For The Someday Book

Book Review: Sacred Travels

Posted on: January 30, 2012

Sacred Travels: Recovering the Ancient Practices of Pilgrimage by Christian George, IVP Books, 2006, 179 pp.

What a disappointment this book turned out to be! I ordered two books about pilgrimage to take with me on this journey, in hopes that they would center me in the tradition of sacred journey during my time in the Holy Land. This book started out great, and I thought it would nurture me well—in the end, the theology turned sour and the spirituality seemed shallow.

Sacred Travels purported in its subtitle to be a guidebook to “recovering the ancient practice of pilgrimage.” The introduction and first chapter did just that, and quite well.

George begins by talking about pilgrimage as a spiritual discipline, different than being a tourist or a nomad, because we are sojourners seeking God. He writes:

Pilgrimage belongs to the deepest impulse of the evangelical tradition—reformation. … Pilgrimage (is) a discipline of sanctification, not justification. Pilgrimage does not save us. Rather, it is a grace that reminds us that salvation is a journey with Christ as our guide and heaven as our goal. (16)

This was a helpful way for me to think about pilgrimage as I approached my journey. This trip was a chance to seek God, to be reformed and graced on the way to being a better person and servant of Christ.

The first chapter on “Pilgrims in the Process” also contained some helpful insights. George recounts his trip to Canterbury, and imagines Christians refracting light like panes of stained glass windows, each casting the light in a unique color. He also writes eloquently about the ways pilgrimage is not limited by location, cost or time. Pilgrimage is not about “when, where or how we go. It’s about why we go.”

It moves us from certainty to dependence, it helps us discover God’s involvement in human history, it challenges and stimulates our faith, and it invigorates us to be like our Lord in thought, word, deed and devotion. Pilgrimage is an outward demonstration of an inward calling—to follow Christ, wherever the steps may lead. For hearts that hunger to escape the chaos and find the quiet, pilgrimage is a proven discipline. (25)

The subsequent chapters on Wartburg Castle, Skellig Michael and Assisi were fine, but not particularly inspiring. After that, though, I recommend you just stop reading. The chapter on John Newton glosses quickly over his connection to the slave trade (from which he did subsequently repent) to focus on a storm at sea (while working on a slave ship). The chapter on Nagasaki focuses on 26 Christian martyrs in 1597. Even though he mentions the atomic bomb and a trip to Hiroshima, George devotes a large portion of that chapter to images of Christians as warriors, with the scripture as our sword. This shows a huge disrespect to the peace witness of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I thought it couldn’t get any worse, but it did—the chapter on Taize was all about his unrepentant homophobia.

I cannot recommend this book to you, because George’s theology reeks of a personalized gospel that ignores Jesus’ call to social justice. While there were some helpful tidbits here and there, please don’t buy it. Just check it out from the library, enjoy the first thirty pages or so, and send it back.

Nevertheless, the book did redeem itself by providing a bit of unrelated humor. I picked it up and to continue reading it after my “polar plunge” in the Sea of Galilee yesterday. Our little group had already been referring to our adventure as “The Plunge,” and even calling ourselves “The Plungers.” Thirty minutes after that great adventure, I encountered this passage in Sacred Travels, where George begins by quoting an English professor talking about the incarnation:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. And God took that precious Word, removed its heavenly italics, froze it in human font, and plunged it from its paragraph in paradise into the simple sentence of an earthly stable. And the Word became flesh.”

Why did Christ take the ultimate plunge?

I guffawed when I read that line, and at the thought that our “ultimate plunge” paralleled Christ’s journey from heaven to earth. My fellow “plungers” got a great laugh as well.

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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