Formation

Book Review: The Dusty Ones by A.J. Swoboda

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I was eager to begin reading The Dusty Ones when I learned that it was a book about wandering. I consider myself a wanderer both literally and theologically. I enjoy hiking and backcountry camping as a way to allow my mind to reset and my soul to recalibrate as I wander down a trail towards some kind of destination.

An Imprecise Journey

I am equally a theological wanderer in that I enjoy drinking from various theological streams within the Christian tradition. In A.J. Swoboda I found a fellow wanderer with whom I share much in common. In his book The Dusty Ones: Why Wandering Deepens Your Faith I found an extensive treatment of following Jesus as an imprecise journey of faith.

He writes from the four-way intersection of a theologian’s mind, a young boy’s imagination, a pastor’s heart, and a preacher’s voice. The result is a readable book that meanders through numerous themes like hope, truth, moral constraint, sin, idolatry, gardening, faith, Eucharist, church, learning, human need, neighborliness, Sabbath, prayer, human emotion, listening, and a life lived in pursuit of Christ. The Dusty Ones is a handbook of sorts for those who want to leave the paved walkways of narrow fundamentalism and venture into the vast wide-open mystery of faith.

Wandering as the Story of Scripture

The constant refrain throughout the book is that wandering has been the experience of God’s people through the entire story of Scripture. Swoboda cites a tradition which links the word “Hebrews” to the ancient word habiru, meaning “‘dusty travelers’ or ‘dusty ones’ —an image of a people who continuously find their identity in a desert.” [1]

As followers of Jesus, who was himself a peripatetic, or traveling, teacher, we too are called to wander in a certain way. Swoboda warns against a literal wandering where we are disconnected from a particular place with real neighbors, as well as the kind of “church wanderlust” [2] that causes us from wander from church to church without real, lasting connectedness to a community.

He also exposes the pitfall waiting on the other side of wandering towards idolatry that springs up from an invisible love for something other than God. While these are the kinds of wanderings that undermine our faith, the ancient faith is itself rooted in a wandering tradition that flourishes not in certainty but in mystery.

Christian faith is, in fact, a journey. I appreciate the metaphor of a journey as such language helps to stir our imagination towards the movement of the Christian life. Swoboda is quick to point out that faith a journey requires a bit of nuance, because it is not as if our wandering in the faith is a  journey without a destination. We are traveling together in pursuit of the God revealed in Christ towards a certain goal, yet I am not sure Swoboda spells out exactly what this goal is.

Wandering and the Church

I appreciate Swoboda grounding the idea of “wandering” in the life of the local church, and in the Eucharist particularly. He writes, “My whole week is centered around communion. Every week, it is that moment where I orient myself once again to a visible loaf of bread and a visible cup of juice and return to the sustaining bread of life.When you think about it, communion is the one thing in our week that visibly represents the grace of God for us. Without communion, I would wander.” [3] Here Swoboda is clearly describing one of the harmful kinds of wandering. I appreciate the tension in this book between the rootedness of faith in a particular place with the transient movement of faith in our wandering. I see just below the surface of this tension the influence of Wendell Berry and Eugene Peterson, two of my heros!

Living in this tension is an accurate picture of the Christian life. Our common life together as followers of Jesus is not all ease or all struggle, all stationary or all shifting.

Life together as Jesus followers is not all ease or all struggle, all stationary or all shifting. Click To Tweet

We are rooted in the sacraments and in a geographic location marking us on one side of the tension and we are simultaneously sojourners on the move. Swoboda does a masterful job in riding this tension in The Dusty Ones, hanging on to both sides of the spectrum creating contrast, mystery, and beauty. It is a mystery that we are both rooted in liturgy and we are constantly on the move. He writes in the opening chapter: “Wandering is a mystery—a beautiful mystery. And while mysteries might not always make sense, you can’t live life without them. Mystery is the fresh air that keeps the faithful alive.” [4]  In this regard, The Dusty Ones isn’t an answer book as much as a trail guide for those on the journey of faith.

Longings

Swoboda taps into real human longing in this book, longings that are illustrated throughout the Scriptures. As the creation narrative quickly unfolds we see that God has made us to be needy creatures. Our neediness is not a flaw, but a vital part of our human design. We need water and food. We need companionship and love. We need community. We need identity. We need boundaries. And ultimately we need the God who created us.

Even Jesus, who was fully human without imperfection, experienced real human need. Swoboda writes with the words of prophet when he warns that we may have replaced our neighbors with Google. Whereas we used to ask our neighbors for things we need, now we Google it. I found myself agreeing in theory to the idea of the goodness of our neediness, but I equally found myself pushing back a bit as our neediness requires boundaries to prevent the codependent ones among us continue to give to the needy keeping the needy in an infantile state of always receiving and never giving back. Nevertheless, any chopping away at rugged individualism is helpful for the work of the Gospel.

In the end I am glad I have stumbled across a fellow traveler who has given us a helpful and thought-proving guide as we explore the mystery of faith. I do wish he would have narrowed his focus to fewer themes as he covers a lot of ground in one book. Nevertheless I am glad he has given us a multi-faceted trail guide as we wander together.   

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[1] A.J. Swoboda, The Dusty Ones (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2016), 68.
[2] Swoboda, 154.
[3] Swoboda, 87.
[4] Swoboda, 12.   

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