When Jack Kerouac’s second novel, ‘On The Road’ was published in late summer 1957, the review in the New York Times said that:
“…its publication is a historic occasion insofar as the exposure of the authentic work of art if of any great moment in any age in which the attention is fragmented and the sensibilities are blunted by the superlatives of fashion….[and is] the most beautifully executed, the clearest and most important utterance yet made of the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as ‘beat’ and whose principal avatar he is.”
It was recognised immediately as a classic, a book that reflected the developing worldview of a generation which desired freedom from regulation and traditional expectation, which wanted to be ‘on the road’, constantly seeking the next transcendent experience to somehow overcome the ‘mundane’ existence of life in post-war America.
But as I read it now, 55 years on, the experiences of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty seem tame and almost, dare I say it, boring. How can this be? How can such a seminal book, one that influenced and changed the lives of so many, now seem so ‘run of the mill’?
Kerouac’s novel is a classic, but it’s more than that, it’s a signpost, marking the place and time when a paradigm shift took place in culture and society that still underpins our contemporary view of life and ‘post-modern’ existence. My worldview, my outlook on life is influenced, whether I realise it or not, by the same cultural change that is articulated in Kerouac’s semi-biographical story telling. I find it mundane because it’s already such a intrinsic part of how I think and feel. Living ‘on the road’ is no longer a subversive and rebellious act because it’s now ‘normal’ – the counter-cultural lifestyle of the ‘beat’ generation has been adsorbed and is now ubiquitous in our everyday, contemporary culture.
This is the main critique that forms the basis for Mark Sayer’s new book, ‘The Road Trip that Changed the World’, not that Kerouac single-handedly changed the culture, but that Kerouac through ‘On The Road’ spoke on behalf of a generation that was changing, moving away from the certainties of the past to a post-modern dynamic narrative that forever altered how we experience the journey through our lives, including those of us in the church.
In his two previous books, ‘The Trouble with Paris’ and ‘The Vertical Self’, Sayers has shown himself to be a talented observer of the interface between church and secular culture, demonstrating how, so often, the church is overly influenced by the surrounding secular worldview. ‘The Road Trip’ continues this good work, using the example of Abraham to contrast the ‘way of the road’ with the ‘way of the cross’ – to encourage us to live a different story, to walk a different road, as he explains:
“The choice before us is now clear. To follow our culture’s collection of stories that go nowhere, to believe that the world is a meaningless place, out of which we can only hope to eke out passing moments of pleasure. To follow a road which at the end of our lives will leave us only with a well-groomed Facebook page, a collection of digital photos, and a library of downloadable songs and movies. Our lives will be reduced to a digital memorial that can be erased with the click of a mouse. We will live and die as shallow people living in a shallow culture…..The second choice before us is to…immerse ourselves in the story of a God who came to earth to die for the world. A God who calls us to follow a different road, a road which is tough, a road which does not always let us get what we want, a road of sacrifice and pain, a road that ends with a Cross. A Cross which opens our eyes to the true nature of reality. A Cross which enables us to see that the world is luminously alive. That it pulsates with the sacred, that each atom, every creature, bears the fingerprints of its creator. A place where in the poetic words of William Blake we can “see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower – Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour.” Then we will be deep people, on a mission to deepen the world, reservoirs of living water in the secular desert, revealing the glory of God.”
Sayers hits the mark for me. He understanding that the contemporary church in Western culture is at a crossroads where a decision needs to be made. The choice is stark – stay the same, be shallow, follow the road of the world, be hidden and irrelevant, or wake up to your calling, choose to take the road of the cross, become deep, and find again the power of devotion, the creation-changing power that will bring the world back to life.
I have always found Sayer’s writing to be compelling, encouraging and inspiring in equal measure, and ‘The Road Trip’ is definately up to his usual standard. This is a book that should be read by everyone who loves Jesus and who cares about the future of the church.
So if that’s you, then get a copy before it’s too late.
(For the record, I was sent a copy of this book by the publisher for review, however, this has not influenced my view of the book in any way, and I have subsequently bought a digital copy on Kindle to show my support of the author.)