The Traveler’s Guide to Jesus

Due to my own love affair with travel adventure, fifty years ago, in the summer of 1969, I took a five-day trip on horseback covering about one hundred twenty miles of the Texas Panhandle. It may seem odd, that fifty years later I am still thinking and writing about this trip, but it has been woven into my imagination and I continue to ponder the meaning of the experience. I assume this sort of questioning of experience, to find its meaning, is the only sort of experience worth having and the only sort of recollection of merit. Raw historical experience or simply the recounting of facts, or arrival at a final meaning apart from the possibility of further reflection, point to either a poor quality of experience or poor powers of thought. I would never presume to write a quest for the true camping trip of 1969, as there was not a trip apart from my original understanding, though I have never stopped expanding upon that understanding.

Being a connoisseur of travel adventure, reflective recollection I would point out, has precedent in the great journeys that mark 19th and 20th century literature and much of which I had already absorbed at the tender age of 13. Jack London’s year long trek into the Alaskan wilderness becomes fodder for reflection and stories which he will continue to mine throughout his life. Even his late story, Martin Eden, though it is not set in the wild, will reflect the “survival of the fittest” understanding he develops in Call of the Wild. The dog, Buck, and the characters that will come to inhabit London’s novels, were a development of the people, the animals, and the wilds he encountered in his one and only trip to the far North. As I made my own journey, I had London on my mind, along with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Pathfinder, and my early foray into the adventures of Davy Crockett and his autobiography which I had purchased at his boyhood home.

Henry David Thoreau, whose Walden, would completely capture my imagination and after whom I would begin to pattern my own wilderness journeys, took almost ten years to reflect on and write about the two-week trip he and his brother, John, would take on the Merrimack River. Even his time at Walden Pond was encouraged and arranged by his friends, poet Ellery Channing and Ralph Waldo Emerson (upon whose land Thoreau would build his cabin), so that he could reconstruct and write about his river trip with John. It may be that the trip would hold such poignant memories for Thoreau, as these would be some of the last days he would spend with his brother, who soon after the trip cut his thumb and died of lockjaw. This later event, the death of his brother, must have forever tinted the lens through which he would remember the trip. This in no way fictionalized his account but it gives it the sort of depth of meaning which would cause him to always cherish this two-week trip.

I imagine if I had a dear brother or close friend with whom I travelled and shared life, if he were to meet a tragic end, I suppose certain memories would be sharpened. Those times where he asked me to pass the salt or to do other mundane things would be long forgotten, but those occasions in which his character shown through or in which our bond was molded, these I would cherish, reflect upon, and turn over and over in my mind.  

 I did not have a clear idea who John Steinbeck was when I picked up his Travels with Charley. I knew he was a famous author, but I was more interested in his real-life tales of travel than I was in his fiction, which if I remember I tried, and perhaps at that early age found too difficult. Steinbeck takes this journey at the end of his life, as he is dying of cancer and is afflicted with heart disease. He has a specially made camper built, and takes Charley the poodle as his only companion. The warning of Steinbeck’s son and of others who have tried to reduplicate the trip, is that it is the work of a novelist and cannot possibly be a true account, as the geography and the sequence of events are out of place. I for one did not want to know exactly when he gassed up or exactly when he stayed in a nice motel or when he might have received a visit from his wife.

 As any good seminarian knows, the historical accounts are only the basis upon which the theological unfolds, so that sequence, summary, rearrangement of events, all serve the meaning and not the other way around. One does not read the Gospels for history but for the theological meaning that unfolds from that history. I remember how incensed I was at a high-school teacher that criticized Thoreau for not staying on in his cabin more than a year. I felt, and still do, that she missed the point and was not in a position to critique. The critic that does not appreciate the literature, the story, or the experience being related, exposes their own stilted world.

Those that would critique Thoreau for reducing a two-week trip on the Merrimack to one, or London for his anthropomorphizing his wilderness, or Steinbeck for taking his liberties with geography, are the sort of factualists that cannot interrupt their search for the historical Jesus long enough to take stock of their theology. We do not turn to tales of travel because we want to know just how many birds and rabbits were sighted and their exact location. Which is not to say that every story or every interpreter is equal. Those that imagine they are simply relating the facts reveal by their revelation an incapacity to actually travel or see what is before their eyes, as they are too caught up in their own prejudices.

Paul Theroux, one of the few travel writers who seems highly unlikeable, cheapens every landscape and commodifies every circumstance, though his fiction, as in the Mosquito Coast, is an insight into human depravity. One might be suspicious, however, that Theroux, in describing his sexual exploits with African women and then complaining of colonial attitudes, is blind. It would be like an Irishman, John Dominic Crossan say, who writes about Jesus as a first-century Galilean peasant resisting Roman imperial injustice in the name of Jewish tradition who fails to notice that he has created his own mirror image: an Irish peasant resisting British imperial injustice in the name of the Catholic (or Celtic) tradition.[1] The poor travel writer, like the poor theologian, is too full of himself to take in the vistas, let alone being changed by them. Crossan, in response to this criticism, presumes one can only struggle between narcissism and positivism.[2] In this world one cannot even leave home, let alone leave it behind.

The notable characteristic you get from Jack London, and most of the other travel writers, is that they are completely sympathetic characters, open to the impressions of the world around them. The inferior travel writers, who may be momentarily entertaining and then turn out to be somewhat suffocating, tell us more of their own small world, no matter the landscape. Like Joseph Conrad, who bases his Heart of Darkness on his journeys into Africa, there is more of the colonizer’s darkness than Africa in his story. At a certain stage, I very much enjoyed the angry Japanologists such as Peter Dale, who railed against the ethnocentrism, the nationalism, the racism, of the Japanese, but then with a little more study and a bit more time, I realized Japan is simply a mirror image of the West, an image I bore and resented in “others.” It’s like the Jesus of Robert Funk who is not coming again, who is not Lord, who does not save, and who is clearly nothing of the fundamentalist Jesus Funk is rejecting. We learn of Funk’s prejudices and practically nothing of Jesus from Funk’s search for the historical Jesus.[3]

I enjoyed William Least-Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways, but nonetheless it was his personal struggles and marital troubles which colored all of his highways. I suppose this would be my critique of Dale Allison’s book. He has now gained great insight into the limited role of searching for the historical Christ apart from the theological Jesus, but his skepticism – his personal struggle with Christian commitment – colors every page. A straightforward teaching about turning the other cheek, going the second mile, loving the enemy, perhaps the clearest teaching of the New Testament, is subjected to a barrage of questions. He asks, “what Jesus might have meant by these sentiments,” after all “we do not know the occasion” – “was it spoken to his partners in ministry,” mere “sympathizers,” “a crowd of Galilean villagers?” The “original audience has dispersed, and we remain in the dark about its makeup, which means that we do not know exactly what Matt. 5:38-48 might have meant on Jesus’ lips.” The result is, we must remain in the dark, forever “uncertain how the evangelist wanted readers to respond.”[4] Better not pack the suitcase or make another move, as this sort of highway is black and impassable, forever frozen by skeptical questioning.[5]

As a travel guide, Allison sometimes reminds me of Alan Booth’s, The Roads to Sata, ultimately a journey too far, as every Japanese village seems to be filled with the same children taunting him with calls of “gaijin” (foreigner) and the entire effort seems to be to arrive at the goal of Sata. One can march through a country or through a story carrying his own pack of provisions and prejudices, but perhaps it is better to have never left home, as the writer is left unchanged and he never really sees anyone or anything.

Booth should have followed the example of Peter Jenkins who is forever changed by his five-year walk, recounted in Walk Across America. Jenkins takes his time and writes in the best tradition of looking for himself as he searches out the country. In the beginning, Allison is a better guide to the Jesus Seminar than he is to Jesus. He gets off on the wrong foot in his quest for Jesus, but as in many of the best travel adventures, it is the near calamity of the trip that makes for the best ending.  

He writes the book with the conviction that the search for the historical Jesus is mistaken in its focus, and this is reflected in the title, The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus. The search for the historical Christ apart from the guidance of the theological Jesus is simply testimony to the fact that everyone is bound to find their own face in Jesus, apart from being guided by a comprehensive theological insight. His final chapter is made more beautiful by the struggle of the journey, thus I quote at length:

Persuaded that the true nature of things is not obvious, Jesus, in word and deed, sets out with gusto to fracture the hypnotic hold of life-as-it-has-always-been. He endeavors, in Coleridge’s words, to awaken our minds “from the lethargy of custom” and to remove “the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude that covers our eyes.” He seeks to shift attention, to alter perception, to expand awareness, to change behavior. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). This is a call to abandon rote behavior, to forsake reflexive ways.

My own trek, across what most consider a desolation, has made me realize that the hardness of the journey, the difficulty in seeing the beauty, is the best preparation for learning to look closely and differently. The beauty of the Staked Plains is one that an elite few have come to realize but it is a beauty that requires imagination to comprehend. I am not sure how many miles I travelled but the memory of that particular time is firmly woven through the journeys I made. I could never have worked from the being of the prairie to the being of God, as it was too desolate and empty, apart from the eyes of faith, to see its beauty. Barth said he could not become a Catholic due to the analogia entis and he develops analogia fidei as a counter to the analogy of being. As he describes it, the analogy of faith presumes that human “reality” is a desolate nothing and the Word of God “aims at us and smites us in our existence” (CD I, 1, p.14). Perhaps it is only in seeing the desolation, the desert of our own imagination, that the altered perception of the journey is impressed upon us.  


[1] Dale Allison, The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus, (Eerdmans, 2009) 19. Once again, thanks to Tim for gifting me this book and trying to keep me informed.

[2] Allison, Ibid.

[3] Allison, 18.

[4] Allison, 102.

[5] Black is the color bead cast in the vote against Jesus’ authentic words used in the Jesus Seminar Allison is describing.


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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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