Wednesday, July 7, 2010

‘The Sacred Journey’ by Charles Foster – Book Review

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A wonderful thing happens when you read a book that touches down into the depths of your soul. That happened to me with ‘The Sacred Journey’ by Charles Foster, from ‘The Ancient Practices’ book series.

Here is the synopsis of this deeply rich book:

          Christians Need to Take to the Road.
Jesus was a homeless, itinerant preacher. And when he said “Follow me,” he meant it perfectly literally. Because between life-changing sermons, Jesus was, of course, walking. And walking. “He left that place”… “he departed”… “he left Galilee and went to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan”… and so on. He then walked to his own death, carrying a burden heavier than anyone has ever carried.
The well-traveled Charles Foster has long been fascinated by nomads and people who choose to become nomadic in pursuit of God. By the idea of traveling to sacred places (whatever they are). By the notion of pilgrimage.
The wise me, he says, were the first Christian pilgrims. They were astrologers who’d traveled for weeks to find Bethlehem. They set the pattern for all subsequent pilgrimages: they left, they traveled, they arrived, and they went back home. And they experienced something life-changing on that journey. Similarly, a stockbroker on pilgrimage for one short week will know better what it means to leave everything and follow Jesus. The mere decision to go will snap some of the cords that stop them from spreading his wings.
In The Sacred Journey, we learn that:
·         Traveling is fundamental to the definition and psyche of human beings.
·         When God became a man, he was a nomad. He had long expressed a bias toward nomads and their values.
·         Being Christian means following that God-man.
·         Following him will mean a journey to his heartlands – the margins.
·         Arrival is less important than the journey; on the road there are important lessons to be learned, important things to be lost, and important things to be won.
·         Not everyone can go on a physical pilgrimage, but everyone can have the mind of the nomad-disciple.

Here is the biography of the author:

Best-selling author Charles Foster (The Selfless Gene: Living with God and Darwin; Wired for God: The Biology of Spiritual Experience; Tracking the Ark of the Covenant; The Jesus Inquest: The Case For – and Against – the Resurrection of the Christ; The Christmas Mystery) was educated at the University of Cambridge, teaches medical ethics and law at the University of Oxford, and is a Fellow of Green Templeton College, Oxford. He lives in Oxford with his wife, Mary, and an anarchic brood of children.  

In the Preface, Professor Foster states that he has tried to articulate a theology of pilgrimage. Some that stand out to me are:

A. Traveling is fundamental to the definition and psyche of human beings. We can suppress the desire to move, but if we do, nasty things happen to our heads, our societies, our souls, and our coronary arteries. (pp. XIII-XIV)
F. Being Christian (a word too contaminated by millennia of hypocrisy, violence, and downright error to be safe) means following the Yahweh-man and expanding the topsy-turvy kingdom movement (significant word, that). (p. XV)
G. Pilgrimage is wandering after God. That it may be to a definite destination doesn’t mean that it’s not wandering, and it doesn’t destroy its continuity with the beloved nomads and the kingdom-preaching wanderings of Jesus. (p. XV)
H. There is a potent and important connection between the necessary, self-imposed marginalization of the pilgrim and Jesus’ own bias toward the edge-people, Christian pilgrimage can and should be a walk with Jesus. And that is necessarily a walk in kingdom territory, under those upside-down kingdom rules. The kingdom road is a physical peninsula of the kingdom. As the kingdom sprang up around the sandals of Jesus, so kingdom flowers can spring up around pilgrim boots. Not necessarily, of course, but it often happens. (pp. XV-XVI)

I think this book came to the top of my reading list at the perfect time; my husband Fred and I were scheduled to participate in a half marathon the day after I read this book. So my mind was in the ‘pilgrim/journey’ mindset. And I so agree with the way Professor Foster captures the concept of the pilgrimage.

Professor Charles expounds on his assertion that God favors the wanderer:

In the Abrahamic religious tradition, God makes no secret of his clear bias for the wanderer. He is on the side of the Bedouin and loathes the city. It is not surprising. Abraham, the father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, was the archetypal desert Bedouin. Jesus was homeless: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,” he declared, and with pride, not regret. “I’m in the line of that vagrant, Abraham,” he was saying. The prophet Mohammed denounced the evils of the suburb. Islam is a religion of black goat-hair tents, withering sun, and sandstorm. Religion, like everything else, tends to go bad when it is imported to the town. (p. 2)

Professor Foster makes the point that, in the Gospels, following was more important than conversion:

It is clear that Jesus-fascination often led to Jesus-following. It’s still the case. We see it all the time, despite the obstacles to Jesus-fascination and Jesus-following that we put in people’s way. I have known many, many people more entranced by Jesus and started to walk after him, desperate for more of his company. They continue for a while to live lifestyles that would etch deep frowns into many in the church. But the longer they walk the road with Jesus, the more inevitable and complete repentance becomes. His presence has an antiseptic quality. They are baptized in the perfume that envelops him. For people who do physical pilgrimages, and for those first, itinerant apostles, the very act of starting to walk is inevitably a kind of repentance. They left their old lives behind and walked in the Jesus-direction. (p. 25)

Jesus’ views were very countercultural – good news for me, as I have always had an anti-establishment bent (not anti-authority – anti-establishment):

I presume that when he said, “The first will be last,” he meant it to be seriously bad news for the first. And so I wonder why I spend so much of my time trying to be first. If he’s right, then it’s not just silly; it’s downright deadly. And I presume that his clear preference for the outsiders, the people on the edges, means that he looks with deep suspicion at supposedly Christian states and institutions. Indeed at the whole anti-nomadic notion of the Christian Establishment. There aren’t many modern economies that organize their international trade on the principle that, if someone asks for your shirt, you give him your coat as well. There aren’t many politicians who say to their opponents, “You got fewer votes than I did, so you take the seat.” As soon as someone is at the top, or at the center, they’re being disobedient. If Jesus is right, the conversion of Constantine and the consequent Christianization of the Roman Empire were unmitigated catastrophes. Constantine made Christianity comfortable with worldly power, and a Christianity comfortable with worldly power isn’t Christianity at all. If this sounds like anarchy, that’s because it is. But it’s a kind, holy anarchy that would never plant a bomb. (pp. 27-28)

Professor Foster is convinced that we need to get rid of the term ‘Christian’ and come up with a new term:

I’m fond of “Jesus Freak.” And that’s not because I’m in the throes of midlife crisis (although I probably am) and it speaks of girls, guitars, joints, and beach parties. It seems to me to be theologically spot on. It tells of a people who leave the deadly, respectable things behind and, because they’re obsessed with him, follow Jesus to the unrespectable edges. The weirdness of the name would force real discipleship. You wouldn’t have people calling themselves Jesus Freaks because they thought it would increase their chances of making partners in their law firms. The name would force churches to reclaim its historical constituency on the garbage heap.
But I can see that it won’t catch on. So how about “Jesus Wanderer”? or “Jesus Follower”? I think God/the Holy One; Blessed be He, would approve. For there’s no doubt that whether the margins in which you meet Jesus are metaphorical or physical, he, being God, is bound to be moving. He can’t keep still. And he has an alarmingly clear preference for people who can’t keep still. (pp. 34-35)

Professor Foster proposes that Cain misinterpreted the sentence that God imposed upon him for the murder of his brother, Abel:

C.S. Lewis said that there is really only one law: everyone always gets what he wants. Cain wanted urban stability; he wanted not to wander. And tragically, he got it. His punishment was to stay in the city, to grow stagnant, to silt up, and to die. He could have had the stars, the thyme on the mountaintop, the cypress in the valley bottom, the changing of the seasons, and the freedom of the wind. He got the shopping mall, the pension policy, and the heart attack that prevented him from drawing on the policy. Cain was frightened of Abel’s name. He didn’t like to think of himself as an ephemeral, vaporous animal, soon gone. But living in the suburbs didn’t change his ephemeral nature. He thought it would make him safe. He lived smugly with the illusion of immortality. But he was a mist, like his brother. If you are a mist, it is best to live as mist. It is foolish to pretend that you’re a brick. You will get more out of live by acknowledging what you are. (p. 42)

Author Foster points out that Henry David Thoreau, the author of ‘Walden Pond,’ had insights on movement:

That great mystic Thoreau, of whom Christians are so suspicious, similarly saw movement as inextricably connected to the business of being human: “We do not commonly live our life out in full; we do not fill all our pores with our blood; we do not inspire and expire fully and entirely enough… We live but a fraction of our life. Why do we not let in the flood, raise the gates, and set all our wheels in motion?” (p. 57)

Professor Foster writes eloquently about the most perfect traveler of all:

There was another great traveler who stood squarely in the tradition of Abel and Lot. He described himself as a shepherd, as opposed to a tiller. His birth was announced in terms of the holy anarchy of the road, terrifying to Wall Street, but which describes the joyful experience of all nomads: “He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” I’m on the edge of things, he said, and I’m here for the people on the edge. He said that only the eyes of children could see what his real kingdom was about. His name, of course, was Jesus. (p. 59)

I loved this paragraph on Jesus’ upbringing:

God let the boy grow up normally. He didn’t send him to some top-ranking private school, still less to a high-powered theological seminary. Jesus learned to make chairs, sweep up sawdust, and say the Shabbat prayers. It really was very careless of God. That carelessness is called incarnation. (p. 64)

Jesus’ ministry was a matter of following Him:

From the start, the Jesus road show was a sociable business. He wanted people to walk with. He met them when he was walking: “As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers.” He called them along for a walk (“Follow me”), not for a lecture in doctrine. If his followers could have seen then where it would lead (to death by spearing – Matthew and Thomas; to being crucified upside down – Peter; to being stoned to death – Matthias; to being flayed alive and crucified – Bartholomew; and so on), perhaps they would never have come. The road is often merciful, hiding the hard places from us at times when we are weak. All that we are required to do is to put one foot in front of the other. And then do it again. (p. 67)

Professor Foster asserts that we will see the Kingdom of God when we get out of the center and into the margins:

Get up, get out, wake up, walk on, open your eyes, ask for new eyes; you’ll see it if you are really looking for it. It’s here, it’s now, it’s on the road that I’m walking, and it’s here because I’m walking. Do you want to see it? Walk that road, too. You’re blinded by indolence, by living in the center. It’s all happening at the edges, in the forgotten places, in the places you can’t get to by car or where your auto insurer wouldn’t let you drive, among the people you’ve put out with the trash. Reclaim the ability to be taken by surprise, and you’ll see it there, glistening so brightly you will never believe you could have missed it.
He walked and walked and walked, and then he was nailed to a piece of wood on a garbage heap outside a city and stopped walking for a while. (p. 78)

It is important that Christians ‘find themselves’:

If you’re Christian, don’t be too sniffily dismissive of that sort of language. The church could do with more Christians who have found themselves. After all, Jesus promised that he who lost his life would “find it,” and that was presumably a good thing. I have met a few people who have found themselves. You can see the glow a mile away and people are drawn to it like moths. (p. 95)  

A pilgrimage will be useful for those who have lost their relationship with God:

If you’re a Christian and you have lost your first Love, a pilgrimage can help you to fall in love again, only better and more fully, for the best is always yet to be. It can give you the ability to love as a child loves – a love without cynicism, suspicion, or envy. (p. 146)

Here is what happens what we encounter Him again:

Sometimes you can hear God rolling toward you on the road. You wait, braced, for him to crash over you. Sometimes, almost at the edge of vision, you see the Spirit beginning to stalk you, and you know that sometime soon you will be consumed; you will know that you are unconditionally adored, accepted, and utterly safe. Tears will come. (p. 151)

Prayer changes things; so does a pilgrimage:

It is rightly said that when you pray, coincidences happen. When you walk as       a pilgrim along a kingdom road, where every step is a prayer, coincidences happen too. We shouldn’t be surprised. That’s how we are told it will be. If we ask, it will be given. All things work together for good for the people of God, although it doesn’t always seem like that at the time. (p. 164)

I love how Professor Foster describes Jesus’ life as a pilgrim:

After his sweat-stained, fly-swatting, foot-cracked trail-life in the dust and grit of the Near East, the hiking God made his way through the hills of Jerusalem. The roads would have been busy; it was peak pilgrimage season. It was a journey home. He had been born just a few miles away in Bethlehem, and the temple was the house of the old tribal deity he called father. Betrayed by a fellow traveler, his journey seemed to end. But things are not always what they seem. Indeed, in the weird kingdom that Jesus spoke of, things are never as they seem. Three days later there was apparently a great beginning. (p. 192)

As with anything good, there are opponents of the pilgrimage. I had never thought of the Nazis the way they were described by Foster:

The persecution of nomads and wanderers has been relentless. Sometimes it has been overt and brutal. The Nazis (arch-settlers, of course – their rhetoric was all about the “thousand-year Reich,” and their obscene, grandiose buildings were the antithesis of a goatskin tent) rounded up those proverbially wandering Jews and gypsies and gassed them. As they looked those dying nomads in the eyes, the settlers knew that God had not changed his preference, and that enraged them all the more. (p. 202)

These opponents of pilgrimages have a vested interest in trying to keep others from traveling:

The denouncers of pilgrimages are all (at least by standards of their times) advanced urban intellectuals who have the most to lose. They are Cains, terrified of being reminded of what they have done, scared of the superior gaze of that favored, carefree, whistling boys as he walks past with his goats, mocking ever so slightly the serious, planning, budgeting older brother. (p. 204)

Professor Foster concludes by stating that moving is inevitable:

Everything moves. We move, too. Either willingly or unwillingly. Go willingly, and the business is redemptive and joyful. Go unwillingly, and the stream will dash and drown you.
The Buddha’s last words to his disciples were, “Walk on.” The first words of Jesus to his were rather different: “Follow me.” Jesus said some other things, too, but as a summary of the four Gospels, “Let’s go for a walk together,” is not bad. (p. 212)

I was really taken by this book. I was a little skeptical that Professor Foster may be mixing in all religions as equally important as being a Christ follower. However, it is obvious that he knows Jesus is the Savior of the world, and I appreciate his worldview all the more.   

You can order this book here.

This book was provided by Thomas Nelson Publishers for review purposes. 


tweedpipe said...

Thank you so much for your very kind comments on my book. They mean a lot.
With all blessings on the Way.

Andrea Schultz said...

Charles -
Thanks so much for stopping by to comment! I really was touched and changed by your book, and look forward to reading other of your titles!
Blessings -

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