Mark Sayers
The Road Trip that Changed the World: The unlikely theory that will change how you view culture, the church, and most importantly, yourself
Moody Press, Chicago, 2012

ISBN-13: 978-0802409317

"Sayers’ book is among the latest of a burgeoning literary response to the influence of Kerouac’s autobiographical travel journal and especially its religious themes."

Patterns in the practice of religious faith have changed dramatically over the last century. Western world church attendance is in rapid decline, especially among youth and young adults. A common complaint is that churches fail to connect with contemporary culture or be relevant to everyday life. Young adults commonly seek freedom and adventure in travel, experimental lifestyles, relationship choices and the latest thrills. Yet they still often like to connect with some concept of the sacred, as long as it does not restrict their life choices.  

 Mark Sayers’ expertise is analysing popular culture from a Christian perspective. He is co-founder of Über, a consultancy organisation that offers analysis, resources and training on youth and young adult spirituality. As a Churches of Christ pastor he is the senior leader of Red Church in Box Hill, Melbourne, Australia, and speaks and teaches widely on consumerism, Gen-Y spirituality and the future of the church in the West. 

The unique contribution of The Road Trip that Changed the World to the study of literature and theology is its analysis of contemporary young adult culture and spirituality through the lens of Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel On the Road. Sayers’ book is among the latest of a burgeoning literary response to the influence of Kerouac’s autobiographical travel journal and especially its religious themes. 

Kerouac took a road trip from 1947 to 1951 to flee what he and his friends saw as the sickness of Western society and its materialism, secularism and shallowness. Kerouac writes himself into the book as Sal Paradise, traveling with friend Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) and Dean/Neal’s then current partner Marylou. They search together for god but also drugs and (other) girls. They adopt the California mindset that seeks the most out of life. Instead of stability and tradition, Kerouac portrayed the ideal life as living on the open road and experiencing freedom. Against mass consumerism, he called for a “rucksack revolution”. As Sayers explains, Kerouac’s book became inspirational for many since and foreshadowed young adult culture that has been enacted and improvised ever since, from the hippies and beatniks on the 1960s through to Gen-Y young adults today. 

Kerouac tapped into the restlessness and dissatisfaction that drives emerging generations of men to search for freedom and fulfillment in travel, sex, drugs, music, adventure and the objectification of women - life “on the road”.  These themes have become mainstream parts of male culture in the Western world. Anxiety drives people to search for the next best option, ideal destination, thrilling holiday, fulfilling career or satisfying partner. Travel and work patterns have led to chicken nuggets as fast food, casual sex as accepted norm, and church shopping for worship that best helps the religious consumer achieve their personal dreams.  

Theologically, Kerouac’s journey was quasi-religious and quasi-hedonistic. He confessed a strong sense of faith in God, but in apparently contradictory ways turned his back on Christian faith and morality. He advocated engaging God among the marginalised and in everyday life, but rebelled against God with his drug-using lifestyle and left behind multiple broken relationships. He keeps one foot in his Catholic religious background, but stands easily with another foot in the enjoyment of sensuality without limits. 

Sayers suggests that young adults are interested in experiential and spiritual journeys. They especially look for spiritual options that enhance individual happiness and well-being and which offer an enchantment that seems lost today. But they have less interest in the devotion and transformative influence of covenantal and communal faith. Sayers comments about young adult hopes and expectations with respect to the sacred and related behavioural implications: “They recognize that their culture is bereft of the transcendent. Yet they also revel in the personal freedom that the immanent frame brings. They want holy rantings, epiphanies, and divine revelations. They want the enchanted world back. Yet at the same time, they desire no authority, no external moral codes. They want Christ, but they also want the girls and the drugs. They want the solace of God and meaning, but also the freedom of godlessness. It is this tension that is at the heart of the culture of the road”.

The reference to wanting “girls and the drugs” suggests Sayers (echoing Kerouac) is predominantly writing from the perspective of young men, although the desire for reenchantment with the freedom of godlessness is arguably not gender-specific in emerging younger generations. 

Sayers points towards a more meaningful road, polemically drawing on Biblical and other literary inspiration. Biblically, he points to Abraham’s countercultural obedience and challenge of idols, Jesus’ transcending of religious factions, and the early church’s resistance to the absolute sovereignty of the Roman Empire. Philosophically, he discusses Kerouac’s questioning of Nietzsche’s “death of God” and elevation of secular culture, and Sayers’ own thoughts on Kierkegaard’s appeal to face one’s mortality and the possibility of actually encountering God. From other twentieth century literature, Sayers ranges from Sayyid Qutb’s recoiling from his experience of American hedonism and secular practice of religion (whose influence as a spiritual guide and writing inspired al-Qaeda’s founders), through to Cormac McCarthy’s prize-winning 2006 novel The Road and its account of journey of a dying father protecting his son, and William Dalrymple’s journey to dying but persevering Christian communities in the Middle East, narrated in his 1997 book From the Holy Mountain. Sayers appeals for a countercultural and radical expression of religious faith over a private religious expression that is in some senses what popular culture expects of religion but, in Sayers’ view, whose reductionism is turning younger generations away from the church.

"Sayers places his finger on the pulse of Western society through the pages of Kerouac’s cult writing. The resulting book has popular accessibility and length, but is grounded in thoughtful reflection. It melds Biblical exegesis and cultural insight, sociological study and literary analysis, travel journal and self-reflection."

"Sayers places his finger on the pulse of Western society through the pages of Kerouac’s cult writing. The resulting book has popular accessibility and length, but is grounded in thoughtful reflection. It melds Biblical exegesis and cultural insight, sociological study and literary analysis, travel journal and self-reflection."

For this reviewer, it was interesting to read Sayers’ book as I travelled through Europe with my family in 2012. Ours was a quasi-secular pilgrimage. We were joining our culture’s yearning for freedom and fulfillment through adventure and travel. We wanted to grow in faith and awareness of the divine, but our sabbatical trip was just as much a search for global experience and multicultural education. Meditation and revelation had been serendipitous rather than intentionally sought. I read and reviewed the book in Rome, the centre of the Catholic Church and centuries-old pilgrimage destination. It is a city of a thousand churches. The cultural and financial riches of the church are obvious from daily sightseeing. Not just in Rome but also throughout Europe signs of Christendom – cathedrals, state-paid clergy and religious artefacts – surrounded us. But we kept meeting people for whom the practice of Christianity was only a distant memory. Person after person who had a religious background had moved on from religion because of disgust with intolerance, resentment over church abuse, or simply lack of perceived relevance. What is spiritual maturity and development in this context, I asked myself? And how can we redeem “the road trip” as a space for pilgrimage, self-discovery and growing awareness of the world beyond ourselves? 

Sayers places his finger on the pulse of Western society through the pages of Kerouac’s cult writing. The resulting book has popular accessibility and length, but is grounded in thoughtful reflection. It melds Biblical exegesis and cultural insight, sociological study and literary analysis, travel journal and self-reflection. The Road Trip that Changed the World will thus be of interest to scholars of literature and theology, and also those interested generally in understanding cultural and generational changes in faith and spirituality and attempts to regain a sense of transcendence.

A version of this review was originally published in Literature and Theology: an international journal of religion, theory and culture, Literature & Theology 28:4 (December 2014) 28:4, 491-493, and first published online on 27th February, 2014, accessible at http://litthe.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2014/02/27/litthe.fru005.full?keytype=ref&ijkey=FhDAnBT4FTt3Gfk

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