Book Review: The Sacred Journey


The Sacred Journey (The Ancient Practices Series)
9780849900990
By: Charles Foster
Thomas Nelson, Dec. 2010
Review By: Eric Wood

Charles Foster brings a fresh look to an all but forgotten discipline in The Sacred Journey.  Mainline Christianity does not practice or, for the most part, even talk about pilgrimages anymore – a truth that Foster finds reprehensible and saddening.  In this installment, the last of eight, to The Ancient Practices Series, he explores Biblical support for pilgrimages, working through the narrative and highlighting favored wanderers, as well as looking at what a pilgrim may expect along their journey and interacting with some of the key opponents to the discipline. Along the way, this work is riddled with portions of accounts from those who have made such pilgrimages.

Unlike my experience with several other volumes from this series, The Sacred Journey often recounts passages or directly cites the Bible (a trait that was sadly deficient in others). Regarding Biblical support, Foster sets out to “articulate a theology of pilgrimage” (xiii). In an overly simplified form, it goes something like this: traveling is fundamental to the way we are designed which can be nicely laced into the discussion of imago Dei – we’re created in God’s image and so in our journeys, we encounter “the King himself, inveterate walker that he is” (163). Foster then flies through Biblical narrative, stopping to highlight some specific sojourners as well as categoric wanderers. He begins this discussion in Genesis by considering Cain (the farmer tied to his land) and Abel (the shepherd always on the move). He moves on through the wanderings of Israel and all that they learn of God through them, even highlighting the pilgrimage inherent in keeping several of the commanded feasts. Foster proceeds into the New Testament, citing Jesus’ words (“follow me” Matt 9:9; “foxes have holes …” Matt 8:20) and affinity for the outsiders, the rejected wanderers.

Foster urges us to embark on pilgrimage to get rid of old rubbish to which we so tightly cling as well as to gain something new. He points out that, for the Christian, pilgrimage is more about the journey than the destination. It is the journey that forces us to leave comforts behind, to shed preconceived notions, to embrace the provision of God and see Him anew. The trials, walking long miles, enduring rain or heat, accepting company and aid from fellow travelers and being the same to them – all of these help us to learn important things about ourselves and about God. Foster argues that pilgrimage, with its strain on the body, is the perfect antidote for the gnostic mentality that still rears its head today.

In her forward to the book, Phyllis Tickle (general editor of the series) says, “every one of you who reads this book will find at least one thing you totally disagree with and a whole handful of those you want to question. Please do so” (xii). This certainly holds true. Foster unapologetically draws from pilgrimage literature and accounts from many faiths, including Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim. Inviting travelers to the outskirts, he refers to God as a “hippie.” At times his view drifts heavily toward mysticism and seems to flirt with universalism. However, when he ventures onto shaky terrain, Foster usually regrounds himself in orthodox confession – perhaps this too is an example of pilgrimage.

All considered, this was an excellent read. It was a joy to consider the ideas Foster presented and to continue to ruminate on them, evaluating how each day could be offered as a pilgrimage seeking God. As to whether I’ll ever physically embark on a proper pilgrimage, I don’t know. Where, when, how? According to Foster, these aren’t the most important considerations. He offers this pithy maxim, “wherever you go, go” (135).

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