Tag Archives: On the road

Is Life About the Journey or the Destination?

By Eugene C. Scott

Jack Kerouac

Is life about the journey or the destination?

According to Jack Kerouac, neither.

At least that’s what I read into Kerouac’s novelOn the Road. Published in 1957 On the Road is a fictionalized account of Kerouac, “Sal Paridise,” and “mad” beat generation buddy Neal Cassidy,  “Dean Moriarty,” criss-crossing the U.S.A. in the years following WWII.

On the Road was hailed as “an authentic work of art” by the “New York Times” and brought Kerouac instant fame. It has since been named a classic that created a movement and influenced Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Hunter S. Thompson, and many others.

Thus I picked up the fifty-five year-old literary classic expecting a story spilling over with insights and observations of a people and nation just lifting itself out of the morass of the second war to end all wars.

What I discovered instead is a crazy, stream-of-consciousness (what Kerouac called “spontaneous prose”) story that was at times well-written, inventive, funny, shocking, and beautiful but at other times corny, dated, repetitive, shallow, immoral, and non-sensical. In the end, On the Road is not a narrative of a journey across America or even how that journey ended at a physical or even meta-physical destination but rather how the road from New York City to Denver to San Francisco and back impacted Kerouac’s jazz and drug addled search for not even he knew what.

Each of Kerouac’s five trips across the country is progressively more frenetic and yet interior. In his first trip, hitchhiking, he describes the country and characters in rich detail. Early in the book I reveled in his description of Denver, my home town, in the late ‘40s.

But soon Kerouac seems to only describe people and places based on what they do–or don’t do–for Sal and Dean. The road becomes a strip they race over to get here or there.  But even the here or there don’t really matter.

Hitchhikers they pick up only provide much needed gas money, and–if Sal and Dean are lucky–drugs, sex, and a place to stay. Women are there to cook or provide sex. Kerouac spends pages deftly describing the sounds of jazz bands who have “it.” But “it” is never defined beyond how “it” makes Sal and Dean feel right then and there. Dean drags Sal into a tighter and tighter narcissistic spiral. Each time Kerouac hints at something deeper such as how a once innocent country is changing, the discussion fizzles in a rush of alcohol or Dean saying something senseless like, “Yaas, yaas, yaas.”

Yes, On the Road defined, even invented, the “beat generation” and fathered the hippie movement. Both of which were vaunted for their supposed philosophical depth and questioning of the meaning of life.

But it seems to me that an extremely narcissistic Kerouac also gave what later became the “me generation” its voice.On the Road elevated narcissism to an art. Is it possible that Kerouac unwittingly played a big part in granting an entire generation permission to ask nothing more than what’s in it for me?

I suppose every generation has struggled with living for something bigger than itself. And that is why our best stories–the true classics, works of art–usually contain a narrative describing both a journey and a destination that is about both the hero and the world he or she traverses. While stories such as Kerouac’s may be well-written, novel, artistic and even groundbreaking, they do little to challenge us to see beyond our own puny lives. They give us and our short-comings comfort. Unlike the Odyssey of Ulysses or the quest of Frodo or the pilgrimage of Harry Potter or the ultimate journey of Jesus to the cross to save us all, stories about neither journey nor destination may entertain but they fail to challenge, fail to call us, as C. S. Lewis writes in The Last Battle, “Further up and further in.”

Is life about the journey or the destination? Both! But according to On the Road that much asked much debated question doesn’t even seem to dawn on Kerouac. Too bad.

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The Best Of Both Worlds

For decades, the voice of Charles Kuralt informed and reassured millions of Americans. The first anchor of CBS Sunday Morning News, he also introduced his viewers to daily slices of Americana through his long-running series “On The Road With Charles Kuralt.” He also lent his voice to Saturday morning programming, explaining news stories to young minds like mine (then and now).

Upon his death in 1997, TV viewers everywhere heralded the life of this award-winning journalist.

But two years after he died, his personal life was exposed. Charles Kuralt had supported two families—his legally-wedded wife in New York City and unbeknownst to her, a female companion with whom he also had children. Charles Kuralt lived a double-life for nearly 40 years.

The life of a great journalist concluded with a dark shadow on the man many of us admired from afar.

The best of both worlds can lead to a disappointing end.

Please join me today as we explore this further.

TODAY’S READING

1 Kings 18:1-46
Acts 11:1-30
Psalm 135:1-21
Proverbs 17:12-13

INSIGHTS AND EXPLANATIONS

1 Kings 18:1-46. Today’s reading offers us one of the great showdowns in Scripture. Lonely Elijah takes on King Ahab, his evil wife Jezebel, 450 prophets of Baal, and 400 prophets of Asherah. Ahab was an evil king, but his wife Jezebel, a native of Tyre and Sidon, was fanatical about the worship of Baal and Asherah. In fact, we read that the priests of these idols ate at her table (1 Kings 18:19).

Incidentally, the Obadiah mentioned at the beginning of the chapter is different than the prophet Obadiah, whose book we will read later in the year.

As the showdown commences, I love how Elijah gives the opposing prophets every advantage. In fact, archeologists tell us that Mt. Carmel, which is actually a range of hills, was the traditional site for Baal worship of. Elijah was giving the prophets home field advantage.

First, the altar to Baal is constructed. The prophets begin praying and wailing, beseeching their god to strike the sacrifice with fire. Elijah, confident in their god’s non-performance, begins mocking it. In fact, the NIV translators soften the crudeness of Elijah’s remarks. When he accuses Baal of being “busy,” in verse 27, he’s literally questioning whether missing Baal is missing because he’s relieving himself.

In a flair for the dramatic, Elijah then douses his altar with enough water to make it clear that any fire must have come from Yahweh. Remember, this occurred in the middle of a severe drought, so water was at a premium. And, as anticipated, fire rains down from heaven lights the altar on fire.

God always wins.

Acts 11:1-30. What impresses me most in this chapter is the attitude of the circumcised believers. Initially critical of Peter for eating with uncircumcised Gentiles, they listened to his explanation and then changed their minds. This was a significant cultural leap for them. Imagine believing that all foreigners were defiled—and then suddenly welcoming them in to your home. A lifetime of prejudice would need to be overcome.

At the end of the chapter we read about Agabus’ prophecy regarding a drought. Records from that time attest that a drought did, indeed, occur. The end of the chapter also introduces us to a new preaching team: Barnabas and Paul.

Psalm 135:1-21. In light of our reading in 1 Kings, this psalm is particularly relevant. “I know that the Lord is great, that our Lord is greater than all gods. The Lord does whatever pleases him, in the heavens and on the earth, in the seas and all their depths. He makes clouds rise from the ends of the earth; he sends lightning with the rain and brings out the wind from his storehouses” (Psalm 135:5-7).

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THE WORD MADE FRESH

As Elijah stands before Israel on Mt. Carmel, he challenges them, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him” (1 Kings 18:21).

The people were wavering between worshiping God and worshiping Baal. The New Bible Commentary speculates that “this suggests they had been trying to worship both Baal and Yahweh to secure the maximum advantages of both!”

Baal was seen as the god of fertility, which would pay dividends in crops. Yahweh was regarded as a “god” of the hills by the surrounding nations. Scholars are unsure of Yahweh’s significance in the eyes of the foreigners.

Regardless, it appears that the people in Israel were trying to experience the best of both worlds…much like Charles Kuralt.

Although I try to avoid dualistic comparisons between good and evil—because we live in a world of gray—I can’t escape the fact that God calls us to be in or out.

Jesus spoke to the church of Laodicea, “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:15-16).

Harsh words. Really, it sounds like the words of a person whose spouse has been involved in an affair. It’s as if God is saying, “I want you committed to me or not, but stop going back and forth between two lovers.”

And that’s what it is.

As we progress into the prophetic books—especially Hosea—we’ll peer into God’s jealous heart. He asks the same degree of faithfulness from us that he graciously gives us.

But doesn’t it feel good knowing that God doesn’t ask something of us that he isn’t willing to give?

CONVERSATION STARTERS

  1. What spoke to you in today’s reading?
  2. What changes is God calling you to make?
  3. What idols tempt you to waver? What does wavering look like for you?

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Michael co-pastors The Neighborhood Church with Eugene Scott in Littleton, Colorado.

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