Winter 2010

Dispatches from Abroad

How a Change of Scenery Can Enliven Our Faith

By Brett McCracken

What do we see when we travel? Is it just postcard scenery and famous landmarks? Confusing subway maps and exotic menus? Or can there be more to it than that?

G.K. Chesterton once said that the difference between a traveler and a tourist is that the traveler sees what he sees, while the tourist sees what he has come to see.

For anyone who has had the chance to live, study or travel abroad, it becomes clear that traveling is not just about seeing what we hoped to find; it’s about finding what we never expected, and seeing — with new eyes — things we never imagined.

It’s an education. Or at least a form of education that goes beyond classrooms and textbooks and sometimes the confines of comfort. It’s an education of soul, mind and body, and for a university like Biola, which seeks to know this world better and impact it for Christ, it’s absolutely essential.

In 2009, 321 Biola students participated in off-campus study programs, spread across the world from Indonesia to Costa Rica and on every continent but Antarctica. Whether it’s on an Interterm art department trip to Italy or a summer environmental studies program in the Great Lakes, the number of Biola students experiencing the world off campus has exploded in recent years.

These sorts of cross-cultural opportunities will only become more integral and available for students as Biola moves forward in the next decade. In the newly unveiled Biola University Plan for 2010–2015, President Barry H. Corey writes, “It is more crucial than ever that our students be intellectually and experientially cross-cultural Christians.” And fostering study abroad and off-campus programs that are affordable and attractive to students will be a crucial part of this.

But why is it so important? Beyond missions and evangelism, what is the value of cross-cultural traveling and “getting outside the bubble?” As Christians, what can we learn by traveling? How might it form us spiritually and better equip us to make an impact for Christ? Is there more to travel than just snapping photos and saying, “Been there, saw that?”

A Broader Perspective on God’s World

In 1857, Mark Twain famously said this about travel: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Twain was getting at the idea that travel — beyond mere pleasure and holiday diversion — has a knack for maturing us and broadening our worlds. For Christians, travel can expand our understanding of God’s world — his people, his church and all that he created.

“I think as Christians we can’t understand enough about God,” said Kitty Purgason, professor of TESOL in Biola’s Cook School of Intercultural Studies. “There are so many facets of his character, his will, his creation. Our experiences traveling or living in another culture help us understand that better.”

Purgason knows this better than most. She grew up in India and has lived and studied in Russia, Korea, China, Turkey, Turkmenistan and North Africa. She’s tasted and seen diverse wonders of God’s creation and learned important lessons about her faith along the way.

But many of us — especially us American Christians — would just as soon stay put, said Allen Yeh, an assistant professor in Biola’s Torrey Honors Institute.

Yeh, who has visited 45 countries, thinks that sometimes we become satisfied with our own culture and don’t recognize the value in venturing out and understanding the wider world, especially in terms of God and Christianity.

“The more you see of the world, the more you realize that Christianity is not an American phenomenon,” said Yeh. “The worldwide church together can piece together a fuller view of the gospel. It’s a mosaic.”

When we travel, we realize that our God is a global God, and we need to conceive of him as such, said Yeh.

For many Biola students who have gone overseas for the first time as part of an off-campus study program, this is one of the most valuable realizations they come to: that the Christianity they are a part of is much bigger and beautiful than they ever thought.

For Jennifer Grubbs, a senior intercultural studies major who did an internship with Food for the Hungry in Uganda this summer, the experience of living in another culture awakened her to the beautiful ways that God crafts his church in different contexts.

“I caught a glimpse of what heaven will be like when I was at church hearing the diverse languages worshiping our Lord,” she said. “It reminded me of how in heaven all the nations will worship together, yet each in their own unique and beautiful way.”

Senior Dustin McCurry participated in the Torrey Rome program in January and then spent the fall semester studying in Oxford. For him, the experiences opened up his appreciation for the deep history of God’s faithfulness over time.

“It is so easy to be entrapped in my day-to-day life and forget those who have come before,” he said. “However, being in Rome and seeing the millenniums of history contained in the city, specifically the Christian history, gave me a grander picture of God’s people and the history of the church. Now it is much more enriching to marvel at God’s faithfulness and the cloud of witnesses that have gone before us.”

The experiences of Jennifer and Dustin are examples of how travel can wake us up to how expansive and diverse the body of Christ really is.

“Christianity is the most widespread religion in the world, as well as the most multiethnic,” said Allen Yeh. “It is the only major religion in the world without a geographic center. Christians are everywhere, of every color and every language, and I think that’s how it’s meant to be. To not realize that or embrace that is to be very small-minded about what God is doing.”

To travel, then, is to see God’s world with new eyes, to be a learner of cultures and people so that we are better equipped for the Great Commission — for our going out and journeying alongside others toward the truth.

But it also helps us on our own walk, drawing us closer to the Savior and Creator from whom all the wonders of the road spring forth.

Encountering Christ on the Road

Sometimes travel can be difficult. You’re in a strange place, away from the comforts of home and often without a support network. You don’t speak the language, can’t read the signs and occasionally you just have to rely on others.

But this is exactly how travel can be so transformative. In his essay, “Why We Travel,” British essayist Pico Iyer observes the connection between “travel” and “travail,” pointing out the value of travel as both a personal test and an opportunity to identify with the challenges and sufferings of others.

“I travel in large part in search of hardship — both my own, which I want to feel, and others’, which I need to see,” wrote Iyer. “Travel in that sense guides us toward a better balance of wisdom and compassion — of seeing the world clearly, and yet feeling it truly. For seeing without feeling can obviously be uncaring; while feeling without seeing can be blind.”

Traveling not only confronts us with the suffering throughout the world but it also forces us to recognize the good things we have at home. When she is at home, Kitty Purgason thanks God for things like hot showers and public libraries. But traveling also makes us realize our own cultural weaknesses, she adds. “It prompts both humility and gratitude.”

It also allows us to connect to the rich Christian tradition that goes back to the origins of our faith.

Movement and travel have always been part of the Christian experience. So many of the giants of the faith have been travelers — from Abraham (whom God called to “leave your country” … Gen. 12:1) to Paul to the itinerate evangelists of the 19th century. And, of course, there is also Jesus himself, who from birth was a bit of a roving exile, frequently homeless and dependent on the hospitality of others on the routes he traveled.

Why is it that the journeying, nomadic lifestyle been such a hallmark of the Christian experience?

In his famous essay, “The Philosophy of Travel,” George Santayana wrote, “There is wisdom in turning as often as possible from the familiar to the unfamiliar: it keeps the mind nimble, it kills prejudice, and it fosters humor.”

A Christian might add that it enriches our identification with Christ and draws us closer to his presence by removing status quo comforts.

In some ways travel can be a sort of “monasticism on the move,” writes Iyer. “On the road, we often live more simply … with no more possessions than we can carry, and surrendering ourselves to chance.”

It’s an opportunity for us — away from our everyday comforts and routines — to truly rely on God, said Kitty Purgason.

“God has met me in my travels in ways he hasn’t met me at home, and maybe it’s because the usual props that I rely on are taken away, and the usual busyness that I fill life with is removed,” said Purgason.

In this way, travel can reawaken our spirituality, getting us out of our rut and into a more thoughtful, introspective mindset, said Yeh.

“When you are yanked out of your comfort zone or when you are seeing new things, it will jar you in a good way and cause you to think,” he said.

But it can also make you feel a bit uncomfortable, like an alien in a strange land who doesn’t quite belong.

“But the discomfort is a good thing,” Yeh said. “Everyone needs to know what it’s like to be a minority. Everyone needs to know what it’s like to be the odd one out, to not belong. Sometimes I don’t feel like I have a home, because I’ve traveled so much. I feel at home everywhere and nowhere. And that discomfort can actually translate theologically in that we are aliens and strangers in this world. Ultimately our citizenship is in heaven.”

And perhaps this is the greatest thing we can learn from travel — that the Christian experience is not meant to be one of cushy comforts, self reliance and satisfaction with the way things are, but rather an experience of dependence on God and seeking out the sometimes-overwhelming grandeur and complexity of God’s kingdom.

Travel is a way to meet Christ on the road and to feel the reality of his redeeming work in the world — not just by reading about it in a book, but by experiencing it in the flesh.

In his article on pilgrimage (“He Talked to Us on the Road,” April 2009) in Christianity Today, Ted Olsen points to the story of the Road to Emmaus as an example of how travel — what we encounter in person on “the road” — can transform our understanding of a thing. The men on the road to Emmaus knew about the Resurrection, but they didn’t know it in a transformative way until Christ appeared to them and they eventually realized who he was.

“It goes deeper than just grasping an event’s historicity,” writes Olsen. “It goes to its happenedness. We are not just minds created to soak up knowledge. We are bodies that stand in one place at a time, seeing and feeling our surroundings.”

Travel is about more than just knowing God’s goodness in our minds. It’s about seeing and tasting and feeling it in his created world, and in our fellow man. And though strangers we may be in this world, the reality is that God is here, working in remarkable ways.

If traveling means we can witness all this a little more clearly, why would anyone want to stay home?

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