Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Traveling -- A Review

TRAVELING:  Christian Explorations of Daily Living. By Joerg Rieger.  Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2011.  Xiv + 120 pages.

            Most of us have taken a trip somewhere, and that trip may have affected the way we view the world.  It may have been to a foreign destination, where the culture and the language are quite different.  For me that was month spent in Brazil as a teen.  Others have not gone far from home, but perhaps they have traveled in their imagination.  Some travel on business and others for religious reasons.  There are, of course, the migrants and the nomads.   Whatever the nature of the travel, it’s likely that it leaves a mark on us and perhaps on the places and the people we visit.  This can be positive or negative.   Then there is the idea of the spiritual life being a journey, and so even if we don’t travel very far in the physical sense, our spiritual lives, if we allow this to be true, are anything but static.
            Joerg Rieger, a German-American theologian teaching in Texas, writes an intriguing, though brief book that explores this idea of travel.  Rieger writes as one who has had the opportunity to travel widely.  He has seen the best and the worst, and challenges us to look beyond the idea of travel as tourism.    This isn’t simply a book on travel; it is a theological book that serves to remind us that the Judeo-Christian traditions describe a faith tradition that meets God on the road.  It’s not a story that is static, even if many of us live our faith in rather static fashion, by sitting in church while occasionally standing to sing or greet folks in the pews.  But, according to Rieger, much of the tradition was developed while on the road – consider Abraham or Moses, the exile, and the itinerant life of Jesus, not to mention Paul.   Travel, of course, comes in many forms.

            The book is composed of five chapters, the first of which introduces us to the way in which we experience the road, including travel in its broadest forms, tourism, and migratory travel.  A key point that guides the conversation throughout is taken from Mark Twain, who wrote that “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts” (p. 7).  The recurring question concerns how we are transformed by our meeting of folks on the road.  Is our parochialism and bigotry challenged and transformed?  Do we experience the other in a new way, and does this impact our own view of ourselves and of God?  In this age of jet-setting travel, we need to ask the question too of how our travel, especially as tourists, affects the local people.  But, it’s not just tourism, it can include what may seem like a rather spiritual matter and that is the mission trip.  The question that must be asked concerns whether those who travel, even with mission in mind, understand the reality of the power differential present. 

            With these questions in mind, Rieger then takes us to the biblical traditions of travel and migration.  He writes that “if all the stories that deal with traveling, walking, and journeying were taken out of the Bible, there would not be a whole lot left” (p. 25).  In these stories God is met on the road, theology is developed on the road.  And so the question is – where will God be found?   If the biblical story takes place on the road, this path doesn’t end there.  Thus, in chapter 3, he takes up the ideas of pilgrims and vagabonds.  A pilgrimage is a journey taken for religious purposes, and the end point is a religious site or a place where the supernatural is manifest, though some would like to broaden the category out to include more of what looks like tourism.  In the medieval period pilgrimages were focused on itinerant devotion, and had eternal life as an end.  These travels could be dangerous and expensive, though by the end of the medieval era something more akin to tourism began to develop, so that by the 17th and 18th century these pilgrimages had much more the sites in mind than the spiritual transformation.   Thus, in the modern era the pilgrimage has become rather domesticated.  But, steps can be taken to reclaim the “dangers” of the past, perhaps by examining our understandings of power differential.   Vagabonding is different in that the vagabond wanders “without being grounded.”   They are unpredictable and are perhaps closest to the ancient pilgrims in their facing of the challenges of life.  They would, Rieger notes, include migrant workers and the kind of character of Sal in Jack Kerouac’s  On the Road , who is not interested in moving up the ladder, but wishes to experience the freedom of the road, which includes the realization that you don’t control life.

            In chapter four Rieger deals with religious travel, experiences that include the mission trip experience.  Those who are involved in such trips and experiences need to read this book, very closely.  It doesn’t condemn them, but it does point out the problems inherent in the concept.  Whether it’s a mission trip or a pilgrimage, the question isn’t whether religious tourism can invigorate the spiritual life, but whether such traveling will invigorate the other.  Is it like the travels of the business person – seeking to acquire raw materials to be refined – or are we willing to put ourselves in a situation where both parties benefit.  That is, “could religious travel be redesigned in such a way that the travelers are not just enriched but also challenged and that their hosts benefit as well?” (p. 75).   The focus here is on listening, building trust, and engaging with those one meets along the way.  This takes time and energy, and thus isn’t something that happens easily in the tourist context.  And when one returns home from such a trip, one must ask whether this experience has truly impacted one’s person.   In looking for models and opportunities, Rieger points to the urban-ministry alternative.  One needn’t travel far to experience the other, and thus to step out of the narcissism that is often present in our life experiences.  But in going, one must understand that the calling is not to take God to the city, but rather one returns to the city to find God at work.  One doesn’t go to the city to discover more theological options, but rather to allow one’s own cherished images of God to be challenged.   Part of this challenge is the realization that God has already gone to the city and to other places that experience difficulty.
            Travel, as Rieger notes in his concluding chapter helps broaden our horizons, and this leads to resistance against narrow-mindedness and bigotry.  How often does our vision of reality get shaped by a rather static environment?  Parochialism is a problem for so many, especially those who live in affluent suburbs or in the United States.   By engaging in travel one’s theology is impacted.  We learn about power differentials and the impact of empire.   We may learn that we are rather connected to wealth and power and find this challenged.  But going back to the beginning, to Abraham and Moses, we’re reminded that theology is developed on the road.  As Rieger points out:  “Theology on the road resists static, self-centered theology” (p. 103).

This book though small and very readable, is deep and rich in its theological reflection.  The author is  very much the theologian, but he is also a person who has experienced the world, and in doing so has found God present in many varied places.  This book, which forms part of a series of books that explore daily life from a Christian perspective, reminds us that God is present even in our travels, challenging us to think carefully about who we are as people.  I must say that the month spent in Brazil as teen has had last effects on my life.  I didn’t have the tools to truly understand my experience, especially theologically.  I was rather overwhelmed by it all.  I experienced the cultural differences, but in many ways I was also shielded from the true realities of Brazilian life.  I observed the alternative religious life, but I was not ready to process it.  I’m still learning to listen and engage my surroundings, but the act of stepping outside my comfort zone has had an important impact on the way I live my faith in the world.   

Rieger’s perspective is formed by a liberationist perspective.  He’s concerned about issues of justice and whether or not one’s life and perspectives will be changed in such a way that one hears the call to stand with those on the margins.  It’s not that we shouldn’t enjoy the sights and sounds of the places we visit, but more needs to happen than simply having a good time.  Thus, this book is quite worth a close read.  It will challenge one’s view of the world and one’s understanding of where God is to be found – on the road!  As for the other books in the series, which deal with play, eating, shopping, and more, if this book is any indication of what the series is like, these also should be valuable reads.

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