Walking on the Pages of the Word of God : Self, Land, and Text Among Evangelical Volunteers in Jerusalem

Abstract: During the last thirty years, the Evangelical relationship with the State of Israel has drawn much academic and popular attention, particularly from historical, theological, and political perspectives. This dissertation engages with this literature but also complements it with an ethnographic account of the discursive practices of Evangelical Zionists through which, it is suggested, much of the religious significance of the contemporary state is being produced. The study is based on ethnographic fieldwork among Evangelical volunteer workers in Jerusalem, focusing on their stories about themselves, the land, and the biblical text. The volunteers are located at three Christian ministries in Jerusalem – the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ), theBridges 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”. After introducing the theoretical and socio-cultural context in which this study is located, Chapter Three analyses the volunteers’ “coming-to-Israel” stories and the ways in which agency and selftransformation are understood therein. The analysis suggests that the ritual-like performance of these narratives situates the encounter with Israel as a religious conversion process and Israel as a religious symbol. Chapter Four discusses the volunteers’ narrative production of Israel as a sacred space that has a unique ability to mediate divine presence. It also shows how Israel’s special status is being negotiated both in relation to the encounter with material realities and with ideas about religious fetishism. The final analytical chapter 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”. It is suggested that these two discursive domains are deeply embedded in contestations about the authenticity of Evangelical religious forms: while the former often serves as empirical evidence for the truth of the biblical scripture, the latter constructs a historical narrative within which Evangelical Zionism is positioned as a rediscovery of authentic biblical faith. Ultimately, this study suggests that the beliefs and practices of Evangelical Christians engaged with Israel not only represent a recalibration of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism and between faith and politicsthemselves, but also a more fundamental reordering of the ways in which God is understood to relate to the world. While deeply embedded in Evangelical narrative traditions, the ideational and physical encounter with Israel also requires a renegotiation of Evangelical religion. 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. For the volunteers the “realization of Israel’s spiritual significance” is a highly transformative experience, but rather than being a definite rupture from the past it is part of a broader process of increasingreligious commitment.