I’ve been looking for something of a theology of travel online or in book format for over a year now but there just seemed to be nothing out there, which surprised me given the craze for travel. Perhaps it’s because travel falls under a theology of work and rest in many minds, but I’m not so sure. So I was thrilled to pick up this short read put together by IVP USA.
The author, Joerg Rieger, is professor of constructive theology at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, and this hugely experienced and scholarly background in the topic (like any book) shaped the way the author approached the topic in a refreshing but not altogether traditionally evangelical approach (as I will note later).
To engage with his material, I will follow his structure of chapters and then make final comment:
Opening with a summary of “The Judeo-Christian Traditions on the Road”, the author makes an extensive case for travel being an integral part of the Biblical story throughout virtually every genre of literature. But having built up such a positive picture, the chapter closes by noting that none of this Biblical travel is what we generally regard as travel – the holiday escape for little reason other than our own pleasure.
Chapter 2 “Travel, tourism and Migration: experiences from the road” makes a case that travel can be either broadening of one’s horizons or not so at all, depending on what attitudes we bring to it. Introducing themes already of wealth inequality and the privilege of those who are able to travel, Jorg exposes selfish motives in very gentle ways and compares it to those who are nearly forced onto the road in migratory travel. Regardless of which, the early exploration of “power differentials” – seeing every relationship on the road as a power exchange of some variety – was a helpful theme that then ran through the rest of the book.
In “Pilgrims and Vagabonds: challenges on the road” the author raises another point that will be repeated throughout the book: are we asking “is God on my side?” or “am I on God’s side?” He notes that leaning towards the latter of these questions removes conquests to “seek God” in particular places or to see certain places as being abandoned by God, which perhaps runs contrary to some concepts of spiritual territories prevalent now-a-days. Equally it puts a stopper to going on a pilgrimage to find God or persuade ourselves that God is on our side. Inside we can find the freeing reality that the offer to be on God’s side is a free one that we can travel with. Apart from this very valid point, the rest of the chapter’s intent was lost on me, as the author strays into vagabonding in literature, and brings out Marxian thought strongly (as the rest of the book tends to), even bringing Che Guevara into it! Nonetheless the point that God is in control, we don’t need to hunt Him down (primarily) and that He is everywhere, was worth the chapter!
In the next chapter “Beyond religious tourism: short term mission trips and immersions up-side down”, Rieger tries to persuade that religious mission still reeks of a colonial era. In fact, such negative vibes still get picked up from every aspect of his consideration of these things, that one is left wondering what his travel experiences were and why he went on them, if all is so inescapably negative on the power relationships we have with those we meet and influence (through our money, time, energy etc). Putting question marks over whether a message could ever be preached on short term teams, I understand what Rieger may be reacting against, but wonder whether he does not go too far in his generalisations about short term mission.
Perhaps he speaks into a different scenario in American church scene. His solution seems to be helping middle class americans encounter the urban poor on their own doorstep before they try to change the world outside of their own framework. This, although exemplary in motive, is not exactly all realistic, given how much overseas mission helps vast numbers see things on my doorstep and how to respond to them. In Cork, I encourage as many to get a heart for international students as possible, so that they can learn cross-cultural skills and convictions which they can apply to Irish culture.
Finally, the book concludes with “Travel as an act of Justice” and has a wonderful reminder that no travel is neutral, and that all travel should be done in respect to Christ’s heart for the poor, oppressed and those less fortunate. Not only this, but it should be done in sustainable ways. Whilst the author quotes Wesley in saying about the narrow road/gate (Matthew 7:13-14) that “are there many wise, many noble, many rich travelling with you in the same way? By this token, without going any further, you know it does not lead to life”, I wonder again whether this yearning is just a bit misleading. The author sits in the midst of academia, middle-class life, as a white privileged male, as one who has travelled the world, and much else. Yet would he say he does not have life?
I remember on the summer in between university and starting full-time paid work, chauffeuring for an old American Christian couple who were living on a ranch next to George Bush Snr in the States and mixed with the president and his friends. As we visited Michelin Star restaurants and stayed in five star hotels, I wept at my spiritual lethargy in such environments where I had everything I wanted at the click of a finger. I wondered whether it was possible to be a Christian and live with such extravagance?
“Is it possible to be a Christian and live with such extravagance?”
But from that experience and others, I think it was me who had the unhealthy attitude and heart, not them. They used their holiday to support their disabled son, to invest in evangelical theological education in Britain, and to bless many like myself. Their spirituality was evident and their character exemplary. Could this be done to God’s glory without further enhancing unhelpful inequalities? The author’s strong political opinions on economics would say no. I’m not sure I could go as far as that and make his answer mandatory for all Christians. Let us bathe in scripture, ask helpful questions that are shaped by scripture (and not experience), and let the Holy Spirit convict us further if we are not dying to self in our travels.