Exactly 100 years ago, Scottish explorer Gertrude Bell’s Arabian Diaries were published. She traversed the Middle East, exploring archaeological sites when it was still the Ottoman Empire. Jordan, Syria, what is now Israel but was then Palestine, Arabia: these were Bell’s turf, where she worked beside T.E. Lawrence — Lawrence of Arabia — and under Winston Churchill, and helped seat Faisal on his throne.
In a month, I leave again for Israel. Compared to Bell, who was attacked by Bedouins, sequestered in a harem, and traversed sands via camel and stallion, my visit looks as exciting as a trip to the grocery store. (I’m okay with that.) She was motivated by a desire to see the world, understand the foreign, and escape a privileged life bound by teatime and nurseries. I travel to Bell’s domain to explore the origins of my faith — a desire consistent with my return to seminary in my late forties — and better understand how Christianity interacts with an ever-changing world.
My visits answer questions of context. In terms of theology, have you ever wondered about the period between the Old and New Testaments? (It’s called the Intertestamental Period.) Or the world into which YHWH (the “Father” third of the Trinity) introduced Himself to mankind? How about Paul’s verses in his letter to the Corinthians — you know, the at-first-glance-controversial ones about silence and head covering? Answers to all three represent how context impacts understanding of scripture, and cluelessness about context leads down the rabbit trail of heresy.
From the theological to the physical, I remember hearing my first Islamic call to prayer — in Jerusalem. I was transfixed. The Roman Cardo, near the Western Wall, worn low in the center from millennia of bare feet and leather soles. Indistinguishable scents from stalls on King David Street. A 118-degree afternoon on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The cool beauty of tel Dan Nature Preserve in the north.
While I have no delusions about my visit creating a body of work as important as Bell’s, I’m a stickler for details and eager to share my love of this remarkable place. So back to Israel I go, camera and netbook in hand, assembling the tangible tools to market my novels.
I’m going for me, and I’m going for you. And I think Ms. Bell would approve of our adventure. Stay tuned!