Years ago, Thomas Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree contrasted two ways of being in the evolving Western world. One, epitomized by the “olive tree,” is rooted, in place, stable, stationary. The other, the “Lexus,” was the emerging vision of the modern individual: a life distinguished by movement, displacement, and “being on the road.” The first was being. The second was going. The Lexus, Friedman argued, was quickly replacing the olive tree.
At the time I read Friedman’s book, I felt freed, the way you feel freed when someone puts into words what you hadn’t found yet. Friedman was describing the church I saw in America—olive-tree Christians were being replaced by Lexus Christians. Less and less, I was discovering, were people content simply being where they were, settling down, rooting themselves, and embracing mundane Christianity. Ours was becoming a church addicted to movement. Everything had to be radical. Why?
We’ve grown bored of our freedom.
Truth is, Christians are “pilgrims” (1 Pet. 2:11). This isn’t our home. We’re simply passing through. Thus the theme of James Harpur’s latest book, The Pilgrim’s Journey: A History of Pilgrimage in the Western World, a lucid and expansive study of the place of pilgrimage in Western Christianity. The book is by no means a theological treatise. Harpur generally sidesteps any sort of confessional, spiritual, or doctrinal conversations. This is history at its finest.
The What, How, and Why
What Harpur does seek to offer is a breathtaking exploration of the trek itself—the what, how, and why of Christian pilgrimage. In reading the book, readers will find themselves edified by the whirlwind mish-mash of historical curiosities and narratives often overlooked in the more well-traveled Christian histories. For example, Harpur demonstrates the surprising connection between the Crusades and the drive for Christian pilgrimage in the medieval age. There’s the decree that King Canute laid down for any priest who had committed murder—that he would have to walk “as long a pilgrimage as the pope commands.” We learn how true and false relics were distinguished by whether or not they could burn. Obscurities like these will make any lover of Christian history giddy with excitement.
What was clearest to me as I read The Pilgrim’s Journey was the reality that Christians have, for centuries, considered these expansive, life-giving, costly journeys a legitimate component of seeking God. Of course, the reasons behind these pilgrimages were rarely the same. Some were undertaken for healing, others to see an allegedly powerful relic. Some chose an outer pilgrimage as a way to hopefully launch an inner pilgrimage. Whatever the reason, Christians have practiced pilgrimage, not merely endured it.
Harpur demonstrates these treks are as ancient as humanity itself. Even prehistoric humans, he shows, were drawn by something within to go and seek. While pilgrimage has been done since the dawn of time, it was the Christian tradition that invested it with religious significance. Scripture shows countless pilgrim journeys from Abraham, to David, to the Magi. Even the gospel narratives reveal that almost all of Christ’s teachings took place while spending time with disciples as they walked somewhere.