The first time I read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road it was like hearing a siren’s call during the stormy seas of adolescence. The book articulated the secret longings of my heart: my yearnings to bomb down highways in borrowed cars toward the revelatory music, artistic pals, bohemian women, and the ruckus of big and foreign cities.
Over the years I’d revisit that and other books written by Jack Kerouac, in search of the initial hit of wonder referenced above. But each time, his free-flowing and mystic words would issue less and less of a hypnotic grip on me. I would eventually begin to see his work for what it truly is: vivid and harrowing confessions of someone who toiled to find the transcendent, but who usually looked for it in all the wrong places.
Mark Sayers says much the same in his book The Road Trip that Changed the World. It maps out the true story of Kerouac, after whom so many millennials have modelled their personas, ethics, and goals. Sayers artfully and intelligently challenges Christians to consider the degree to which Kerouac and his cadre of Beat revolutionaries in the 1950s have shaped expressions of the Christian faith today.
“We are addicted to the thought of leaving, to tantalizing possibilities of where we could be going, rather than the concrete reality of actual arrival,” writes Sayers. “We are addicted to being on the road, of having the next destination hovering over the horizon. Thus life, identity, and faith are now viewed as things in process, not yet fully formed. The security of knowing, of arriving, kills the buzz of the contemporary life journey.”
I came out of my reading of The Road Trip that Changed the World looking at my faith and life from a new perspective. It has allowed me to renew my commitment to living in a way that puts the call of Jesus uncompromisingly first, and my desires for personal fulfillment, self actualization, and happiness at a very distant last. I haven’t completely figured out how to do that yet, of course, but Sayers’s insight on the status of current Christian culture — and how it relates to Kerouac and his legacy — is definitely helping me get there.
Even if you’re not acquainted with the life and work of Jack Kerouac, The Road Trip that Changed the World is worth reading. Because many of us — I’d even say most of us — have chased or are chasing the quasi-Christian spiritual dream. You know the one: it’s the dream in which we profess allegiance to Jesus on one day and live like we’ve never met Him during the other six. The dream in which we’re perpetually travelling, never planting, and always wandering in search of the next burst of temporary transcendence, only to realize it doesn’t create lasting transformation in our lives.
By the end of the book, Sayers draws attention to two roads before us. One is a wide and oft travelled highway that leads to the deep pit of soul-stealing hedonism, selfishness, self-fulfillment, and self-actualization. The other is a narrower, bumpier, and less travelled single lane stretch of dirt that leads to the brutal and beautiful hill of Calvary, where Jesus hangs on a cross.
So which road will you choose? As Sayers writes, “The universe is not a meaningless place, things do matter, [and] actions do catch up with you.”
Photo (Flickr CC) by Geoff Llerena.