The Holy Land is sometimes called "the fifth Gospel" because the physical proximity to the events reported in the New Testament can bring alive the story of Jesus' life, ministry and sacrifice.
Charles H Dyer's "Thirty Days in the Land With Jesus" is a commendable attempt to bring alive the "fifth Gospel" for those who lack the means to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It also revives memories for those who have been, thereby perhaps refreshing the spiritual benefits of that journey, and helps to prepare those who are planning to go.
Dyer is thoroughly qualified to offer such direction: he is a professor in biblical studies at the evangelical Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and a licensed tour guide who has visited the Holy Land more than 75 times.
As the title suggests, "Thirty Days in the Land With Jesus" is intended as a 30-day reflection, with each day being framed around a place in the Holy Land. Some of these are the obvious sites, others are astutely selected. So when Dyer takes us off the beaten pilgrim path to the top of Mount Arbel, which overlooks the Sea of Galilee, he fruitfully reflects on the small size of the geographical area which served as the arena for Jesus' Galilean ministry.
Dyer suggests that one should read only one chapter a day, and prayerfully contemplate it with the aid of the carefully constructed reflection points which he provides. This is a very good idea, though his breezy, conversational style tempts the reader to skip to the next chapter.
The book is unmistakably Protestant in tone. So Dyer lists among the putative highlights of a pilgrimage a visit to the Garden Tomb, the site where Protestants commemorate the crucifixion and resurrection, as opposed to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which archaeological consensus acknowledges as the only likely site of the crucifixion.
The author's continuous references to "Israel," instead of the Holy Land (never mind Palestine), is a peculiar characteristic of conservative American Protestantism. It becomes jarring when Dyer locates a hike from Jerusalem to Jericho in Israel, when a significant portion of that path, including the destination, is in the West Bank, the occupied Palestinian territories. The last time Jericho was "in Israel," the land was run by the Samarians.
Dyer reads the Bible literally; a simple faith permeates his book, and rightly so (even as one might be tempted to dispute some of his exegesis); a devotional book probably isn't the place to enter into the finer points of biblical scholarship.
Although written with a Protestant audience in mind, "Thirty Days in the Land With Jesus" has much to offer for Catholic readers, and is recommended for all pilgrims, physical and virtual, to the Holy Land.
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Also of interest: "Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel Through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner" by Lela Gilbert. Encounter Books (New York, 2012). 293 pp., $25.99.