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Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World, by James Carroll, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011, 418 pp.

James Carroll’s book is like the inverse of Karen Armstrong’s book. Armstrong carefully catalogs the facts of history, and lightly draws inferences of some overarching themes in Jerusalem’s history and lore. Carroll sees mythic stories at work and uses the facts of history to document a narrative of the psychic and spiritual idea of Jerusalem. One is a primarily a historian of religion who is also an adept writer and storyteller. The other is primarily a writer and storyteller who also engages in the history of religion.

I will not try to weigh in on the accuracy of the history as Carroll retells it, but I did not read anything that seemed shockingly different than any of the other histories I have read in recent weeks. What was far more surprising about this book is how little it said about the history of Jerusalem at all. Much of what Carroll discussed in this broad, sweeping tale of human history was the history of sacred violence, from the first hunters who killed to eat to the temple cults of sacrifice to monotheistic theologies to American wars for the mythic ideal of freedom. Carroll attempts to document the phenomenon of “Jerusalem fever,” a captivating obsession with fantasies about what Jerusalem is and what it means. While sometimes that Jerusalem fever intersects with the history of Jerusalem itself, Carroll’s narrative talks as much about prehistoric hunting as it does about King David, more about Abraham Lincoln and John Winthrop than it does about Saladin and Sulieman, and most of all about the human psychology of sacrificial violence.

In the end, I thought Carroll told an interesting story. Like a good journalist, he took the facts and made them into a narrative. He used the idea of Jerusalem throughout history to explore and explain the connection between violence and the sacred. He hypothesizes that religion is born to make sense of the sacrificial killing (38), but the Bible enshrines a counter-narrative of peace, that “God does not sponsor violence, but rescues from violence” (54) and monotheism, when God is the God of all people, offers an opportunity for conflict resolution (61). The book often feels like traveling down a series of rabbit holes, like following an interesting train of thought and ending up somewhere unexpected.

There were several of these explorations that were particularly interesting:

  • The Holy of Holies in the Jewish Temple originally held the Ark of the Covenant. After the first destruction by the Babylonians, the Holy of Holies was forever left empty. That emptiness expanded with the destruction of the temple, and then the Western Wall, where people come to pray for what is not there. With this nothingness comes the theology that God is beyond all representation, all idols, all human knowing and captivity—an idea that has potential to overcome conflict and violence. (303) This actually reminded me of a thesis in one of Karen Armstrong’s other books, A History of God.
  • He documents the move in Christian theology from the worship of Jesus for his life and ministry to the worship of Jesus for his sacrificial death and resurrection. That shift is intimately connected with Constantine’s rebuilding of Jerusalem and the “discovery” of sacred sites there, which is directly connected to the relationship between Christianity and empire.
  • He connects the 15th century explorers to the legacy of the Crusaders, including a letter from Christopher Columbus in which he expresses his desire that all the bounty of his discoveries be spent in the recovery of Jerusalem. (153)
  • Lincoln resurrects the vision of America as a New Jerusalem, creating the narrative of the quest for freedom, in order to justify the enormous bloodshed of the Civil War. National “union” was not enough to merit such sacrifice, but a vision of freedom and a New Jerusalem was. Apparently, Lincoln spoke to his wife of his desire to see Jerusalem just moments before he was shot by John Wilkes Booth. (231)
  • Jerusalem was the imagination and inspiration for Britain during World War I, as General Allenby desired to inspire the people by conquering the city as a “Christmas gift,” and poet Wilfred Owen compared the sacrifice of Isaac to the sacrifice of soldiers in war. (235)

In his conclusion, Carroll projects a struggle between “good religion” and “bad religion.” Good religion promotes peace, equality, unity, tolerance, and revelation of God. Bad religion involves coercion, violence, dominance, and salvation from God. This struggle is the story of Jerusalem, in myth and in reality.

While I enjoyed reading this book, it was a challenge to follow Carroll’s many threads. There was no clearly developed or cohesive argument that I could outline, just a general thesis about the connections between the ideas of Jerusalem, religion and violence. Carroll is a good storyteller, and I appreciated the tale he wove in this book. He is also dogmatic in his pacifism and in constant struggle with his Catholic heritage, and both those strident attitudes came through strong in the book, for good and for ill. I’m not sure I gained a depth of understanding about its history, but I learned a lot of interesting bits and pieces about how Jerusalem functions in the dynamics of Western history, politics and national psychologies.

Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths by Karen Armstrong, Ballantine Books, 1996, 482 pp.

This was the final book I was asked to read as part of my participation in the Macedonian Ministries project. Whew! What a tome!

Karen Armstrong is always brilliant, always thorough, always helpful in her analysis of broad sweeps of history. I always feel smarter for reading her books—and yet I always find it such hard work. I suspect that the breadth of the material is what makes me feel so overwhelmed by it. I have another Armstrong book on my shelf (The Battle for God). Even though I had hoped to read it before my trip to the Holy Land, I don’t think I have the energy for another one yet.

Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths is exactly what it says it is—a history of this sacred city at the heart of three faith traditions and the center of so much violence and conflict. Armstrong starts with the earliest evidence of settlement in the area, some pottery shards from 5200 years ago. She then traces all the various rulers and peoples in the area that is now Jerusalem. Here is a brief list, which captures in short form a timeline of the various groups who controlled the land: the Canaanite people and the conquest of Joshua; the Jebusites who first settled on the Ophel hill that became Jerusalem; the kingdom of David and the building of Solomon’s Temple; the Assyrian and Babylonian exile and return; Greek and Roman rule; the destruction of the temple and city in 70 CE; the Roman city Aelia Capitolina built on the ruins; the Byzantine rule; Caliph Omar’s peace and tolerance; the mad Caliph al-Hakim and other Fatamid rulers; the Crusades; Saladin’s restoration and peace; the Mamluk conquest; the Ottoman empire; the British Mandate; Zionism and modern Israel.  Each group destroyed some monuments and built others; displaced some residents and brought in others; honored some religion(s) and not others. Armstrong’s chronicle makes it clear that no one faith tradition can lay special claim to the city or its history—each have been responsible for building and cultivating Jerusalem, as well as destroying it.

One of the most interesting themes that winds through the book is the connection between Zion and social justice. From the pre-Yahwist Canaanite worshippers of Ba’al, Mount Zion was a symbol of a heavenly kingdom marked by peace and social justice. Many of the words we hear in Isaiah and the Psalms about the holy city of Jerusalem echo the vision of those Bronze Age Canaanite worshipers of Ba’al, who tied the sacredness of the city to the justice and peace it practiced. All who conquered the city—regardless of their faith—shared scriptures and religious beliefs that implored them to practice justice and peace, to care for the poor and respect their neighbors. Over the centuries, some rulers sought to build that kind of Holy City; others let their jealousy for the land itself override any sense of compassion or justice. The vision of the heavenly city of peace has persisted for thousands of years, yet it still feels very far away.

I felt like this book was excellent preparation for my journey to this city. I had little illusion that I would see the city of Jesus, or that the holy sites we visit will be original and untouched in any way. However, this book gave me a more profound sense of just how political Jerusalem’s holy sites are. Each attempt to build or destroy or even to clean and maintain a square of land is seen as an act of seizing control, usually at someone else’s expense. Every site currently open for tourists is the result of intense and frequently violent negotiations and claims.

I cannot predict how this will impact my experience of the city. It’s possible that knowing the history of battle and bloodshed will make it all seem pointless. It’s also possible that the same history will lend an import and weightiness to the places, no matter their inaccuracy as biblical places. I suspect it will be some mix of the two.

The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew and the Heart of the Middle East by Sandy Tolan, Bloomsbury, 2006, 364 pp.

Many, many thanks to my friend Caela for recommending this book. It was great preparation for my pilgrimage to the Holy Land in just a few short weeks, and the story was so compelling that I couldn’t put it down.

The Lemon Tree is the true story of two individuals, their families and their personal, intertwining history with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict over the last century. Bashir Khairi is a Palestinian Muslim who was six years old in 1948, when his family was forced to leave the house his father had built and the land that had been their heritage for centuries. Dalia Eshkenazi is the daughter of two Bulgarian Jews who survived the Holocaust. She and her parents were among the first Jews relocated from Europe to the newly-formed nation of Israel. Dalia was eleven months old when she came to Israel, and she and her parents took up residence in the vacated family home of Bashir Khairi.

The story begins in 1967, shortly after the Six Day War, when Bashir has the opportunity to visit his hometown for the first time in 19 years. With his two cousins, he makes his way back to the town of al-Ramla. They ring the bell of Bashir’s family home, and Dalia answers and agrees to let them in. What unfolds, across the next 40 years, is a friendship and compassionate conversation through the ugliness of war and violence. Bashir remains active in the Palestinian resistance, refusing to let go of his just claim to return to his family home. He spends a quarter of his life in prison as a result. Dalia is unrelenting in her commitment to Israel, her claim to the house, and the need for a Jewish homeland. Yet the two develop a personal respect and admiration for each other that survives their differences and gives cause for hope in the terribly painful conflict in this small patch of land.

Sandy Tolan is a journalist who writes their story with an informality that makes it feel like reading a novel, but a depth of historical information that teaches as the story unfolds. He traces each family’s history back several generations, and then unfolds the story of Dalia’s and Bashir’s lives with care and detail. He lays out the history of the land, the violence and insecurity on both sides, failed attempts at peacemaking, and the realities of occupation with a matter-of-fact approach that honors the sincerity and depth of the conflict on both sides. The story creates in the reader a desire for both Dalia and Bashir to have their way, to meet the just demands of both, but that is impossible. The needs of one conflict with the needs of the other, so the path of forward seems unfair and unclear. In his telling of the personal and political history, Tolan honors the just claims of both sides and both perspectives, and does not try to mediate or take sides.

The central symbol of the book is a lemon tree, planted by Bashir’s father in the back yard of their family home. It is a symbol of the future (turned past) that has been taken away from them, of the home that they long for, and of all that one kindhearted citizen can offer—the gift of lemons from the tree, not the tree itself or the ability to return to the home where it sits.

The Lemon Tree is a fascinating, compelling read, and a great way to gain familiarity with the history of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. There is no resolution, but in this book there is always hope.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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