Friday, August 14, 2009

Traveling the Holy Land with AD Wenger

As I noted 2 weeks ago, I bought a book recently for ten cents, “Six months in Bible Lands” by Amos Daniel Wenger (doesn't seem to be one of "my" Wengers), an account of his 14 months traveling through Europe, the Holy Land, and Asia in 1899-1900. Because we were on a “Steps of Paul” tour in March 2009, in Ireland and Italy in 2007 and 2008, in Finland and Russia in 2006, and Germany and Austria in 2005, many of his stops and descriptions whether of cathedrals in Europe or the waters of the Jordan are quite vivid, even though he experienced them 110 years ago.

My questions to AD and travelers of the 1890s are quite practical: first of all toilets, then shoes, clothing, traveling companions, arrangements for money and translators, food, medical care, suitcases, etc. But just as we know that there used to be a two-story outhouse attached to the hotel here at Lakeside (for men only) a hundred years ago, there is no photo of it in existence, because those necessities were just a way of life, and usually not recorded in guide books. So we are left to wonder what the women used, or who were the poor servant staff who emptied chamber pots from the hotel rooms of 19th century Methodists.

In our diversity-obsessed and PC academic culture, some academics or liberal Christians might find his descriptions of the people he meets and cultures he experiences “ethnocentric” or “xenophobic,” but I found his honesty and true compassion and love quite refreshing. When he sees a fierce, dark skinned, armed Bedouin he mentions his fear, but also is firm in his unwillingness to arm himself or even travel with an armed guard, because he is a “nonresistant” Mennonite. He thinks that nonresistant missionaries (I don’t think he uses the word pacifist) who hire armed guards are hypocrites. When he sees women doing the work of pack animals, he mentions how much better off and respected are women in America. When he observes lascivious, drunk women on the train in France, he makes note. When he compares the differences among the Turks (area was controlled by the Ottoman Empire), the Arabs, the native Palestinian tribes, Druses, native Christian groups, Palestinian Jews, European Jews and various European and American travelers either guides or missionaries who live and work there, it is with the eye of a Christian, American Mennonite evangelist who believes the living water of the gospel of Jesus more important than digging a local well for fresh water and moving on. And he is quite distressed and saves his harshest words for squabbling Christian sects.

He observes the irony and pain, as did we, of the various Christian sects--Armenians, Greeks, Roman Catholics and others--sharing worship space in churches build over holy places, such as the Church of the Holy Sepulcre, and the Church of the nativity in Bethlehem. These places then and now are controlled by Moslems, and they, not the Christians who squabble and refuse to worship together, keep the peace. When AD was at these sites, he was told of killings and fightings among the Christians going back to the times of the Crusades, and he grieves that this is such a poor witness to both Jews and Moslems. I'm sure the Mennonites' squabbles back home over whether to use a pulpit or table, or whether Sunday Schools are an evil concession to the larger culture, paled by comparison, because he never mentions them.

His experience inside these holy shrines sounds very similar to ours. For instance, in Bethlehem:
    “We went beneath the floor of the church into a chamber in the natural rock. A silver star is pointed out as the place of the birth, and a stone manger is shown, but it seems painful to see it all so changed and embellished by the hands of idolizing sects. It seems more painful however that the Christianity of the land has so degenerated since the Pentecostal shower of heavenly grace that Mohammedan soldiers must be kept on the spot to keep peace among the Christians--to keep even priests from flying at each other’s throats.” (p. 122)
Of course, you don’t have to read far into Paul’s letters to the New Testament churches to see the first thing Christians did was to start creating factions and disagreements, even in the first century. There is a 2,000 year history of squabbling over baptism, food, times of worship, end times prophecies, which holy days to observe, whether to marry or tarry, etc. And dear brother Wenger spends more than a few pages showing his readers why the Mennonites have the proper way to use water in baptism, using Scripture, archeology and his own observations.

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