Tag Archives: Steinbeck

Why Christians Should Travel

Traveling changes one’s life. I’m sure anyone who has done much of it–especially abroad–would agree. There’s something about the displacement and discomfort of being in an alien place, coupled with the awesomeness of seeing things you’ve never seen before and blowing open the doors of any prior conceptions of “what this world is.” Travel enlarges one’s view of existence.

When I traveled to Southeast Asia the summer after my first year of college (my first experience overseas), I first encountered the life-changing potential of the experience of being abroad. Subsequent trips to Europe and Japan confirmed what I suspected–that there is an unmistakably spiritual aspect to travel.  It’s good for the soul. It brings you closer to God. In my case, it enhanced my faith.

I recently got the chance to explore this aspect of travel in depth in a feature article in Biola Magazine. In the article (“Dispatches From Abroad: How a Change of Scenery Can Enliven Our Faith”), I explore the various meanings of travel in the Christian experience, situating our contemporary perceptions of the spirituality of travel in the larger Christian tradition which goes back to the origins of our our faith:

Movement and travel have always been part of the Christian experience. So many of the giants of the faith have been travelers — from Abraham (whom God called to “leave your country” … Gen. 12:1) to Paul to the itinerate evangelists of the 19th century. And, of course, there is also Jesus himself, who from birth was a bit of a roving exile, frequently homeless and dependent on the hospitality of others on the routes he traveled.

Why is it that the journeying, nomadic lifestyle been such a hallmark of the Christian experience?

In his famous essay, “The Philosophy of Travel,” George Santayana wrote, “There is wisdom in turning as often as possible from the familiar to the unfamiliar: it keeps the mind nimble, it kills prejudice, and it fosters humor.”

A Christian might add that it enriches our identification with Christ and draws us closer to his presence by removing status quo comforts.

In some ways travel can be a sort of “monasticism on the move,” writes Iyer. “On the road, we often live more simply … with no more possessions than we can carry, and surrendering ourselves to chance.” …

And perhaps this is the greatest thing we can learn from travel — that the Christian experience is not meant to be one of cushy comforts, self reliance and satisfaction with the way things are, but rather an experience of dependence on God and seeking out the sometimes-overwhelming grandeur and complexity of God’s kingdom.

Travel is a way to meet Christ on the road and to feel the reality of his redeeming work in the world — not just by reading about it in a book, but by experiencing it in the flesh.

In his article on pilgrimage (“He Talked to Us on the Road,” April 2009) in Christianity Today, Ted Olsen points to the story of the Road to Emmaus as an example of how travel — what we encounter in person on “the road” — can transform our understanding of a thing. The men on the road to Emmaus knew about the Resurrection, but they didn’t know it in a transformative way until Christ appeared to them and they eventually realized who he was.

“It goes deeper than just grasping an event’s historicity,” writes Olsen. “It goes to its happenedness. We are not just minds created to soak up knowledge. We are bodies that stand in one place at a time, seeing and feeling our surroundings.”

Travel is about more than just knowing God’s goodness in our minds. It’s about seeing and tasting and feeling it in his created world, and in our fellow man. And though strangers we may be in this world, the reality is that God is here, working in remarkable ways.

To travel is to meditate on God’s blessings and his rich creation; it is to experience his faithfulness and  trust him in ways you just can’t do in the comforts of your own culture and comfort zone. At times it can even be an act of worship.

In Travels With Charley, John Steinbeck memorably writes about “the urge to be someplace else,”contending that, “When the virus of restlessness begins to take possession of a wayward man, and the road away from Here seems broad and straight and sweet, the victim must first find in himself a good and sufficient reason for going.”

I would suggest that for a Christian, a “good and sufficient reason for going” is simply this: We are God’s creatures, commanded to take joy and pleasure in the multi-facetedness of his goodness (“taste and see…” Psalm 34:8). When there is so much of that to experience in the world, why would we want to stay home?

Vaguely Literary Post-Travel Thoughts

We walked on and circled the island. The river was dark and
a bateau mouche went by, all bright with lights, going fast amid
quiet up and out of sight under the bridge. Down the river was
Notre Dame squatting against the night sky. We crossed to the
left bank of the Seine by the wooden foot-bridge from the Quai de
Bethune, and stopped on the bridge and looked down the river at
Notre Dame. Standing on the bridge the island looked dark, the
houses were high against the sky, and the trees were shadows.

“It’s pretty grand,” Bill said. “God, I love to get back.”

-Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

Traveling is a funny thing. Those who do a lot of it know how addictive and essential it is, and how equally it pulls you with such force away from your mundane, everyday existence but then thrusts you back with sling-like vigor at the end. You always feel like you must “get away” from home when you venture out on some trip, but by the end it is “home” that beckons you, normalcy that grabs you, and a humdrum schedule that enlivens you with its familiar scent of mom’s cookies and newly washed sheets.

It is clichéd and yet obligatory to now quote T.S. Eliot, who wrote in Four Quartets:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning.

I hardly had any time to process or “arrive” at any sort of cognitive illumination over the last few days. I was too busy stressing out about flight delays, cancellations, jetlag, lack of food and spending an unexpected night in a Comfort Inn outside our nation’s capital. But as I finally sat on my five-hour flight from D.C. to L.A. this morning, I had some serious time to contemplate.

Naturally, I could think only of death. Babies were screaming, the turbulence was consistent and harrowing at times, and the old lady next to me could not stop drinking $6 mini bottles of Glenlivet scotch. I was reading The Courage to be Protestant by David Wells but really could only think about death—the inevitability of it, the unpredictability of it, how utterly unknown the experience of it is for anyone living. I thought of Shakespeare and that skull in Hamlet. I thought of Emily Dickinson’s poem about “The Bustle in the House / The Morning after Death.” I thought about Air France and Lost. Morbid, I know. But traveling for any period of time tends to shake off the dust of one’s perspective on life and forces you to consider the big questions.

One of the consistent lessons of travel in my life has been the question of control. The limits of control. I’m a big planner and when I travel I typically type up detailed itineraries, Darjeeling Limited style, with all the details and needed contact numbers, ticket confirmations, etc for each day. But as much as you can plan and prepare, things inevitably go awry and circumstances demand adaptability and flexible course correction. But it’s all part of the adventure. I think John Steinbeck hits the nail on the head in Travels with Charley, when he describes travel in this way:

A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. Tour masters, schedules, reservations, brass-bound and inevitable, dash themselves to wreckages on the personality of the trip. Only when this is recognized can the blown-in-the-glass bum relax and go along with it. Only then do the frustrations fall away. In this a journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.

I think this is probably true for life in general. The minute we think we have it figured out, domesticated, understood or controlled is the minute we begin to lose our grip. I think it’s probably a better approach to just roll with the punches and understand that life happens with little regard to how we hope or expect it to. You will get sick when you least can afford to (as I did during the first few days of my stay in Oxford). You will randomly stumble upon famous people (as I did in Paris with the Obamas). You will have to sit in grounded planes for 3 hours and eat only airplane pretzels and water (as I did yesterday, in a dark dark moment of my recent history).

But all of it is good for you, in the long run. It humbles you—and heaven knows we can all use a little more humbling in our lives. To be confronted with life’s unpredictability and hugeness and incomprehensibility is simultaneously travel’s chief challenge and its raison d’être. And I know that these lessons can probably be learned without crossing an ocean; there are always more streamlined and less roundabout ways of doing anything. But life isn’t always about streamlining, and taking the long road home is sometimes the best way to go.