a word for travellers

I’m a late convert to overseas travel.

In fact, it took me until actually arriving overseas last year to get excited about the destinations we’d planned to visit.

Partly this had to do with the knee-jerk hostility towards travel latent in some Christian circles I’ve been a part of (often with some justification — most people could cite stories of friends who’s overseas jaunts have been less than positive for their faith).

Mostly, however, it had to do with my disorganisation, which I tend to justify undercover of being invested in the joys and challenges of the moment.

I hadn’t prioritised getting my head around where we were going. I hadn’t educated my expectations about our destinations. And so I hadn’t stoked the fires of my excitement about what turned out to be a delightful, fun, eye-opening adventure.

Mine was a failure of anticipation — and thus of conscious and deliberate preparation.

So it would seem that I was an ideal candidate to suffer from one of the hazards of travel Alain De Botton identifies (The Art of Travel, p 124):

A danger of travel is that we see things at the wrong time, before we’ve had a chance to build up the necessary receptivity and when new information is therefore as useless and fugitive as necklace beads without a connecting chain.

And I did experience a certain lack of receptivity at least once in our travels.

The moment I speak of occurred as we stood in St Paul’s Cathedral in London — the public Protestant church of the city — and beheld a grand monument to Lord Nelson, who (the large lettering on the monument informed us) ‘died gloriously in battle’.

Actually, ‘lack of receptivity’ is too weak a phrase for what I experienced that moment.

It was more like vertigo. Sickening and disorienting in the moment. And leaving a still-gaping wound in my sense-making apparatus…

Now, the overseas adventure Natalie and I embarked on last year doesn’t have a monopoly on raw and unprocessed experiences. For example, I experienced something similar when I visited the National War Memorial in Canberra early in December.

There are more than enough opportunities to encounter useless and fugitive information when we aren’t travelling.

But perhaps travel presents these kinds of opportunities in an unusual concentration.

And that’s worth bearing in mind as you embark on your own adventures.

what Christians can learn from the American Museum of Natural History (NYC)

When we were in New York, Natalie and I were struck by something very distinctive about a bunch of the displays in the American Museum of Natural History:

Where there was debate, the displays would usually outline two alternative explanations.

Whether it was theories about how certain dinosaurs walked — ie. more like horses or more like lizards — based on conflicting reconstructions of the fossil evidence. Or speculation about what might have given Homo sapiens a competitive advantage over Homo erectus (or whatever). They wouldn’t hide the fact that expert opinion was divided. Rather, they’d just put it out there.

Now, I make no claim to prophetic insight into the precise motivations of the museum curators. Who knows how much their readiness to foreground debate has to do with the reputedly litigious culture of the US?

But I do think Christians can able to learn something from this. I think we can learn that it’s OK to be clear and confident in proclaiming the things we do know with certainty and — at the same time — to be honest where there are uncertainties or differences of opinion.

Of course, there’re lots of questions to settle about which uncertainties or differences of opinion are legitimate (it’s kind of the nature of the beast that the legitimacy of most of the issues upon which Christians are divided is contested by those who are doing the disagreeing). Just are there’re things to sort out about how exactly we communicate our differing degrees of certainty — without preventing us being clear about the matters that matter.

But I think it’s just a reality that ‘The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the revealed things belong to us and to our children for ever, to observe all the words of this law’ (Deut 29.29). And so we’ll often bring our questions to the Bible only to discover that it doesn’t seem very interested in answering them — leaving us all sorts of uncertainty — because it has more important questions of its own to put to us.

my unique and cherished personal memories are suspiciously similar to everyone else’s

After our trip overseas earlier this year, Natalie and I were keen to post some further reflections on our travel experiences — although we’ve found it surprisingly hard to carve out the mental and emotional space for that.

But in the firm belief that if something’s worth doing it’s worth doing badly (or late) here goes…

One thing that leaps out as Natalie and I glance back over the photos from our trip overseas is just how many of our unique and cherished memories — captured in our happy snaps — seem to be shared by pretty much everyone else who travels. Everyone just seems to take the same photos.

This was blatantly obvious in the Louvre. As you can see here, everyone wants their own photo of the (spectacularly underwhelming) Mona Lisa:

For another example you might try comparing THIS with THIS. Worse, on arriving in Melbourne we discovered that even our most self-consciously ‘arty’ shots are almost identical to those taken by some dear friends of ours.

So prevalent is this phenomenon that Microsoft has developed a software platform called Photosynth to harvest the millions and millions of tourist photos available on the web — combining them to produce lovingly-rendered, zoomable ‘dreamscapes’ of iconic buildings like Notre Dame Cathedral. How cool is that!

All of which suggests to me the doubtfulness of my initial assumption that holiday happy snaps are about capturing unique and cherished memories.

I’m wondering if they might perhaps have more to do with authenticity. You know, furnishing proof that I was there? Or even that I’m this kind of person, who’s accumulated these experiences as part of building my essential cultural cachet?

It’s an identity thing, I guess. All part of establishing your credentials as the kind of person you want to be — or be seen to be.  If this is the game we’re playing as we take happy snaps, then it’s actually their sameness with everyone else’s that counts rather than their uniqueness!

when in Rome…

…I was getting hooked on Chinotto and reading the Epilogue to Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s majestic systematic trilogy (I know — how pretentious!). Balthasar — one of the giants of Twentieth Century Roman Catholic theology — alternates fascinatingly between being cryptic and down-to-earth. For an example of the vaguely cryptic try this on:

Yahweh remains a God figure who points beyond himself to his own promise, to the God of Jesus Christ.

And compare it with the down-to-earthiness of his (scathing) comment on the prospects of the evangelistic/apologetic strategy of seeking to ‘meet people where they are’ in our hyper-connected Western societies:

[W]here is the famous “point of contact” with the anima technica vacua? I for one certainly do not know. Some tabble-rapping, a séance or two, some dabbling in Zen meditation, a smattering of liberation theology: enough.

My sense is that what Balthasar is after is a way of connecting the seeming obscurities of high theology with the everyday — but without selling out to a pragmatism that will try anything to connect. Which is something we’re all after. Right?

catching up (and moving forward)

Well, Natalie and I have finished our trip and arrived in Melbourne — and we hardly even broke our blogging stride! But what we didn’t manage to do so well overseas was keep up with reading. We packed way more novels than we got through (even with all the long haul flights, etc). And the angrily high number of unread posts in my RSS reader is kind of frightening…

That being said, we’re doing our best to catch up. Here are some of the standouts of my catch up reading so far:

  • In keeping with the first topic I’ve tackled in the ‘confessional turn’ I’m making here, Andrew has launched into a personal series grappling with election in Romans 9-11. The Intro as well as Parts I and II are up.
  • Steve has some timely (and provocative) words on leading Christian communities — Parts I, II and III.
  • My friend Jenny has started a new blog — Embracing Earth — to help her think through issues of art, work and beauty. This is a conversation we need to have. I’m excited.
  • Although I’m even more excited (sorry Jenny) about the prospect of an affordable reprint of Barth’s Church Dogmatics — h/t Ben Myers. $99. Seriously? Even if that’s USD, the exchange rate right now makes this so awesome!
  • Byron explains why being ‘freed to love’ means that rich Christians can’t avoid confronting climate change, drawing together a bunch of his blogging threads over the last little while.
  • And Mike Bird’s commentary on the recent resignations of Bruce Waltke and Tremper Longman from major Reformed seminaries in the US stirred an appalled fascination in me.

In terms of moving forward, Natalie and I are on the hunt for a place to live, I’m psyching myself up to make a bunch of fundraising calls, and Natalie’s dipping her toe in the water at Melbourne Uni. In short, it’s on!


*In case you haven’t noticed, all our holiday posts have been entitled with relevant theme songs. We don’t do points, but kudos if you know who sings this…

We’re five weeks into our holiday — a few days away from it’s end — and we’re totally feeling the sensory overload. So we thought we’d give you our most evocative  ‘sensory’ experiences from the trip:

  • Taste: Mexican cactus salad in NYC, Jersey 6% fat milk (that’s just how it comes out of the cow in Jersey), La Fromagerie in London, Simply Indian (also London), Pizzarium today in Rome;
  • Touch: All the tantalisingly tactile sculptures in galleries where you must not touch, cobbled streets — everywhere — our feet hurt, hugging family;
  • Hearing: Really wimpy sounding emergency vehicle sirens in Europe, bizarre unresolved minor key message alert sounds on the French Metro, the Italian love affair with the car horn, the joy of the phrase “it’s OK — I speak English’;
  • Smell: the vegetative smell of spring in Rome, espresso, cheese, vino rosso, fresh food markets in Newcastle, Jersey and London, urine in the streets of Paris.
  • Sight: Buildings — big ones in NYC and old ones everywhere else — both of which are new to us, the first spring snow drops in Cambridge, ancient art, renaissance art, modern art, street art…lots and lots of art!

And now for some photos from the last week:

Finally got the hang of taking photos at night with an automatic camera...

Glamming it up in Fortnum and Mason's wine bar with Natalie's cousin, Carolyn

The Bristish Museum: where everything Indiana Jones decided "belonged in a museum" ended up.

Try as we did, this was as close as we got to a Banksy...

Caecilius est

Moments before enjoying Campari and soda in the rooftop bar of the Castel Sant'Angelo

around the world

Daft Punk sung it. We feel like we’ve been experiencing it: since we last ‘live blogged’ our trip, we’ve been in London, Jersey, St Malo and Paris.

We’re really starting to stack up the stories, reflections and (yes) photos to inflict on you share with you… But for the moment we wanted to pause and register just some of the things we’re thankful to God for:

  • The really warm welcome we’ve received from family — physical and spiritual — wherever we’ve found ourselves.
  • The astonishing prevalence of free WiFi (when Natalie travelled abroad less than 10 years ago she pretty much dropped off the grid; we’re almost perpetually connected).
  • The nearly universally excellent weather — there was snow on the ground in NYC but it was perfectly clear; and now we’re wearing T-shirts in Paris!
  • Enough said.
  • The modern Western commitment to preserving history.
  • The generosity of French speakers in dealing with two totally inept Australians.

And now, a sample of the most recent photos:

Enjoying a delightful meal with our friends Matt & Michelle

Jersey; land of cows, potatoes, offshore banking and a really massive tidal zone

St Malo; a picturesque walled town in Brittany

We were struck by the way Notre Dame was more like a town hall than a parish church

Chris wondering about the occult symbolism of the glass pyramid at the Louvre -- maybe he could write a bestseller about it...

Sunny afternoon in Paris? Pull up a garden chair in the Jardin de Luxembourg with the locals

everything in its right place?

Our second week in the UK has been full of time connecting (and re-connecting) with extended family — in Stamford, Cambridge and London — as well as taking in the sights of Olde London Towne. It’s been really delightful. And exhausting!

As we think back over it, we realise that we’ve found ourselves circling themes of war and peace:

  1. We met (for the first time in my adult life) my Dad’s half-brother and his wife, who lived a sizable chunk of their life near the site of Bergen-Belson concentration camp. We were struck by the way the events that happened there continue to reach into the present.
  2. We chatted with Natalie’s brother and fiancee, Alex, about contested land rights in resource-rich (and conflict-riven) countries in central Africa — the topic of Alex’s PhD. We’re glad there’s someone as talented as she is who is trying to make sense of some of the complex legal issues!
  3. We were oddly unsettled by the many monuments and memorials to the war dead in St Paul’s Cathedral in London. We recognise the appropriateness of remembering the departed in churches, but often it feels like it verges on glorifying war. We’ll think some more about it and maybe post some more later…

And now the photographic proof:

Chris and his uncle Roy in Stamford

At lunch with Natalie's brother, Ed and his fiancee, Alex, in Cambridge

Chris outside St Paul's cathedral, London

Natalie and the view of Westminster from the Thames

And of course I missed my College graduation ceremony…

but was well represented by the study group I was part of

h/t to Bek for the beautiful photoshop work.


Natalie and I visited Hadrian’s Wall in North Eastern England yesterday. It’s one of the world’s most ancient boundaries — for which humans are responsible.

The wall next to the ruined fort at Housesteads

Like so many border areas, the boundary marked by Hadrian’s Wall was contested and re-configured time and again throughout its long history. Which gives us the theme of our post — and our time in the UK to date: boundaries, borders and other in-between spaces.

Along these lines we’ve been wondering:

  1. How to negotiate the odd way British university towns are both tourist sites full of history and antiquarian interest, and functional contexts in which people live, study, work and party.

    Oxford laid out in all its higgledy-piggledy glory (viewed from St Mary's church tower)

  2. Why the ‘geographers of religion’ (and associated sociologists, anthropologists, religious studies scholars and theologians) at the conference we attended in Newcastle seemed so anxious to ‘position’ themselves — by confessing their personal faith (or lack of it) and drawing or re-drawing disciplinary borders.

    There's so much stone in Newcastle that it feels like an open-air cave

  3. What to feel about the way ancient remnants in the UK — both Roman and Christian — have often not only been preserved but also restored and rennovated in relatively recent times (as well as from their earliest history onwards).

    Durham Cathedral looks massive now, can you imagine how dramatic it was in 1100?

an open letter to NYC

OK. We haven’t actually been to Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens or Staten. But we have been from the Battery to the tip of Manhattan (and out to Princeton). And we’ve had the song stuck in our head the whole week.

NYC has shattered our expectations at every turn:

  1. That uber-busy New Yorkers wouldn’t have time to help others (lost tourists and locals alike)
  2. That it would be hard to find fresh food and good coffee — and no, our standards have not dropped
  3. That we wouldn’t feel safe (wandering the streets at night, riding the subway, etc)
  4. That we’d be cold — it has been cold, but even Aussie clothing can be effective when layered
  5. That we’d American accents on every corner — there is just so much diversity…

And now for some photographic highlights:

Taking night shots with a hand held camera can be challenging

Great view from 'Top of the Rock' (Rockefeller Center)

We waited until after hours, so it was window-shopping only!

Princeton: a magical fairy-land for nerds

We could never tell if the subway trains were going to stop