DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of this review.
“The unlikely theory that will change how you view culture, the church, and most importantly, yourself” is the apt subtitle for one of the most intriguing books I have read this year. As I briefly contemplated the cover before diving into the book, the only question left in my mind after that rather verbose subtitle was, “Well, what could such a theory be?”
The book sets itself up as a cultural commentary by author Mark Sayers on a different, 55-year old novel entitled On the Road by author Jack Kerouac, and the impact it supposedly had on our culture and society. You don’t necessarily need to have read On the Road before you read The Road Trip, but I did at least in part. The book follows the adventurous, whimsical life of Sal Paradise who exists as a novelized version of Kerouac and his life. To be ardently clear, Sal’s “adventurous, whimsical life” is a tale of his irresponsible romps between the coasts of America fueled by money mailers from his enabling aunt in New Jersey and peppered by a never-ending stream of flings and hook-ups laced with cheap whiskey and beer.
That’s pretty much all you need to know in preface to The Road Trip. The uneasy question that Sayers ultimately tries to answer in the book is how on earth did we get from the relatively conservative, straight-laced churchgoing society of the forties and fifties to the libertine world completely unhinged from any morals in the sixties? Sayers traces Kerouac’s fringe beat culture along its path toward mainstream acceptance in the sixties, and then all the way to our current world. As I mentioned a second ago the book is absolutely intriguing, and I might be so bold as to add the adjectives fascinating, illuminating, and uncomfortable too.
Sayers has a rare prophetic edge to his writing, painting a frighteningly accurate portrait of our world today. Hear how he describes the living contradictions many of us are:
“…the rise of such [transgressive] behavior reveals much about how young adult Christians understand their place in contemporary culture, exposing how we are disciples of Sigmund Freud. In his work Civilization and its Discontents, Freud theorizes that our innermost, primal desires must remain in check if we are to live in a comfortable, peaceful society. Thus certain behaviors become ways of letting off steam: the man driving his car yells and honks at other drivers as a way of releasing the valve of murderous anger and violence he subconsciously feels; the married woman’s daily flirtations with the handsome young barista at Starbucks are a way of sublimating her inner desires to be with men other than her husband. Thus many contemporary Christians follow Freud’s lead. The Christian engaged couple have premarital sex, telling themselves that what they are doing is better than their promiscuous secular friends. The young adult ministry leaders get together and drink too much, as a way of releasing the valve of having to be the responsible ones all the time.” (page 137)
Sayers ruthlessly steps beyond the relatively safe platform of railing against the culture and drives the stake in until it protrudes through my very own sinful little heart. In the section How Being Authentic Became More Important Than Being Spiritual he writes, ”Today, honesty and authenticity no longer mean truthfulness, but rather a transparency concerning one’s deepest wants and desires and an openness about one’s determination to indulge in them” (page 116). I would be lying to you unless I said that the conversations occupying most of my time with other young adults revolve around the necessity of transparent authenticity. Within our accountability groups (and even sermons) we talk openly and freely about our personal struggles with pornography, depression, materialism, and a whole host of other very real self-destructive behaviors. The one thing that, in my experience, is usually lacking from the Christian landscape is, you know, any actual appreciable life change that such authenticity is expected to bring.
Sayers illuminates many other such contradictions within our Christian spheres, and his observations make me absolutely squirm. “The contemporary Christian movement would use language almost lifted from On the Road, such as ‘walk,’ ‘spiritual journey,’ and ‘seeker’” (page 131). “With religion off the agenda, our culture finds new avenues of devotion and distraction. Instead of moving us toward relationship and people, the immanent, superflat culture pushes us toward things. Millions of hours in the twenty-first century will be spent working through DVD TV series, scanning social network sites, gorging on celebrity gossip, downloading music, flipping through home magazines, and playing computer games” (page 109). If you can’t find descriptors of yourself at least somewhere in that list, then thou art more holy than I.
Where do we go now?
I’m a fairly slow reader and I don’t exaggerate to say that I read the first 3/4 of the book in half of a day. His uncanny prophetic ability to do more than point fingers (how many times have you heard “TV is the key to the moral decay of our society!” exclaimed from sweaty preachers?) and simply offer descriptive observations of contradictions in our modern life wrenched my gut and frankly scared me. I don’t know Sayers, but I’d reckon that his spiritual gifts lie somewhere between prophecy and discernment.
Where Sayers succeeds so poignantly in cultural observation and interpretation, he severely disappoints in application. One characteristic of the book that didn’t sit well with me is that the entire first part is nearly devoid of scripture! I don’t mean to say that I need inspiring verses sprinkled moronically through the text simply to make it feel more Christian, but if Hebrews 4:12 really is true then as sharp as his insights may be they are not what cuts down into the marrow of my soul—scripture is. Where was the sword of the Spirit in his prophecy?
He utilizes scripture extensively in the second part of the book, but it feels disjointed and unfocused at best. In the part of the book that tries to condense it all into an answer to the question “Where do we go now?” I felt largely confused and undirected. He says a lot of really interesting things, and at points it almost gels into something. Almost. The chapters don’t really flow from one to the other and it took me almost two weeks to make it through the last quarter of the book. For example in the chapter “an old kind of christian,” he looks at Adam and Eve and their roles as “guardians of the world” (page 173). He then moves into the Hebrew word behind guardian and then uses that through the rest of the following chapters. His reasoning is that it carries more meaning than “guardian,” but the trouble is… most of us don’t know Hebrew. To us it carries less meaning.
I don’t mean to be overly critical or harsh, but I found myself becoming very frustrated with this part of the book. As he began building more of his arguments upon scripture I expected the whole book to crystallize and make sense, but instead it just sort of dissolved into vague, hard-to-follow hipster Christianese until the book chugs to a halt with “I open my eyes and think of Jack Kerouac. I think of Jack Kerouac no longer haggard and forlorn, lost on the road, but now truly home. I think of Jack Kerouac” (page 271). I’m not trying to belittle his vision of a redeemed Kerouac but where he had a chance to leave us in the arms of Christ he brought us back to the man who got us into this mess.
Should you Read it?
My disappointment with the second part was heightened by how keen of an edge the first part had. I suppose I could have just been distracted and unfocused as I read the second part, but in my estimation, I don’t think I was. I really believe Sayers is on to something with his theory… but it’s going to fall to someone else to help us figure out where to go with it. I’d suggest that more people read this book, but to do so with discernment and caution. If you are a pastor or church leader or are simply interested in where the church is and where she is going, then you’d find this book helpful and thought provoking. I wish I could give it higher commendation, but due to the difficulties I had with the second part (along with an appalling number of typos and editorial mistakes) it’s challenging for me to do so.