Walking Where Jesus Walked: A Conversation with Hillary Kaell

Rachel Gordan

The following is a conversation with Hillary Kaell, Assistant Professor of Religion at Concordia University and the author of the new book, Walking Where Jesus Walked: American Christians and the Holy Land Pilgrimage (NYU, 2014). Millions of American Christians have been traveling to the Holy Land since the 1950's. Kaell's study asks why.

RG: How do you envision this book contributing to a course on American religion?

HK: Walking Where Jesus Walked ties together a few themes that could contribute to a course on American religion. It focuses on how Christians conceptualize the Holy Land, encounter people and places abroad, and then assimilate the experience upon return.  So it offers a great entrée into discussing the links between U.S. religion and “the world,” perhaps paired with readings on foreign policy or missions. In fact, one of the things I found so compelling about the project is that the pilgrims are not “global citizens,” like diplomats or missionaries. Many of them have rarely if ever left the U.S. before. How global encounters and exchange happen in that context, how they are mediated, how they reverberate at home – that could spark a great classroom conversation.

I could also see the book prompting students to think about how American religion happens in “in between” places. What I mean is that the pilgrimage is undertaken alongside, or even apart from, one’s usual church/congregation/worship. But it is not completely personal either. There’s an important institutional framework that makes these trips possible. Pilgrimage – and religious leisure more generally – is a great example that complicates the imagined binary between “traditional” church and “free-floating” seeker.  And I should add that leisure is important in and of itself because growing numbers of Americans “do” religion through things like tourism. In either context, I could see assigning the book alongside a classic text tracking changes in US Christianity, like Robert Wuthnow’s work on the growth of small groups.

Last, the book foregrounds how materiality and money operate for American Christians. So it could also fit well in a syllabus that is looking to upend normative assumptions about how Protestants use “words” and Catholics use “things,” for example, or how commerce and tourism are antithetical to “the sacred.” I also try to complicate this question of commerce – the exchange of money for things – by exploring how Americans use a discourse of “commercialism” to mark religious difference.

RG: Your book has terrific thematic chapters. How did you choose them?

HK: For methodological and theoretical reasons, most studies of pilgrimage focus on the shrine site, such as the Holy Land or Jerusalem. From the beginning, I wanted this book to be a complicated and textured account of the pilgrims’ lives. They are, of course, American Christians long before and after the trip itself so it was an easy decision to set up the chapters such that readers followed the pilgrims before, during, and after the trip. Once I had settled on that structure, I drew out the themes bit by bit as I worked through the material – both what I was finding in my fieldwork and the archives, and also the kinds of questions that surfaced as I read more scholarship on the topic.

RG: I was surprised how little Christian-Jewish relations seemed relevant to this study. It was the Protestant and Catholic distinctions that weighed on pilgrims' minds as they surveyed the Holy Land and thought about what it meant to be Christian. How did actually being in the Holy Land highlight these differences between Protestants and Catholics for the pilgrims?

HK: I decided not to place Christian-Jewish relations at the center of the book. One reason is that most studies of these trips have focused on Christian Zionism’s relationship to Jews. As I point out, the pilgrims themselves are rarely, in fact, neatly classed as “Christian Zionists.” Throughout I do note pilgrims’ conception of who Jews are and what they believe, which is often rather hazy and saturated with key symbolic tropes. That’s even more true of Palestinian Muslims and Christians. At the same time, the Israeli and Palestinian professionals with whom they actually interact are rarely confronted as religious “others,” we might say, because pilgrims don’t see them at worship. In short, the Protestant-Catholic distinction you picked up on comes through most clearly in shared sites where religion becomes a marked category, visible through the architecture of the place or the gestures and words of the Christians praying beside them. Ultimately, I point out that ecumenism is, at least in part, aesthetic. There is much less difference between American Catholics and evangelicals than between Americans and others, like Eastern Orthodox.

RG: One of the guides, Ken, reminded pilgrims that they do not need to travel thousands of miles to talk to God. Yet I finished this book feeling that many of the women did need to travel that far from their normal routines and responsibilities to find this particular connection with the divine. What was your feeling about what the distance and travel did for them?

HK: I bring up Ken, our guide at the Garden Tomb, to point out the irony of his statement: he was towing the “evangelical line” by telling the pilgrims that materiality doesn’t matter – you don’t need to touch the places where Jesus walked because Jesus lives in your heart – when we had just travelled thousands of miles to do exactly that. Traveling to those particular sites – with all the physical, sensory aspects that entails – instantiates pilgrims’ relationship with Jesus and thus enhances the kinds of prayers and practices in which they engage at home. Besides this experience of emplacement, there is, as you point out, the importance of distance itself. For some pilgrims, actually separating themselves from the people in their lives and venturing far from home provides a way to clarify the kind of person they want to be when they get home – independent, strong, etc. For others, there is also a sense that this trip to a faraway, dangerous place is a testament to what one can accomplish by trusting in God.

RG: I don¹t know what you think or believe about divine presence, but how were these men and women able to communicate the experience of presence to you in a way that made sense? This is a challenge for us scholars of religion to understand and then to convey divine presence in our scholarship, and I¹m curious how you approached it.

HK: That’s a tough one. I try to stay conscious of the fact that, even if I was a Christian, I wouldn’t be able to understand the very intimate connection that Helen, one of the women I describe, feels with Jesus or with her deceased husband, Wally. As scholars, we are fundamentally hampered by how we insist on turning feelings into discourse. I have to ask the pilgrims to put into words what for them is an often indescribable feeling -- so that I can write a book. It’s an odd exercise, to say the least! The way I try to proceed is by acknowledging the challenge involved, while sometimes allowing the reader to “hear” them lapse into silence or struggle with words. It’s something that I think I could have signaled more often. And I have no doubt it will continue to pose a challenge as my scholarship moves forward.

RG: Your book notes that more than 70% of pilgrims are women. The pilgrimages seemed like a trip women were often making to give themselves what they needed, to take care of themselves, although that¹s not how they described it. As you explain, they describe the reasons for their trip as "providing witness" and acting under compulsion from God. In my reading, a pilgrimage sounded like a feminist act: they were leaving behind families and responsibilities and spending time and money that might have been spent on other things (charity, for instance) on their very own experience. As an observer, did you observe anything like a Christian-inflected feminism here?

HK: Funny! I never thought about it like that, especially since most of the Christians I worked with would never use that word. I would couch it less as a feminist act and more as something made newly possible in the context of changing economies and technologies since the 1950s. Besides the rise of religious leisure, retirement culture, and American overseas tourism more broadly, women also started working outside the home and had their own spending money. With the invention of jet travel and tour buses, Holy Land trips also dropped in price rather spectacularly.  As I point out in the book, these trends brought Holy Land tours into the realm of possibility for the middle- and lower-middle classes.  They became seen as both “seemly” and safe enough for women to undertake.

Yet there is still a lingering hesitation, especially among older women, about whether money spent on oneself is tainted by self-indulgence. In Chapter two, I trace some of the ways that pilgrims and pilgrimage companies have worked to sacralize money and even hide it from view altogether, which is possible to some degree in these packaged trips where you pay for everything in advance.

RG: Your discussion of the “middle generation” Catholic pilgrims was fascinating. Their trip to the Holy Land seemed like a rite of passage for Catholic adults. These pilgrims were reclaiming a personal relationship with Jesus and the Bible that their American Catholic childhood had not provided. Rather than reconnecting with their own American Catholic pasts, pilgrims used the trip to help them make a socially acceptable break with it.

HK: I like how you put it – a rite of passage for Catholic adults. Because prospective Catholic pilgrims could choose a well-known Marian site or Rome, I was curious: why the Holy Land? What I found is that for many of these “middle generation” Catholics, who grew up before the Second Vatican Council, the Holy Land trip offers a particular connection to Jesus and to the Bible that, as you said, they feel was lacking when they were children. A high proportion of Catholic pilgrims have also been involved in lay-led bible study groups. One component of my argument is that Holy Land pilgrimage is especially powerful in how it brings together the devotionalism of their childhoods – the rosary, the Stations of the Cross – with their more recent interest in developing a personal relationship with Jesus or a better understanding of scripture.

RG: Many of us Americanists will read this book wondering how the experiences in the Holy Land change pilgrims' understanding of America. From your debriefing conversations with pilgrims, it sounded like there was greater appreciation for the comforts of living in the United States. How else did their time in the Holy Land affect their view of the U.S.?

HK: I’m not sure that appreciating the comforts of living in the U.S. is a major result. My understanding is that they tend to reconfirm and strengthen what they know. Mainly, I focus on what that means in terms of their relationships with divine beings, like Jesus, and with the people around them.  It can also impact how they view the United States, of course. Regarding politics, for example, if they leave with a hunch that the Palestinians are being unfairly treated, they often return with a strong conviction about it and are very concerned about the role the U.S. plays. Or, if they leave feeling that God might want Americans of different religions to get along, they see instances of religious diversity in the Holy Land and return convinced that it is indeed the case. As I underline in the book, none of this means that their experiences aren’t true; it offers a clear example of how people produce and reinforce meaning.
On a slightly different note, the trip is also a way for pilgrims to exert a kind of “soft power.” When pilgrims narrate the trip, hand out souvenirs, hang objects around the house, they are in part expressing who they are as Christians and who they want others to become. That doesn’t connect to how they view the U.S. as a nation – but it does pertain to how we, as scholars, should be attentive to the subtle ways that religion operates in people’s lives.

RG: What kinds of responses are you hearing about the book? What is surprising you?

HK: I’ve heard from a fair number of scholars of Christian Zionism from the US, Israel, and Europe. That’s a bit surprising since I make clear in the introduction that the book isn’t actually about Christian Zionism and I haven’t been involved in that conversation at the AAR, for example. It’s also nice to think that perhaps it will be a helpful complement to that literature, which was one of my hopes.

But by far the most surprising was overhearing my Jewish grandmother actually admit to a friend on the phone, “Hillary wrote a book about Jesus and dedicated it to me…Yes, that Jesus.”


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