Sunset, Forggensee and Schwangau, Germany.
Photo by cookelma
On summer travel
July 18, 2023
This summer we took our family on a long trip through central Europe. Over the course of about three weeks, we spent time in Czechia, Alsace, the Neckar region of Germany, and finally a wonderful week in the region of our previous missionary service–eastern Slovakia.
The trip was in many ways… epic. It is very rare for us as a family with teens and working parents to spend such long periods of time together, making decisions and coordinating efforts and co-habitating. If we learned nothing else on our travels, we learned that we really like each other and love spending time together.
I don’t know if this was the summer everyone decided to go on long vacations, or whether the Facebook algorithms glommed onto the fact we were traveling and so began populating our feeds with all the other travelers’ posts. Either way, it seems like everyone we knew went on a big trip this summer.
It left me thinking about the implications of travel not just for ourselves, the meaning of it, but also the meaning of it for others, and perhaps especially the meaning of our sharing of it with others (which is what social media allows in new ways). All the social media posts and “photo dumps” have me remembering the many times our grandparents sat us down in their living room after a big family supper, brought out the slide projector, and proceeded to show slides (and talk at length) about the places they visited on their trips.
Reporting our travel to others is often–at its most basic level–an exercise in exclamation. We say, “Look! I was there! Isn’t it amazing?!” We record a photo to remember we were there. We share the photo to prove to others we were there.
Even while traveling, we say such things in the moment. We report just to ourselves that we are in fact here, seeing this. We point. We exclaim. We attempt to frame the moment pictorially or emotionally in ways that stick enough to mark the significance.
I wonder if the significance of travel is first of all grounded in the fact-ness of it. An opportunity to say, “Been there! Done that! It was beautiful!” We have in fact been there and done this.
What is it precisely we learn through travel? What’s uniquely different about going to, or having been to, other places, as compared to simply reading about them in books or watching slideshows about them (or in the new media era, reviewing Facebook posts about them)?
If we are aiming to extract additional meaning from travel, to discuss travel’s impact, the second move is to consider the impact of our travel on our renewed appreciation of home. There’s that famous quote from T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding, “We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” Or another one, from the pen of Samuel Johnson, “What I gained by being in France was, learning to be better satisfied with my own country.”
But what is it precisely we learn through travel? What’s uniquely different about going to, or having been to, other places, as compared to simply reading about them in books or watching slideshows about them (or in the new media era, reviewing Facebook posts about them)?
Consider: is it coincidental or integral to the shaping of the New Testament that almost everyone who wrote it, or about whom it was written, simply moved about quite a bit? In the gospels, Jesus is constantly moving about from place to place. Not necessarily in a wide geographical radius, but truly peripatetic in his region.
Similarly, Paul the apostle was all over the place. His letters are named by the places he is writing to that he has already left. In fact, the letters only exist precisely because he’d already left. We have the letters of Paul because he traveled.
What differentiates the travel of Paul (and the travel of Jesus) from modern sightseeing may be related at least in part to intentions. Jesus seemed to move about out of an internally driven peripateticism, combined by the need at time to get away from or avoid dangerous situations until, later in his almost constant movement, he set his trajectory toward Jerusalem.
Paul develops, as we read about in his letter and in the Acts of the Apostles, a specific mission to the Gentiles, which requires first his preaching presence in specific communities, followed by his leadership and organizing presence (or epistolary voice) among those early communities as they formed and struggled and grew.
The closest we get to a record of Paul or Jesus traveling to observe the local surroundings in a way similar to sightseers may be Paul’s sermon in front of the Areopagus (a popular vacation destination yet today!). Acts 17:22-23 records: “Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely spiritual you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”
The difference I notice here compared to travel for the sake of travel has to do with the extent to which the travel is instrumentalized in the service of a message. If I travel to Greece this summer to view ancient statues in Athens, I might report of my travels, “I saw them, they were beautiful, I hope you get to see them too someday!” Paul, on the other hand, makes use of his philosophical observations of the places he has seen to deliver a message to his listeners–you worship it as unknown, but I know this God!
I wonder how long it took Paul to sit down and process his Athens wanderings into a coherent message like this. I wrote some of this on a train crossing Czechia, and I know that the sheer fact-ness of our trip overwhelmed my ability to process what I’ve experienced and turn it into a message that might make sense to readers. Presumably, Paul did take time between walking around Athens and preaching his sermon, and certainly the author of the Acts of the Apostles had even more time to take the reports of Paul’s sermons and craft an impactful idealized version of the sermon.
I have not yet given myself the luxury of processing the trip. I do not know yet either how others observing our trip by reading posts and looking over photos are making sense of our trip, other than friends sometimes posting quick comments like, “This trip is epic!”
What I do know for sure is that Thomas Mann in The Magic Mountain was right when he said that time and distance are twins. When we are far from home, it feels like we have been gone a very long time, but the time gap closes very quickly. Once we are back home, and re-enter old routines, it may feel like we never left. Additionally, being on a journey modulates how much one can attend to, or even process, the “normal” life of home.
Rev. Clint Schnekloth is pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas, a progressive church in the South. He is the founder of Canopy NWA (a refugee resettlement agency) and Queer Camp, and is the author of Mediating Faith: Faith Formation in a Trans-Media Era. He blogs at Substack.