In this morning’s tranche of electronic notices, there was a message from the Program Assistant at the Hillel Center inviting students to apply for a subsidized excursion to Israel. For less than one thousand dollars, it announced, students could enjoy ten days of “breathtaking views, immersive learning, and challenging discussion.” This paragraph caught my eye:
“A trip to Israel is in essence a rite of passage for every Christian—a pilgrimage in the truest sense. The origins of both ancient Biblical faith and of a modern-day miracle intersect here. The land and the people of Israel have a story to tell. By coming to Israel this summer, you make Israel’s story part of your own story.”
I submit that the proposed trip is unlikely to be a “pilgrimage in the truest sense,” at least so far as Christian students are concerned. The traditional Christian understanding of pilgrimage is that it is (a) an act of penance, and (b) a symbolic expression of the belief that we are pilgrims (literally foreigners) on earth, and of the hope that we will one day to pass through all its “toils and snares” and reach our true homeland in Heaven. It is true that the Holy Land has been, off and on, a prized destination of Christian pilgrims: but a pilgrimage to the Holy Land has never been equivalent to the Hajj. It is true that many Christians have been deeply moved by the thought that they are tracing the steps of Christ: but the physical Jerusalem is in no sense a Christian Benares.
I well understand that Christian “pilgrims” have often been very silly people, and that Christian “pilgrimages” have often been larks, junkets and sight-seeing excursions. The pilgrims who told their famous Tales on the way to Canterbury do not seem to have been models of piety. But this does not make a sight-seeing excursion into “a pilgrimage in the truest sense,” even when the destination is, indeed, holy. Rather, I submit that such an excursion is a pilgrimage in the stupidest sense.
Now I can see nothing wrong in taking a trip to Israel to take in the sights, or indeed of taking advantage of a subsidy if doing so; but I do not think one should call such an excursion a pilgrimage.
Nor, I think, should one call it a “rite of passage.” The message from the Hillel center may well have used this phrase as a simple academic flourish, but a “rite of passage,” like a pilgrimage, is a very specific sort of thing. The term comes from a book published by the French anthropologist Arnold Van Gennep in 1909, in which it is clear that such passages are effected by formal rites. A rite of passage is a scripted ceremony in which select members of a society pass from one social status to another. Young Jews, for instance, pass into the status of adulthood by the ceremony of the Bar (and Bat) Mitzvah. A rite of passage ceremony publicizes the change of status to the relevant community, and this change in status entails real changes in a person’s rights and responsibilities. This is why the most important rites of passage were historically connected with the onset of puberty.
Among Christians, ordination is an important rite of passage, particularly in confessions that impose special restrictions on their clergy. To be ordained is to be placed under a new order—“holy orders”—with powers and prohibitions unlike those of the society at large.
When the phrase “rite of passage” is used to denote nothing more than a “life-altering experience” at the personal and psychological level, it is being used in the stupidest sense.
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I do not for a moment doubt that the proposed trip to Israel might be “life-altering,” only that the likely alteration has anything to do with pilgrimages or rites of passage in the truest sense of these words. What appears to be on offer is, in fact, a rather simple form of advertising, since the aim of the proposed trip is to associate those “breathtaking views” of the Holy Land with what we must suppose will be the Zionist message of the “immersive learning and challenging discussion.”
It is not unreasonable to suppose, for instance, that the proposed trip will include a visit to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. To a Christian student, this will be a “condensation symbol” that evokes powerful positive feelings connected to Bible stories about the baby Jesus, to Christmas carols sung round an open fire, to the awesome doctrine of the Incarnation. In the words of Edward Sapir (who coined the phrase), a condensation symbol is an object “saturated with emotional quality,” and therefore capable of triggering powerful emotions.
To a Christian student , the Holy Land is a minefield of condensation symbols that will trigger powerful positive emotions. The advertiser’s trick is to associate these emotions with something else. Show me a picture of a beautiful mountain lake, and then shove a picture of a bottle of beer in my nose. Association! Show me the Church of the Nativity, and then subject me to some “immersive learning and challenging discussion.” Association!
It’s all there in the seminal work Propaganda, by Edward Bernays (1929). As Bernays put it,
“It is the purpose of this book to explain the structure of the mechanism which controls the public mind, and to tell how it is manipulated by the special pleader who seeks to create public acceptance for a particular idea or commodity.”
If you’d like the idea in somewhat more highbrow form, here’s Emile Durkheim in Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912),
“the sign takes the place of the object and the emotions it arouses are attached to the sign.”
When this attachment is effected, and a man transfers his emotions from their proper object to the associated sign, we say the man has developed a fetish. And that’s exactly what this trip is designed to do. It is designed to develop an Israel fetish in Christian students.
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I do not object to special pleaders for Israel seeking to create public acceptance for their ideas, although I do smell something slightly rancid in their cynical use of sanctifying words like “pilgrimage” and “rite of passage.” Since the Christmas story has been used to sell just about anything that can be fit under a Christmas tree, as well as many things that cannot, I suppose it is too late for me to complain that they have stooped to sacrilege. Zionists have something to sell, just as we all do.
My real complaint is that we Christians are such everlasting saps and suckers and simpletons. My real complaint is that we are the Rubes of the Universe, the easiest marks ever to shamble down the street, ready to buy the Brooklyn Bridge.
Wise as serpents, brothers! Wise as serpents!