In her 2019 book, The Absent Hand:Reimagining our American Landscape, (our Heartlands favorite read last year), Suzannah Lessard described the place where we are just now as atopia, a realm in which place has lost its old meaning because the kind of things that used to define our world, primarily our work, shape our physical communities less and less. What sort of building and things does a digital world need? Even television sets have, Lessard says, “the slightly, shameful, ghostly look of appliances that have outlived their time. It’s too thinnish for our ethereal age, too big: we like things to be as close to nothing as possible, to fit in our pocket and come with us.” (187)
I’m one of those who feels the loss of place in an atopian world. Place does matter to my soul and very specific places are lodged in my spiritual imagination, from a hilltop Iron Age fort on Iona’s western shore to a concrete picnic table overlooking the pumpjacks and sunsets just west of Archer City, Texas. I can’t think or pray without being aware of the presence of a place.
Which brings me to the Lexham Geographic Commentary on the Gospels, edited by Barry J. Beitzel. At 500+ pages it’s an intimidating block of a book filled with articles that on first blush seem to be the kind of bad rah-rah biblical archeology that so turned me off as a youth. That branch of biblical studies always seemed to be ending with fantastic discoveries that were dependent on the preconceived notions of the scholar. “Of course that’s Noah’s Ark on Mt. Ararat!” Such revelations seldom held up to scrutiny.
And what does archaeology really matter to Christians after all? I mean, our most sacred space in the Holy Land is empty. How important is it to know which tomb first held that empty space? Jesus is universal now. Entirely atopian, you might say.
Bishop Tim Whitaker, who put me on to the Lexham Commentary, was also the one who helped me shift my language about the tomb from ‘empty’ to ‘open.’ An open tomb carries an entirely different valence. The world is now not defined by an absence, but by a pervading presence. It matters that the Word became flesh, and part of the embodiment of the Incarnation is interaction with the world where it is. And in every part of that world is a window onto its Great Lover. “Christ plays in ten thousand places” after all.
So I gave the book a chance and it rewarded me with rich insights. If you’ve been to Israel and Palestine there is some extra resonance in reading. My own recollections are sometimes clouded by memories of traffic jams and tourist hotels. But the articles in this commentary took me back to the holy sites with new eyes. Particularly in the Galilee section I was able to envision how the three jurisdictions fronting the shores of the Sea of Galilee represented possibilities for Jesus to physically enact a message of Israel becoming a light to the nations. Jesus and the disciples crossing over “to the other side” of the lake now has the texture of an expanding ministry.
The Jerusalem sections help to emphasize how small a place it was, dominated by the magnificence of the Temple Mount. Maps and diagrams help to explain the topography in ways that were lost on me walking the current maze of tiny streets in the Old City.
To be sure, geography is not the same as archaeology, though the studies go hand in hand. Some have called the Holy Land, the Fifth Gospel, and knowledge of the place does change the way you read the other gospels. This collection, though stodgy, allows readers to linger in that land with new eyes.
For people whose own land is slipping away from them, either because of the atopian trends of the economy or just because the pandemic has shrunk the world to the space of our home, the exploration this commentary provides is an invitation to a little wandering. And perhaps to see the significance of our own little corner of the world.