Rolf Potts: Traveling Mercies11/12/2007
"Historically, Western tourism is the legacy of the Christian rite of pilgrimage."
Travel writer Rolf Potts has a dirty secret. Years ago, long before his work appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Outside, or The Best American Travel Writing—long before his book Vagabonding (Random House, 2003) became a cult hit among independent travelers—long before USA Today dubbed him “Jack Kerouac for the Internet Age”—Potts sold the first article of his writing career to a certain religious humor magazine that needs no introduction in these pages.
Curious to know what Rolf has learned in the 15 years since his first byline, we deputized Kristin Van Tassel to dredge up the details.
WITTENBURG DOOR: You’re probably the only major American travel writer whose pedigree traces its way back to the pages of The Wittenburg Door. How did this happen?
ROLF POTTS: Early in college, I was going through a phase of trying to get published outside my school newspaper. I’d been reading The Door since I was a teenager, so I pitched to the editors a satirical story called “Jesus and the Board of Disciples,” which was a satire about how Christian institutions tend to water down the very message of Christ. It portrayed Jesus and his disciples in the midst of a modern board meeting, and the disciples kept scolding Jesus for making what they considered to be bad PR moves. They suggested he turn water into fruit juice instead of wine, for instance, and tweak the Sermon on the Mount so that it would include phrases like, “Blessed are the donors, for they will receive a handsome commemorative wristwatch.”
DOOR: Were you satirizing a specific Christian institution?
POTTS: Not exactly. Several things inspired me to write the satire. At the time, I was reading a lot about the Dada art movement of the early twentieth century, and I was a little bit fixated with Dada’s insistence that institutions subvert the purity of any endeavor. I was also going to an evangelical college in Oregon, and I’d worked at evangelical summer camps in Colorado. And I was frustrated by how Christian institutions seemed to tie the notion of sin to bad publicity. I particularly disliked how Christian administrators let the Pauline compulsion to “avoid appearances of evil” trump the more nuanced ethic taught in Christ’s gospel. Jesus, who was comfortable rubbing shoulders with sinners, would have failed this “appearance of evil” test about every day of his adult life. So I was trying to call out this contradiction, about how Christian institutions are obsessed with sex-and-drugs-type “A-list” sins, yet they tolerate all manner of in-gossip, materialism, and spiritual self-absorption.
DOOR: Your Door article was pretty much your only appearance in Christian media, and many of your travel stories appear in pointedly secular venues such as Salon and Slate. Yet some of these travel stories seem to have Christian motifs. One of my favorites is “The Barbecue Jesus,” from Salon, which uses Christian metaphors to shed light on a travel experience you had in Vietnam. What kind of a response did you get to that?
POTTS: That story was kind of a meditation about expectations versus reality on the road, and it got a nice response in general. Travelers’ Tales even included it in their Best Travel Writing 2004 anthology. Throughout the story, I subtly allude to the doubts of the disciple Thomas to underscore the emotional resonance of my travel experience. Since I don’t explicitly spell out the Thomas angle, it was like an insider’s wink at Christian readers. And judging from e-mails, Christian readers appreciated that, and were able to read the story on a whole new level. I think the Christian readership is used to getting bashed over the head with explicitly spiritual themes from Christian media, so they appreciated this small spiritual nod in a secular venue.
DOOR: Speaking of which, we found a lot of understated, yet inarguably Christian philosophy in the pages of your book, Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel. Have other readers noticed this?
POTTS: You know, dozens of secular readers have written in to tell me how their favorite line in my book was, “for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” I have to tell them that I cribbed that word-for-word from the Gospel of Matthew. I never specifically attributed it to Jesus because I assumed people were familiar with the Sermon on the Mount in the way people are familiar with Hamlet’s death soliloquy. It’s amazing how many people don’t know the Sermon on the Mount—if nothing else because some secular circles tout ignorance of the Bible as a sign of virtue. So it’s kind of fun to see that people who would never publicly pick up a Bible are praising the Christian parts of my book.
I should point out that Vagabonding is not meant to be a Christian book. In the practical sense, it’s about making time in your life for long-term travel, and in the broad sense it’s about living deliberately and non-materialistically, regardless of your spiritual leanings. Christian philosophy just happens to dovetail nicely with these notions. I also include wisdom from the spiritual traditions of Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam, among others. So it’s not meant to be an explicitly Christian rendering, though I do recommend that readers check out the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, as well as Ecclesiastes. I don’t do this to proselytize, but to give secular readers a chance to examine the spiritual heart of Christian belief, without getting lost in the more esoteric or cryptic parts of the Bible, like Deuteronomy or Revelations.
Of course, I sometimes find that even Christian travelers need to be reminded about the Gospels. Evangelicals in particular seem to have an obsession with the epistles and end-time prophecy, at the expense of actually taking into account the more challenging essence of what Jesus taught.
DOOR: Wouldn’t you say that the American independent-travel community tends to be more secular or even New Age than it is Christian?
POTTS: It’s hard to say. Historically, Western tourism is the legacy of the Christian rite of pilgrimage. I suppose the pre-Christian Romans had a form of pilgrimage, too, but Christian pilgrimage certainly defined non-military travel in Europe for centuries. And of course some of the bravest and most prolific travelers over the centuries have been missionaries. For years I’ve been bugging my editors at the big American travel magazines to do a story about missionaries, since it’s such a rich and overlooked travel tradition. But no magazine has taken me up on it yet, less for reasons of religious prejudice, I think, than commerce. Missionary organizations don’t advertise in Conde Nast or National Geographic Traveler, after all—tour operators do. I’m surprised that more good travel writing doesn’t come from missionary circles, though. I suspect it’s a marketing thing: secular publishers are uncomfortable with the evangelizing aspect, and Christian publishers tend to over-emphasize it, at the expense of broader cultural understanding.
But to get back to your question, I’d say that the vagabonding community is quite mixed. The old stereotype is that anyone traveling the world out of a backpack for months at a time is going to be some kind of New Age hippie. And that can be true on occasion; New Age hippies are often prolific travelers. But it all depends. I try to express in my book that long-term travel is a strictly personal endeavor, and need not plug into some kind of preordained counterculture template. So I’d like to think that American vagabonders are as varied as Americans in general, Christians included.
As far as spiritual seekers go, I think it depends on where you travel. Western travelers may be more likely to explore Buddhism in a place like Laos, but that’s an expression of where they are. It’s also an extension of the fact that many secular Americans feel their own culture, including its Christian component, has become materialistic and spiritually empty. Ironically, I’ve found that those very Lao people, whom travelers idealize for Buddhist simplicity, tend to talk a lot about their desire for, say, a decent fridge, or a color TV. So it can be a weird trade-off, each culture envying the ways of the other.
DOOR: What do you think evangelical Christians have to gain from independent world travel?
POTTS: In a word: perspective. American evangelicalism is a very young tradition that has its own culture-specific language and idiosyncrasies. The Christians of Ethiopia or Palestine, on the other hand, are part of a local tradition that goes directly back to Christ and the apostles. These people have a lot to teach—and if you’re talking instead of listening around Old World Christians, you’re missing out on a golden chance to better understand your own faith and traditions. This can be humbling—and it isn’t always comfortable, because it forces you to look beyond the comfortable clichés of American evangelicalism.
This learning experience needn’t be limited to the Christian world. You can learn a lot about faith in general from sincere Buddhists or Muslims or Sikhs. This doesn’t mean you have to become a Buddhist, Muslim or Sikh; I’m just saying that if you approach them with respect as a person of faith, there’s a lot both parties can learn.
DOOR: What advice would you give to Christian travelers who want to take off a year or two and wander the world?
POTTS: First off, just do it. If it’s something you’ve dreamed about, don’t put it off; just make it happen. You don’t have to be rich; you don’t have to be a college student; you don’t have to be a counterculture dropout; you just have to get out and do it. Get my book if you want specifics on how to make a long-term world journey a personal reality.
Second, and just as important, is to break out of the Christian travel-bubble and just wander. Have a good time, and don’t feel guilty for having a good time. I know some Christian backpackers who just shuttle from mission project to mission project, or from one Christian hostel to another. This is great—I definitely recommend volunteering and fellowship on the road—but it’s also very limiting if you do it exclusively.
So definitely include some service projects on your itinerary, but indulge in some general travel activities as well. Climb some mountains and stroll some marketplaces. Try new foods, and talk up strangers in bars. Make new friends from faraway places, and invite them to visit you at home. Learn about other cultures and religions, wherever you go. Make listening a priority, and resist the compulsion to preach at strangers. Otherwise you’ll only be bumping your little Christian bubble against other parts of the world without learning how other parts of the world view themselves.
DOOR: How might people of faith break into the travel-writing market? Are there specific publications that would welcome a more explicitly Christian slant on travel?
POTTS: One angle might be to write “service articles” on Christian-oriented travel. A service article is a piece that gives useful information without actually telling a story. And if it’s well written and researched, a service piece is much easier to sell than a narrative feature. The secret is to write about Christian travel opportunities while keeping in mind that most travel publications have a general audience. A given travel publication might cover a lot of spiritual-travel bases—Jewish, Buddhist, New Age—so you have to be objective and informative. If done well, this kind of article could find a home anywhere from newspaper travel sections to bigger travel-oriented magazines.
I might also point out that spiritual travel narratives are popular in more literary-slanted publications. The key is to focus on the actual spiritual aspect, and not bore the audience with a bunch of evangelical clichés. Save that stuff for an exclusively religious market, because few secular readers are going to have patience for hackneyed evangelical truisms.
DOOR: I notice you talk about evangelicals at arm’s length, like you don’t consider yourself one.
POTTS: For me, evangelical Christianity is like an ex-girlfriend who you once loved very much—but now when you’re around her, every little tic, cliché and hollow pleasantry drives you nuts.
DOOR: Um, so how is your walk with the Lord?
POTTS: I’d consider myself post-evangelical. I have a private, Jeffersonian faith—one that would make most evangelicals a little nervous. But that’s fine. Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians that we’re all part of the body of Christ. People tend to think this means the spiritual body is an expression of hegemony, a sum of evangelical components: you know, an alliance of evangelical schoolteachers, accountants with fish symbols on their BMWs, born-again organizers of ping-pong tournaments, and so on. But I’d reckon American evangelicals are themselves just parts of a larger body that includes Egyptian Copts, Peruvian Catholics, and syncretistic Nigerian Mennonites. Not to mention the quiet postmodern types who feel a part of the greater Christian tradition, yet don’t identify with a specific orthodoxy.
DOOR: Such as, say, post-evangelical travel writers?
POTTS: Sure. We’re certainly not the most visible or celebrated appendage of the Christian body!