12th December 2014
A Review of THE ROAD TRIP THAT CHANGED THE WORLD: Mark Sayers (2012, Moody Press)
I purchased and read this book at the request of a 90-year old friend who was reading it and wanted my opinion. I found it fascinating and scary at the same time. Sayers, clearly a cultural commentator with an almost unnerving perception of what is going on in our world gives us some amazing insights into what has been happening over the last 50 or so years. He also discusses reasons why both the culture and the church are struggling at this time. As John Dickson, Director of the Centre for Public Christianity, has commented, this book is "a mesmerizing blend of anecdote and literature, pop sensitivity and cultural analysis, earthiness and biblical reflection".
The writer takes as his focus a novel On the Road by Jack Kerouac published in 1957. He claims to have written the book in three weeks. Kerouac's book described by Sayers as "part confessional, part travelogue and part novel" apparently describes a road trip taken by a group of males in the USA between 1947 and 1951. These men who criss-crossed America a number of times were seeking unfettered pleasure and total freedom from any kind of commitment. Speed, sex and drugs were all on the agenda. As the monument to Kerouac in Lowell, Massachusetts where he was born proclaims, "The Road is Life".
Kerouac saw himself as seeking "a return to a deeper understanding of life in contrast to the shallowness of contemporary living". His impact, however, according to Sayers, has been quite the opposite. Sayers traces our current culture of individualism, obsession with freedom and commitment phobia to the influence of Kerouac and others like him. In this analysis, the road is a metaphor for the kind of life where both the freedom to please oneself and a lack of commitment to anyone or anything seem to be high priorities for the current crop of young adults. According to Sayers, a whole generation was encouraged "to chase experience and self-absorption - in other words, they were clearly the "ME generation" eschewing the concept of covenant or commitment as too restricting.
As one young person who had actually read Kerouac's book pointed out to me, most people in her generation would not have read it. It seems, however, the ethos has continued to permeate both the culture and the church for several generations. Full commitment to one another is resisted in personal relationships, as well as in the church, and even in terms of commitment to Christ. It is interesting to note that at the end of his life, Kerouac claims to see the Cross " as clear as anything I ever saw in my life". It is not clear whether he cried out to Christ like the thief on the cross.
Sayers' cultural commentary is beautifully written. It includes a thoughtful exposition of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden including what he sees as the devastating effects of Adam's passivity. He also analyses God's call to Abraham, suggesting that he was the first countercultural rebel. Unlike Kerouac, Abraham's life "offers us a road of faith, in contrast to our culture's road of self". He goes on to argue that Abraham when he parts ways with Lot is
"again asked to break with his culture, with the world, to walk to a different beat, to obey a set of rules that seemingly makes no sense. He is being asked again to walk the path of faith."
I also enjoyed the story of Takashi Nagai near the end of the book. Nagai was a Japanese scientist, a committed Christian who experienced the bombing of Nagasaki at the end of the Second World War. Nagai showed himself a true saint engaging in the fellowship of Christ's sufferings as he rescued bedridden patients from the inferno that was the local hospital.
The book then ends with Sayers preaching in a German Lutheran church in Manhattan where he discerns an openness and receptivity to the Word and "choices for community over individualism, for covenant over consumerism, for Christ over self". There is hope!
Emeritus Professor Pat Noller (Convenor of the ACC Board of Communication)
(Published in ACCatalyst December 2014)