Pilgrimage is a concept seldom reflected upon within modern Christian discourse, particularly for Western, evangelical, Protestant types, which represents myself and countless readers of this weblog. With all the emphasis on journey as a metaphor for the life of faith, there isn't much of a charge for us to go anywhere. Rather, we are told that following Jesus should result in a transformation of the heart that can be chronicled much like a choose-your-own-stay-at-home adventure, even if the setting and backdrop remain static, and the only challenges that emerge are those common to life in suburbia. The mountains to traverse, the trails to walk, the streams to observe, and the dark monsters we face reside only in our imagination. Wilderness wanderings, like those of the ancient Hebrews, are things we read about in the travelogue that is our Bible, not the stuff of our lived experience.
Though rarely addressed, pilgrimage is no less important. That is why Charles Foster's The Sacred Journey is such an insightful and helpful read. Foster describes the practice of the transformative movement from here to there. He invokes the importance within the Christian tradition of sacred, or thin, places, places wherein we pray or experience God more poignantly, more precisely, and that there is value in physically visiting a site possessing a history, a place imbued with spiritual significance long before we arrived on the scene that is likely to endure long after we have gone. His book testifies powerfully to the physicality of our existence, the embodiment of our faith, and the deep connections that exist between earthly and heavenly realities.
The final installment in The Ancient Practices Series, Foster's contribution stands above a number of the other volumes for quality of prose and readability. It is a blessing to read a volume that delights, and this is one. However, there were elements I found contentious; for example, if I were to sit down with Foster, I would debate with him at length God's preference for the pilgrim and disdain for those who settle. I would point out that cities themselves serve a purpose in God's economy, and while God may do much formative work in the wilderness, refining the character of a people, God also establishes a land wherein cities might spring up, serving the purposes of government, justice, and oversight for those who reside within God's community. Cities are places wherein culture is developed and produced, either for God's glory or for the denigration of the human race. Cities are places where God can work just as mightily for the transformation of a people as God can in the rough and tumble of the wilderness.
In addition to my critique of Foster's claim that God hates the city (with the exception of one reversal at the conclusion of Revelation), I also found myself unsettled by the frequent invocation of the writings and insights of other religious traditions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam in his account of the pilgrimage. While I agree with Foster that there are numerous parallels between Christian and other conceptions of the value and purpose of the journey for the life of faith, I questioned why Foster could not put those accounts aside for the sake of constructing a distinctly Christian account of formation by way of the pilgrimage. This is an overall critique of the series, not only of Foster. With the exception of Scot McKnight's volume on fasting, many of the works in The Ancient Practices Series made certain to demonstrate that none of these practices are exclusively Christian. However, unlike McKnight, other contributors to the Series did not make a strong enough case for the difference practicing these disciplines or exercises (biblically, theologically, or otherwise) makes when observed in a particularly Christian way. There was not enough done to establish what difference these practices make for the Christian in distinction from the "spiritual person." This does not mean that I did not find the work done by Foster and others to be of value. However, it does mean that I thought that these volumes could have offered an even greater value to the Christian community, and, thus, I think that a greater opportunity may have been lost.
I'd recommend reading The Sacred Journey. Even when placing my critiques aside, Foster's writings made me want to go somewhere, and wherever it was that I would be going, my desire was to go there with Jesus.
DISCLAIMER: I received this book as a participant in the Thomas Nelson BookSneeze program, meaning, I got it for free in exchange for a review. If I love the book, I will say so. If I hate it, I will say so. Free is nice. But programs like this give books away for free to generate conversation, and I'm glad to help generate some buzz.