary forms of Christian Zionism.

In what follows Christian Zionism will be approached as a process rather than as a product, thereby indicating that a specification of beliefs purportedly held by Christian Zionists is not only unnecessary at this stage but also limiting and counter-productive. Doing so would severely limit exploration of the heterogeneity of the phenomenon and the ways in which cultural practices are made meaningful by practitioners. From a processual perspective Christian Zionism can be understood as the ongoing production of connections between the State of Israel, its formative ideology and Christian sacred history.7 For an ethnographic project this approach has two tangible benefits: (i) it situates (visible) practices rather than (invisible) beliefs as the primary focus of analytic inquiry; and (ii) it makes the connections between “Christianity” and “Zionism” that have haunted many previous definitions of Christian Zionism a matter of empirical investigation rather than something to be defined beforehand. The particularities of those connections—the forms they take, how they are made, which are important, how they play out in individual stories, how they correlate with biblical and theological traditions—are ethnographically observable processes that I describe in the following chapters. However, while I focus primarily on linguistic practices I do not consider beliefs irrelevant to the topic; in fact, belief is a central concern for these Evangelicals and the narrative tradition in which they take part. But as I demonstrate in the following chapters, rather than simply being the source or explanation of Evangelical practices in the land, belief is continually being constructed through these activities. Belief or faith, in other words, represents as much the end point as the beginning of Christian Zionist activities in relation to Israel.

Meaning, Language, and Narrative

Writing “against belief” and approaching Christian Zionism as a process obviously involves exploring the locations where this process occurs. Although solid arguments can be made in favor of a focus on different kinds of nonlinguistic or semi-linguistic practices in which the state of Israel is produced as religiously meaningful, the main emphasis in this work is on how this happens within narrative performance. Admittedly this focus is selective, but it is not completely arbitrary. Language is often a central concern for religious, not least Christian communities, and it is one of the main mediums in the production of religious meaning. Furthermore, as mentioned previously, questions of language use and the underlying ideologies that condition how language is used have been a particularly fruitful avenue in explorations of contemporary forms of Evangelical and charismatic religiosity. Before turning to questions of data and methodology it will be useful to outline how these theoretical perspectives pertain to this project.

Meaning and Symbol

A central idea in this book is that Christian debate concerning Israel and Palestine can be understood as expressing a conflict over religious meaning: the ways in which words, material objects, and historical events signify (or do not) divine intentionality. This debate involves questions of how to read the Bible, its applicability to contemporary events, and the ways in which God acts upon and through the material world. The Evangelical discourses about Israel that are explored here consequently take place in the midst of these broader contestations over meaning.

This perspective can be illustrated with a fundamental claim that separates Zionist Evangelicals from their theological opponents.8 Evangelical Zionists frequently describe the founding of the State of Israel as a “sign of the times”, in other words as an event that signifies God’s redemptive purposes. By keeping an eye on the State of Israel it is therefore possible to gauge the progress of redemptive history and to understand the ways in which God acts in the world. In these eschatological readings events in the history of the modern state can be linked directly to biblical passages as fulfillments of prophecy. Christian opponents, on the other hand, consider this indexical reading of the state of Israel not only an improper use of the Bible, but of words, and thus a fundamental displacement of meaning. In the eyes of the latter group, attributing this kind of spiritual meaning to a contemporary state is a case of “fetishism”; it attributes a “false value” to a material object (Keane 1997a).

Evangelical Zionists, however, do not only refute this claim but counter it by associating fetishism with their critics. In their understanding, this specific critique of their activities evidences a displacement of meaning that has occurred throughout Christian history. The inability to realize Israel’s spiritual significance is a symptom of developments within the Christian Church starting with the emergence of allegorical hermeneutics which, in their reading of history, led to replacement theology and anti-Semitism.9 Replacement theology, in other words, inappropriately attributes meaning to the Christian Church which should be reserved for Israel. The influence of Hellenism on Christianity (see Chapter Five) is generally understood among Evangelical Zionists to be the underlying cause for this Christian failure to recognize Israel as a sign of the times. From a Christian Zionist horizon then, the claim that the situation in Israel/Palestine is not about religion is symptomatic of this displacement of meaning. For them, the conflict is fundamentally religious; ultimately, it concerns not the clash of national ideologies or contestations over land but God’s plan for the redemption of the world (Hedding 2004) and the opposition to this plan by malicious spiritual agencies. There is a religious “deep structure” that determines the grammar of the conflict.

From an analytic perspective, I believe it is necessary to recognize these contestations over religious meaning as an important part of the dynamics by which contemporary Evangelical Zionism operates. Meaning, however, is a concept fraught with difficulties. What, after all, does it mean to say that a particular practice, word, or thing is meaningful? Yet, while the term might raise certain problems, to abandon the concept of meaning altogether would be to abandon one of the most important (and historically productive) tools in the empirical study of religion (Engelke and Tomlinson 2006b, 1). Meaning has been at the heart of much anthropological and other social scientific study in this area for the past fifty years, partly due to Clifford Geertz and his widely influential essays, Thick Description: Toward an Interpretative Theory of Culture and Religion as a Cultural System (both included in Geertz 1973). In these essays, Geertz argued that cultures—and by implication, religions—should be understood as “semiotic systems”: structures of interrelated and meaning-carrying symbols by which humans orient themselves in the world. Human beings, he claimed, live their lives “suspended” in those “webs of significance” (1973, 5). At the center of religious systems Geertz located the “problem of meaning”: the desire to construct convincing explanations for a set of fundamental human problems which he described as “bafflement, pain, and moral paradox” (1973, 109). A religious system is dependent on its capacity to provide these explanations, and an analysis of these systems must grapple with how specific religions accomplish this. Consequently Geertz argued that the study of culture and religion was “not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretative one in search of meaning” (1973, 5).

Although some of the original optimism might have faded, it is fair to say that Geertz’s position has been enormously influential, particularly within cultural anthropology and empirically oriented religious studies. Yet the approach has also suffered considerable criticism, particularly for the emphasis on religious beliefs in the definition of religion, the claim that this definition has universal applicability, and for alleged inattention to questions of history, authority, and power (Asad 1993, Engelke and Tomlinson 2006b, Schilbrack 2005, Throop 2009). As I have already discussed the question of belief in the previous section I focus on the latter two objections in what follows.

Talal Asad criticized Geertz for not recognizing that his definition of religion, with its focus on questions of meaning, was in itself dependent on a specifically Christian history. The attempt to find a universal definition of religion, Asad claims, needs to be understood in the light of “[modern] Christian attempts to achieve a coherence in doctrines and practices, rules and regulations” (1993, 29). In his attempt to formulate a universal definition of religion, Geertz becomes complicit in this Christian endeavor to produce religion as a “trans-historical essence” centered on questions of meaning (1993, 29). However, there can never be universal definition of religion according to Asad, “not only because its constitutive elements and relationships are historically specific, but because that definition is itself the historical product of discursive processes” (1993, 29). A central aspect of this critique concerns how the meaning of concepts, practices, rituals, and symbols are produced in—and through—social and historical processes. To isolate the meaning of symbols from these processes would be to separate religion from questions of power and authority. In other words, if a religious symbol is experienced as meaningful, it is always so by reference to a particular discursive history, in a specific social situation, and for specific people. Thus, studying questions of meaning always implies studying how particular meanings are produced and why. In the context of this book, although I frequently discuss questions of meaning, and refer to Israel as a religious symbol, I do not mean to imply that “the meaning of Israel” can be isolated and analyzed apart from the processes in which this “meaning” is produced. As I argue throughout this book, the meanings of religious symbols, such as Israel, are never fixed but, rather, frequently contested and continually negotiated both within and without the religious communities that utilize them in religious discourses and practices.

Recognizing the particular Christian inheritance in how the category of religion has been formulated, however, does not necessarily equal the subordination of questions of meaning to questions of power and authority, particularly in the study of contemporary Christian phenomena. While recognizing Asad’s critique of Geertz, Joel Robbins (2006) has argued that a general feature of Christian symbolic systems is precisely the centrality of questions of meaning. Drawing on Roland Barthes, Robbins describes how the “problem of meaning … confronts Westerners [through Christianity] as an imposition, is experienced with a compulsive force; finding and making all of life meaningful is not an option, it is a duty” (2006, 212).10 In other words, even if the problem of meaning is not necessarily a universal feature of cultural systems, it certainly demands attention in many contemporary Christian contexts.

Thus I do not perceive the perspectives of Geertz and Asad, focusing on meaning and on power and authority respectively, as incommensurable or mutually exclusive. A similar middle way between these approaches is also advocated in the aforementioned volume edited by Engelke and Tomlinson (2006b). However, in order to avoid approaching meaning as a given in religious systems they have suggested that scholars interested in Christianity and the problem of meaning need to pay close attention not only to moments when the production of meaning is successful but also when it fails. By analyzing these “moments of failure … scholars can approach meaning not as a function or as a product, but as a process and potential fraught with uncertainty and contestation” (2006b, 2). This suggestion to pay particular attention to moments of failure, however, is not only a methodological choice but also something that has to do with the specifics of the production of meaning in Christianity: a process which is often dialectical, functioning through the production of meaninglessness. This theme is developed by Robbins in the same volume who describes that this dialectics is produced through a series of ruptures—which Robbins consequently sees as paradigmatic for Christianity: the break from previous lives visible in conversion narratives, the break between the Church and the outside social world, and the break with historical time as this is presented within many Christian eschatologies, particularly premillennial and apocalyptic ones (2006, 214). These staged ruptures are generally framed as transitions from meaninglessness to meaning and are thought to mark the way for genuine Christian lives. While the various instantiations of Christianity naturally place their emphases differently, and have different ways of creating these ruptures, as a general observation this drive for meaning seems to apply to most forms of Christianity.

As we shall see in the following chapters, Evangelicalism in general and Christian Zionism in particular are good examples of the Christian preoccupation with meaning. Evangelical life stories are saturated with meanings and are often plotted around themes of divine intentionality and the protagonist’s ongoing attempt to live his or her life in accordance with the divine plan (Williams 2013). Christian Zionism builds upon this Evangelical concern with meaning, expanding it to apply to the entire course of human history. Contemporary events are made meaningful in relation to an eschatological telos and the final reckoning that these eschatological narratives project. In the above mentioned article, Robbins describes “millennialism” as “perhaps the most effective of Christian strategies for keeping meaninglessness at bay” when adopted wholesale (2006, 217). After having spent months among the volunteers in Jerusalem, it is easy to appreciate Robbins’ estimation of the effectiveness of “millennialism” in meaning-making practices, but it is also necessary to point out that these processes require a great deal of interpretative work. Keeping “meaninglessness at bay” is not achieved by simply adopting a millennial framework; it requires an ongoing attempt to relate personal experience and events in the world to surrounding eschatological and biblical narratives. Among Evangelicals in Israel a great deal of this cultural labor is conducted in narrative performance.

Language Ideology

The interpretative work by which meaning is produced is guided by assumptions about “what signs are and how they function in the world” (Keane 2003, 419) which are often summarized under the rubric of “language ideology”—alternatively, “semiotic ideology” (Parmentier 1994) or “linguistic ideology” (Silverstein 1979). As already mentioned, the question of Christian language use has also come to occupy a central place in the Anthropology of Christianity as it has developed over the past fifteen years, perhaps primarily because the approach has been considered to provide a mediating link between language and the various social formations and practices of Christian communities (Woolward 1997). It has been argued that it offers “a robust model through which to examine how contemporary life is shaped and experienced dialogically” (Bialecki and Hoenes del Pinal 2011, 578). In a sense, the focus on language ideology in the anthropology of Christianity brings together a Geertzian focus on the meanings of semiotic systems—without presuming these constellations to be universal or uniform—and Asad’s emphasis on the social and historical processes that condition these meanings. Meaning, as it is depicted in much of this literature, is something that emerges from sociocultural practice in a process that is heterogeneous, contested, and often unpredictable.

The academic conversation about Christian language ideologies is useful here since it situates the meaning-making practices of the Evangelicals in Jerusalem in the context of broader Protestant and Evangelical assumptions about what language is and how it works. Bialecki and Hoenes del Pinal (2011) have provided a useful overview of much of the research on Protestant language ideologies up to the present. In their view, the picture of Christian—or perhaps more accurately, Protestant—language ideology presented in the literature to date have been surprisingly uniform.

[It] could be identified by a rather small though recurrent constellation of features, chief of which are a marked predilection for sincerity, interiority, intimacy, intentionality, and immediacy as an ethics of speech, and a privileging of the referential aspects of language. Concomitant with this, there is a tendency towards discomfort with, if not an outright rejection of the social, material, and historic substrate of language (among which we might count ritualized speech genres), which sometimes extends to a suspicion of fixed texts and other non-personalized instances of language use.

bialecki and hoenes del pinal 2011, 580

This “recurrent constellation of features” has been exemplified in a variety of different religious speech genres such as witnessing (Harding 1987), conversion narratives (Coleman 2003, Stromberg 1993), preaching (Bauman 1983, Wharry 2003), Bible study discourses (Bielo 2009), and prayer (Robbins 2001). In this book, I take this literature as a point of departure in the study of Evangelical language about Israel. Yet, as Bialecki and Hoenes del Pinal later emphasize, although Protestant language certainly shares a family resemblance across various local contexts, it is not uniform since historical circumstances and different social formations also influence understandings about language and what language can (and ought to) do. Although the features mentioned by Bialecki and Hoenes del Pinal are influential in the Jerusalem context, it is also in relation to these Protestant understandings of language that the special role attributed to Israel comes to the fore. As I argue in the following chapters, talk about Israel constantly negotiates the boundaries of Protestant language in an attempt to account for the religious significance attributed to the state of Israel and whether, and to what extent, Israel is supposed to be read as a signifier of divine intentionality. The answer to this question is entangled in different culturally transmitted approaches to the biblical text, to intentionality and agency, and to the ability of words and material objects to function as mediators of divine presence.

Religious Language and Narrative Performance

As Webb Keane has pointed out, in periods of contestation both reformers and traditionalists tend to pay particular attention to religious language, the proper use of words, and the ways in which they signify (Keane 1997b). To me, the aforementioned contestations about the meaning of Israel suggest both that this is precisely one such context, and also that any observer interested in analyzing these meanings needs to make a conscious decision to take religious language, its forms of signification, and religious models of reality seriously. Failing to do so would not only risk missing a central aspect of the relationship between Evangelicals and Israel but also mean slipping into simplified materialist models wherein religious language is reduced to mere rhetorical rationalizations of other concerns. A minimalist definition of “religious language”, Keane suggest, might be “linguistic practices that are taken by practitioners themselves to be marked or unusual in some respect” (2009, 118 emphasis original). Although it is admittedly difficult to theoretically separate “religious” from “non-religious” language and to draw any definite boundary between them, these differences are often visible in ethnographic contexts. Religious language, whether in the form of prayer, ritual, preaching, or witnessing often exhibits features that mark these practices as different from practitioners’ other uses of language. These features can be phonological, where the tone or dialect of a preacher changes when he begins to preach; morphological, which includes changes in speech patterns, syntax, and inclusions of archaic language; and, sometimes, indexed by “metapragmatic” (Silverstein 1993) comments that somehow identify them as special. Often shifts between religious and non-religious speech genres also reflect the prevalence of multiple and sometimes conflicting language ideologies that exist in the same cultural context at the same time (Stromberg 1993). Keane’s minimalist definition is obviously not exhaustive, and it does not set any clear or unambiguous boundaries around religious language, but it does offer a way to begin to explore the particularities of religious language games without construing them as an entirely separate sphere.

The production of meaning, although personal, does not takes place in a cultural vacuum. Contemporary Christian Zionism in Jerusalem is an immensely storied world, and one which is heavily dependent on the repetition of tropes that have been more or less the same for the past half-century. This narrative tradition portrays Israel as “a miracle”, as the “land of the Bible”, as transformative, and as something that “brings the Bible to life” and makes you experience God in a uniquely intimate way. In these narratives the Jewish people are historical heroes: the eternal protagonists in a covenantal relationship with God who are suffering vicariously on behalf of mankind.

Rather than understanding the frequency of these tropes, the repetitions in narrative architecture, and the influence of this narrative tradition on individual stories in terms of flawed methodology—one that is unable to get “beneath” the surface—or as a mark of inauthentic speech, I approach this story-world as the primary field site of this project. The narrative tradition that is reflected and sometimes negotiated in individual stories is the locus in which a big part of the production of religious meaning occurs. The approach I advocate here takes these stories as religious speech in Keane’s sense; they are a language game that is understood by practitioners themselves as somehow different from other speech genres. It is the world of god-talk. Entering and exiting this world may at times be reflexively or metapragmatically indexed by participants (as “Christianese” or “spiritual talk”) but even when it is not, it is recognizable by its profound negotiation of human agency, the frequency of direct reported speech (Briggs 1986, Parmentier 1994, Stromberg 1993), and the ways in which the language of the Bible bleeds into speakers’ discourses. In similarity to Harding’s methodological approach in The Book of Jerry Falwell (2000) then, I advocate entering this storied world—or what Harding calls “narrative belief”—and taking these stories not so much as representations of something else beyond the discourse but as performative practices that produce effects (2000, xi–xii). Religious language, whether about self or other, God or world, does not only reference experienced realities but also produces these realities in discourse (Keane 1997b, 56). Meaning is not derived strictly from denotation, or from the intention of speakers, but from how words function in local communicative contexts. By listening carefully to speakers—to what they do with their words, and the ways in which they employ cultural tropes in their own discourses—it becomes possible to explore the production of the State of Israel as a vessel of divine agency, and the ways in which Israel is implicated in the production of personhood, truth, and faith.

While I have emphasized god-talk as the main location here under survey, I do not mean to suggest that it is the only language game available in the context, or the only language the volunteers employ. While some volunteers rely almost exclusively on religious language in their life stories—effectively framing the interview situation as an act of witnessing—other volunteers frequently shift between “religious” and “secular” sense-making practices in their stories. By presenting religious language here as a “language game” (Stiver 1996, 61) I aim to capture something of the playfulness and ease with which many of the volunteers inhabit several linguistic spheres simultaneously. I do not consider any of these spheres to have a definite claim to the identity of the volunteers; several narrative identities often co-exist within the same life story (Raggatt 2006). Yet focusing primarily on religious language is a methodological choice in the sense that I consider the construction of Israel’s religious significance to occur primarily within religious language. It is here that the divine agency behind the Zionist movement becomes visible; it is here that the unique character of the land of Israel is most pronounced; and it is also here that themes such as the transformation of the religious self in relation to Israel are expressed.

The Scene in Jerusalem

Between 2011 and 2013 I spent three periods in Jerusalem throughout which I conducted interviews in the organizations with both leadership and volunteers, participated in work and worship, helped out at the distribution centers, visited media events in which the organizations participated, and took part in conferences organized by them or other related organizations. Although some of this work took place within the realm of the three organizations, most of my time was spent in the larger scene of Evangelical Zionism in Jerusalem: in churches and messianic communities where the volunteers go for worship, at sports events on weekday evenings, and in cafes or bars during the weekends. I was invited to homes and parties and I invited some volunteers to my place. In some cases I travelled with volunteers across the country and talked with them about the land and the situation, and I also joined a tour to Israeli settlements on the West Bank organized by the Christian Friends of Israeli Communities.11 Consequently, much of the data that informs this work, emerges from this broader context, and is not necessarily directly linked to the organizations. The scene in Jerusalem and the organizations’ location within it will be further discussed in Chapter Two so for now it suffices to say that I largely view it as the broader context in which this study is placed. While the organizations, communities, and individuals that make it up come from several different countries and denominations, they share a basic fascination with Israel and Judaism, a theological understanding of the contemporary state as somehow eschatologically significant, and many of the venues in which these understandings are performed, preached, and practiced. Apart from that, individuals in this culture naturally differ, sometimes substantially, in practices and theological understandings as well as in their location on the political spectrum. All my observations during informal and formal settings were written down at the end of the day and saved for analysis.

In addition to participant observation and interviews, I conducted archival research in Jerusalem to learn more about the history of the organizations and the context in which they operate. The main sources for this endeavor were the media review archives available at Caspari Center, a Christian organization which has collected articles written about Christians and Messianic Jews in Israeli and Palestinian newspapers since the late ‘70s. I also went through what material I could find at the Central Zionist archives, the Israeli national library, and the icej’s internal archives to which I was kindly granted some access. Finally, the books available in the book stores at the organizations as well as their other publications, media reviews, and newsletters have provided me with additional data which has been useful in contextualizing the interviews and observations that provide the main empirical source for this study.

This combination of different ethnographic data gathered through participant observation and interviews, along with the archives, allows for triangulation between the different sources. Comparing observations and interview responses to other kinds of data is of course very common in field-based projects, and often provides a way to cross-check information and observations, and generate early-stage interpretations (DeWalt and DeWalt 2011, 127–128, Flick 2009, 444–453). In my case archival research often generated new and more pointed questions that I subsequently tested in informal talks and interviews, and it also allowed me to check the information gained in interviews.

The Volunteers

Organizationally, financially, and practically, the Christian Zionist ministries in Jerusalem function more or less like Christian ngos and are registered as Israeli charities (amutah). Their funding comes almost exclusively from private donations and Christian communities that sympathize with them and the work that they do in Jerusalem. Consequently, an important task of their leaders consists of speaking and fund-raising in churches and conferences abroad. In order to function financially a large part of the organizations’ day-to-day activities in Israel have always been conducted by Christian volunteer workers.12 While the core employees and leadership often have Israeli residency permits or cleric visas that allow them to stay long-term, most volunteers only have one to two year volunteer visas. However, many renew these and stay longer than the two years they first planned, it is not unusual to meet volunteers who have remained in Israel for most of the past decade, effectively making them a form of international migrants. Accommodation and communal lunches are often provided to volunteers, and in some cases they receive some pocket money from the organizations, though most live either on their savings or support from their congregations at home.

The volunteers are involved in every part of the ministries’ work. Some engage directly with Israeli society through one of the many social services the ministries provide and others have desk jobs in the media departments at the headquarters, mainly reading newspapers and compiling newsletters. Some take care of Christian tour groups visiting Israel while others organize upcoming events such as conferences, the Feast of Tabernacles, or youth summer camps. Some volunteers are professionals that have been hired because they have a specific skill that the ministries needed: graphic designers, staff writers, proof readers, or technicians, for instance. Other volunteers are involved largely in unqualified work such as packing food in the food banks or janitorial tasks at the headquarters in Jerusalem.

Volunteer work, no matter how mundane its nature, is most often articulated in a religious framework, in terms of a calling, or as part of the Christian walk. This religious framing of the volunteer experience is also explicit from the organizational point of view in published material and pamphlets advertising the possibility of working in Jerusalem. The bfp, for instance, advertises their volunteer program with Isaiah 61:5: “Foreigners will work your fields and vineyards”; and the catchy prophecy slogan: “Why just read about prophecy when you can be a part of it?”13 Naturally, for many—especially younger—volunteers, working for a year or two in Israel is an adventure, an opportunity to get to know another country and a foreign culture, to meet new friends, and to develop an international network. It also offers the chance to perform one’s religious identity and to commit a part of one’s life to service. Such sentiments form a large part of younger volunteers’ aims and motivations. The specificity of the Israeli context, however, also adds something extra: it makes you “part of prophecy”, part of history as it unfolds. Cindy, for instance, a European woman who has been employed in the organizations for several years, describes her work with a strong sense of historical mission.

I feel this season more than any [that] it’s an absolute privilege because I feel that God is absolutely doing something through the [organization] in the nations, concerning this nation. And so, to be a part of that. It’s really about making the nations and the body of Christ aware of their responsibility to this nation because this is God’s chosen people and God has a plan and He’s working out His plan. And according to the Bible, we have a responsibility, you know. So I feel that it is, it’s an absolute privilege to be a part of this organization now and I see it as a specific assignment from God.

The volunteer work, in other words, is often made meaningful by articulating it as a historical project: as taking part in something that is historically unique: the miraculous return of the Jewish people to their land. Another volunteer, Ruth, who we will meet again in Chapter Three, describes living and working in Israel as a “miracle”:

If you have the chance to live your life as part of a miracle how do you walk away from that? And I really see Israel as a miracle. It’s a miracle of God’s faithfulness. And my life here is a miracle, just day by day not knowing, you know, how it’s all going to work out. But I think it’s exciting to be a part of what God’s doing and I guess that kind of, obviously that leads to the understanding that I think this is something that God’s doing in this time—establishing Israel as a nation. And there is a purpose, and there’s a redemptive purpose in it despite all of the challenges surrounding the conflict here and all those different things.

For many volunteers, such religious articulations lie at the heart of what it means to be a volunteer in Jerusalem. Yet a strong counter-cultural sentiment also prevails in the volunteer environment. Even if politics is seldom placed at the center of one’s motivations, the volunteers are of course highly aware of political discourses concerning the Israel/Palestine conflict, and the various Christian views of Israel. Many of them have also been challenged by friends or relatives taking a different approach to the conflict. Being on-the-ground in Israel, however, situates the volunteers as experts who know what is “actually” going on. Often this is framed in contrast to people who criticize Israel without knowing the full picture or who have only a limited experience of the country. In their stories, the volunteers often make distinctions between themselves and “less committed” travellers to Israel such as Christian pilgrims, tourists, activists, and journalists. Nonetheless, it is hard to avoid the notion that the volunteer context is also partly an “environmental bubble” (Feldman 2016) that privileges particular narratives about the land and the conflict, and that few volunteers have actually explored alternative interpretations or challenged their own assumptions. It is uncommon to meet volunteers with any extensive experience of interacting with Palestinians, or their narratives, and it is even more uncommon to meet anyone who has visited the West Bank or Palestinian villages. Additionally, many volunteers also have a limited experience of (non-messianic) Israelis since they spend most of their time within the Evangelical Zionist scene in Jerusalem: at the organizations, with other volunteers, and in Messianic communities or churches. This obviously does not go for everyone, but in many cases the expertise of the volunteers is quite limited to a particular linguistic and social milieu that has very clear boundaries with regards the rest of the society—and the various narratives about that society—in which they live and work.


The analytic part of this work draws mainly upon the interviews that I conducted with leaders and volunteers at the three organizations in Jerusalem. I interviewed twenty-eight different people (4 leaders, 23 volunteers, and 1 person currently unconnected to the organizations); in some cases I interviewed the same person several times.14 The total quantity of recorded data amounts to about thirty-five hours. The distribution between men and women is almost equal (13 men, 15 women) and the interviewees are rather equally divided between the different organizations (8 icej, 9 bfp, 10 cfi, 1 independent). In terms of age the distribution is wide, ranging from approximately twenty-five years old up to between sixty and seventy. The biggest group is aged between fifty and sixty. In terms of country of origin, slightly above half of the interviewees are North Americans, and the rest come from Latin America, South Africa, or Europe. There are two main reasons for the large proportion of North Americans: their English language proficiency, which allows them to be interviewed comfortably; and the fact that two of the organizations (cfi and bfp) are numerically dominated by North Americans.

Interviews with leaders were designed primarily with the goal of understanding the organizations, their history, their theological and political underpinnings, their socio-political locations in Israel and globally, and their practical work as institutions in Israel. I felt this aspect of research was necessary as there are very few scholarly accounts that deal with the organizations’ work in depth (Ariel 1997, Leppäkari 2006, Merkley 2001, Westbrook 2014). Secondly, I wanted the interviews with the leaders to provide a context to which the interviews with volunteers could be related and contrasted. Therefore I also asked them about the administrative aspects of the volunteer work, the process of recruiting volunteers and whether the volunteers underwent any kind of pre-field training, how leaders view the motivations and the purpose of the volunteer work, and different kind of meta-data questions concerning the volunteers. In one case, I underwent “pre-field training” as a participant (see Chapter Five). This too was recorded and transcribed. In all cases I used the interviews with the leaders to cross-check the data in their publications, their newsletters, or the archival sources.

The interviews with the volunteers were different. As I am interested in Evangelical faith and identity as articulated in relation to Israel I opted for a life-story-oriented approach with the volunteers (Ammerman and Williams 2012, Mishler 1986, Riessman 1993). Prior to the interview, respondents were informed about my interest in the life stories of volunteers in Israel so in most cases they already had an idea about how to gear their narratives towards my particular research questions. While some narrative scholars argue for very open-ended life story methodologies (Horsdal 2012), others have developed sophisticated and quite detailed interview methods (Hammack 2011, Lieblich, Tuval-Mashiach, and Zilber 1998, McAdams 2006). My own approach was close to the one proposed by Ammerman and Williams (2012), in which methodology is neither overly-detailed in terms of structure and analysis nor “utterly free form” (2012, 119). I started every interview with a similar request to the participants (with some variation):

Tell me your life story up until today in such a way that you find it explains why you are here and the person that you are today. I would also like you to tell me not only what happened during particular moments in your life but also how you felt, and how you experienced what was happening at the time. Start where you want to start and take your time. I have all the time in the world.

After that I could usually sit back and listen until the interviewee felt that the story was complete; this varied between a minimum of fifteen minutes and a maximum of almost two hours. Once the story was finished, I asked follow-up questions arising inductively from the interview, and—if they had not developed the themes themselves—some general questions that I had formulated beforehand. For instance, I usually asked them about their views of the future, their understanding of other Christian approaches to Israel, their understanding of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, how it was when they first arrived in Israel, and how they felt about their work there.

Obviously, life-story interviewing requires participants that are comfortable telling stories, or possess what Horsdal has called “narrative competence” (Horsdal 2012, 85). Generally speaking however, life stories often play a big role in Evangelical faith practices such as witnessing and conversion stories (Harding 2000, Stromberg 1993) and many Evangelicals have previous practice at recounting them; a few of the volunteers had even told their “Israel-stories” in church settings before. This experience often helped during the interview situation, though not always. Some of the interviewees had difficulties knowing how much to tell me, what I was interested in, or even where to start. When this happened I mentioned that other interviewees often began with where they grew up, but that they could pick any other starting point. Many observers have noted that the life-story situation is a socially contingent event of co-creation between the interviewer and the interviewee (Ammerman and Williams 2012, Horsdal 2012, Mishler 1986, Riessman 1993). Obviously, life stories can be told in a multitude of different ways; all life narratives are partial, selective and highly contextual, and the interviews that I conducted in Jerusalem were no exception.

Even though the volunteers are fully anonymized in this work they might still be recognizable by those closest to them in Israel: their friends and the organizations. Life stories are often—to some extent—public knowledge and it is not possible to anonymize the stories in the same way as I anonymize the storyteller.15 When contextualization in terms of background might risk jeopardizing their anonymity I have chosen to leave that background out, even in cases where it might have been analytically interesting. In spite of this caution some parts of the stories might still be identifiable by their immediate context, though where I have deemed it particularly crucial I have done my best to ensure that this is not the case.

Certain limitations with the approach and the data should be mentioned. The most important is that while I consider the narrative tradition which characterizes the Evangelical scene in Jerusalem to be the linguistic locus of this study, almost all the interviews take place in an organizational context with volunteers employed by the ministries. In most cases, representatives of the ministries were also involved in organizing the interviews and selecting the interviewees. Given the ideological tension of the situation, it would not have been possible to conduct this research without this cooperation, and without relinquishing a certain control over the research. This organizational participation might have meant a more homogenous selection and fewer participants with “unorthodox” ideological views than would have been the case had they not been involved, resulting in the relative homogeneity of the narrative tradition that I outlined above. However, there are two reasons why this is not necessarily a problem given the nature of this study. First, the prime concern from the organizations’ perspective was not how the volunteers’ stories might relate to broader Christian debates about the State of Israel, or indeed, the Protestant traditions which I have highlighted here. In my understanding, their caution had more to do with the ministries’ social status in Israel, a concern which is well-grounded considering their history in Jerusalem—and Israeli media representations of them in the past—discussed in Chapter Two. Second, my approach here is geared more towards the “canonical stories” (Bruner 1991a, 2004) than towards those that breech cultural convention. The ministries are hugely influential in the part of the Evangelical world that considers the State of Israel to be of religious significance, and they occupy an important discursive location both in the Evangelical scene in Jerusalem, and in the broader Christian contestations about the meaning of Israel. In other words, these organizations are centrally located in the narrative tradition that I have here set out to explore.

Self, Land, and Text

In my view, analysis—in the sense of reviewing the data, looking for patterns, interpreting, and formulating categories and hypotheses—starts in the field and is not a separate process that begins after all the data is collected. Despite previous experiences with both Evangelicals and Israel, before going into the field I did not have a strong idea about what kind of stories I would encounter in the interviews. I am not a trained anthropologist, and I had not developed a detailed interpretative framework beyond my interest in Evangelical self-understanding, the role of narrative, and the relationship between the state of Israel and religious identities. As I suspect is common in ethnographic work, the theoretical lens which came to guide this research, and which eventually developed into the primary structure of this book, was offered to me in a conversation with one of the participants. During an interview with a middle-aged South African woman who had spent several years in Jerusalem, I asked her if she could tell me more about when she had first arrived in Israel. Mary’s answer is telling both in its religiously loaded opacity and in the importance she places on Israel in terms of her religious identity. In her short answer she came to formulate several of the central questions that will be discussed in the following pages:

Yes. It changed everything in my heart. This is truly God’s land and it’s a spiritual place, there’s a spiritual intensity in the land. Ideas that you formerly had …, things change internally. It’s as though everything is brought into the proper perspective—your understanding of the Bible, of the land, of yourself. Your priorities change. For me so many of my priorities changed personally; on a broader level, everything changed. Everything changed. I went back and people just couldn’t believe the change. But that happens to so many people, they just go home and it is something that draws them [back]. I understand how Abraham felt I think. (my emphasis)

Mary’s presentation of the transformative encounter with the land directed my attention to the relationships between the Bible, the land, and the religious self which together form the analytic sections of this book. An underlying idea is that the personal religious significance of Israel is formed in a close relationship between these three categories.

Chapter Two introduces the Evangelical Zionist scene in Jerusalem, particularly as it has developed from the prophetic excitement following the Six-Day War of 1967 up until today. I focus primarily on the growth of the three organizations: how they were formed, how they have articulated their organizational identity, and how they have negotiated their place in Israeli society over the past thirty years. This historical background is presented in order to contextualize the interviews with volunteers, discussions of which follow in the analytic chapters which are thematically oriented around the categories that emerged from Mary’s interview.

Chapter Three focuses on ideas about the religious self as it emerges in the life-story narratives of the volunteers. The first part discusses the production of human and divine agency in the stories and situates this in relation to Evangelical personhood more broadly. The second part focuses on self-transformation and how the coming-to-Israel stories are recounted as a type of conversion narrative. Through these narratives, I argue, Israel is constructed as a religiously significant symbol and is integrated into Evangelical religious identities.

Chapter Four explores narratives of the land and situates them in relation to academic conversations about sacred space, presence, and mediation. It is argued that in these narratives about land Israel is framed as a sacred space with a unique ability to mediate divine presence. As a result of these narratives the volunteers often find themselves in a position where they have to negotiate Protestant understandings of place in relation to the uniqueness of Israel.

Chapter Five examines the textual ideology of Christian Zionism in relation to discourses about Bible prophecy and the “Hebraic roots of Christian faith”. Particular attention is paid to the process by which Israel is framed as an evidence for the truth of biblical Scripture. By employing prophetic and historical narratives Christian Zionists can subvert critics’ assessment of their practices as a modern manipulation of symbols and instead situate themselves as representatives of authentic biblical faith.

Self, land and text are analytically separated in this work but I do not consider them independent from each other in the faith and practices of the volunteers. In fact, central to my argument is that it is precisely through the relationship between these categories that Israel’s particular spiritual significance emerges. The religious self, the biblical text, and the land of Israel can be conceptualized as a triangle where any one term mediates the relationship between the other two.16 Thus Chapter Six finally draws these themes together and locates them in relation to the questions that have been raised in this introductory chapter.


Welcoming text by executive director Jürgen Bühler, Feast of the Tabernacles program 2011, p. 7. Published by the icej.


Since a fundamental feature of these discursive practices is the multi-layered, opaque, and symbolically loaded meaning of “Israel” it is not always analytically possible or even beneficial to terminologically separate Israel as a state from Israel as a nation, as a land, or as a people in the text. Sometimes I employ a distinction between “Israel-of-the-Bible” and “Israel-of-today”, while at the same time recognizing that these two concepts are fundamentally and often unambiguously connected by the Evangelical voices herein. When I have been able to, I have made such terminological distinctions, but in other cases I have followed the “emic” use of “Israel” as a consciously multilayered concept. I hope that what I lose in terminological clarity by this choice will be outweighed by what I gain analytically.


In contrast, Shimoni (1995) employs the term “restorationist” when describing Christian supporters of the Zionist movement. Considering the scope and detail of his history of Zionism, the Christian restorationists play a very limited role in his account and are frequently dismissed as rather unimportant for the larger picture. While acknowledging that the subject await further research Shimoni sums up the Christian contribution with “in our present state of knowledge, at any rate, a comprehensive historical explanation of the genesis of Zionist ideology can assign to the Christian restorationists no more than a peripheral role” (Shimoni 1995, 64–65).


There are, however, other problems associated with Smith’s suggestion, particularly the emphasis placed on territorial control. In Smith’s formulation, Jewish territorial control and resistance towards a two-state solution (as long as this can be said to be informed by subjective “Christian commitments”) is posited as the central characteristic of Christian Zionism. Even though many of the Evangelicals figuring in the following chapters would, when asked directly, claim to support Jewish control over the territory mentioned by Smith, few of them place much emphasis on legal, administrative, or military control, know much about the details and implications of particular political options, or could even point to any of the borders involved in the negotiations if asked. In my view, the explicit support for “Jewish control” by Christian Zionists is often more a question of a loosely organized eschatological imagination than carved-in-stone religio-political doctrine.


Benjamin was a volunteer at one of the organizations but was never formally interviewed by me and is not included in the list of interviews..


All Bible quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) unless otherwise noted.


In other words, anyone who simultaneously identifies as a “Christian” and a “Zionist” would not necessarily qualify as a “Christian Zionist”. The defining quality, rather, is the production of links between them and the ways in which Zionism is felt to contribute in the production of Christian identities or to better articulate what it means to be a Christian.


Such opponents to Christian Zionist readings can be found both within Evangelical, Pentecostal, and liberal denominations. For some time the Palestinian liberation theological center Sabeel has been an important hub for such voices and more recently the Bethlehem Bible College and its “Christ at the Checkpoint” conferences have gathered many Christians who identify with the Palestinian narratives. See for instance Challenging Christian Zionism (Ateek, Duaybis, and Tobin 2005) for theological critiques of Christian Zionism from different perspectives and Feldman (2011) for a comparison between Zionist and non-Zionist Christian tour groups. To date, little research has been conducted amongst pro-Palestinian Christian groups in Jerusalem.


Broadly understood, “replacement theology” or “supersessionism” is usually defined as any theology that claims that the Christian Church has “replaced” or “superseded” the people of Israel in the covenantal relationship with God. This definition, however, is straightforward in theory but very complicated in practice. For much of Christian history this view, in one version or another, has been dominant in Orthodox, Catholic as well as Protestant formulations of faith. However, post-wwii and in the ensuing development of Jewish-Christian dialogue, the term, and theological formulations associated with it, has developed strong negative connotations. Moreover, even today, there is considerable variation in exactly how the relationship between Israel and the Church, and the “Old” and the “New” Testaments, should be conceptualized. Consequently, the precise meaning of “replacement theology” is the subject of much debate. For Evangelical Zionists, the term is usually used in the broadest possible sense virtually to include all theologies that do not accept the covenant between God and the Jewish people (including the land component in Gen. 15:18) as eternally valid.


Elsewhere, it has been suggested that part of the explanation for the centrality of meaning in Christianity emerges from its “translatability” (Sanneh 1994), which historically has resulted in its “energetic sacralization of new languages” (Engelke and Tomlinson 2006b, 21). If religious expression is not bound to a particular language or dialect, semiotics rather than phonological, grammatical, or stylistic features of the text becomes the prime bearer of the text’s “spirit” (Keane 1997b, 55). The importance Christians have traditionally placed on interpretation of their central text would, in this understanding, be a consequence of the possibility of translating it, thereby allowing it to travel across cultural and linguistic contexts.


Christian Friends of Israeli Communities (cfoic) is a Christian-Jewish organization which is focusing on establishing partnerships between Christian congregations and Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The tour went to several different settlements in different stages of development.


The icej report that they have around 45 people on staff, 30 of whom are on volunteer visas. The Bridges for Peace have around 50–60 volunteers among the 70 members of staff in Jerusalem and in northern Israel where they run a large food bank. The cfi is smaller than the icej and bfp, but their staff is also predominantly made up of volunteers.


“Volunteer in Israel”, Bridges for Peace, Jerusalem.


The Executive Director of the icej, David Parsons was interviewed once in 2012 and once in 2013. Among the volunteers, “Jacob”, “Anna” and “Ben” were interviewed twice, Jacob and Anna in 2012, and Ben in 2013. All other volunteers referred to in this work were only formally interviewed once, most of them during 2013.


All names of volunteers in this work are pseudonyms. Names of leaders at the organizations are not anonymized.


For a similar theoretical perspective see (Feldman 2016).

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