Mark Sayers’s The Road Trip That Changed the World is a piece of cultural criticism masquerading as a piece of literary criticism, an ostensible analysis of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road that actually attempts to diagnose the ills of the modern West. It also has one of the most generic subtitles imaginable: The Unlikely Theory That Will Change How You View Culture, the Church, and Most Importantly, Yourself.
I can’t help but think that this subtitle must have been pushed on Sayers by his publisher, for a number of reasons. First, he doesn’t really present a singular theory of anything in this book. Second, his diagnoses are not particularly “unlikely” for anyone who has paid attention to the evangelical world for the past thirty years or so. And third, Sayers excoriates contemporary Christian culture for its obsession with celebrity pastors (like Sayers, who the back of the book tells me is “the senior leader of Red Church”) and theories; were the patriarch Abraham alive today, he tells us, he “would no longer be fleshing out faith in the everyday; he would be another Christian celebrity with a theory.”
Then again, The Road Trip That Changed the World is so dizzy and unfocused that Sayers might have forgotten he wrote that section when he named the book. It is a treatise for a culture without an attention span, floating dozens of partial analyses of Western culture, none of which are fleshed out enough to be fully cogent. The structure reflects the method: This book, which has less than 271 pages of actual text, is nevertheless divided into 25 chapters, each of which is further divided into sections (I count 149 of them altogether), most not more than a few paragraphs long.
But Sayers or his publisher doesn’t trust the reader of this book even to pay attention for those quick spaces of time, and so the book aggravating features pull quotes on about a sixth of its pages—the sort you might find in a glossy magazine. This structure does not bode well for Sayers’s analysis of Western culture, which, if it is to be effective, needs to be complex and given space to develop.
Instead of quality and depth, Sayers opts for sheer quantity, offering a new lens of cultural interpretation every few pages. His major thesis, I suppose, is that Western culture is hopelessly secularized, and his most common interpretive framework is On the Road, but this is only a fraction of the routes he takes: Sayyid Qutb! “Whoosh” culture! The Lake Poets! Abrahamic covenant! Rebel Without a Cause! Charles Taylor’s theory of disenchantment! All of these, and many more, make an appearance—but none stays around long enough for Sayers to appropriately develop it.
When I heard the subject of this book, I must confess, I was afraid: Is there a more frustrating, overrated, and misunderstood book in the American canon than On the Road? It’s been shallowly worshiped by restless teenagers basically since it was written, and the thought of someone suggesting that Christ was some sort of proto-Dean Moriarty turned my stomach a bit. But to Sayers’s credit, he seems to understand the contradictions and ambiguities of Kerouac’s novel; he speaks, for example, of the dialectic of road and home in it, and he talks in some detail about Kerouac’s own repudiation of Beat culture and broken return to the Catholicism of his youth.
But he clearly cannot decide how he feels about Kerouac (whom he frequently and aggravatingly calls “Jack”); at times, he positions him as an important and insightful critic of American culture, while at other times, he blames him for the secularization and “road culture” under which we all suffer. It may be that Sayers’s feelings are actually ambivalent, or it may be, in this book where the topic shifts every three or four paragraphs, that he simply does not have a coherent position.
Most bewilderingly, he tends to treat Kerouac and the Beats as the original expression of what numerous critics have noted as a distinctly and consistently American attitude. Thus, he spends a great deal of time talking about Kerouac’s creation of “road culture.” It was not always like this, he tells us:
Before Kerouac changed the life script of the West, life was processed through the idea of home. Home was not just a building in which you lived. It was a place to which you were deeply connected. Home was a family and a community of people to whom you belonged. Home was a unified worldview. This worldview infused every part of your life: it informed your recreational life, your work life, your religious life , even your sex life. This sense of home was held together by traditions and a way of life to which the individual submitted.
It’s an assertion that is appealing in its simplicity: At one point, Western culture was devoted to community and tradition; some young people came along, and then it was devoted to the journey and the self. The problem is that it isn’t true. In the slow slide from communal to individual living, from home to the road, Kerouac is a mere footnote: Think of Huck Finn’s lighting off for the territories, or Frederic Henry’s deserting the Italian army for love, or Eliot’s heap of broken images, or Fitzgerald’s ashes of consensus in West Egg. The change that Sayers bafflingly chalks up to Kerouac goes back at least a century earlier—in the opening chapter of Moby-Dick, Ishmael says that he goes to sea because he can’t handle the stifling land—and probably even further, to James Fenimore Cooper, to the pioneers, to the Pilgrims themselves. The consensus Sayers places before World War II probably never existed, certainly not in America after the initial Puritan colonies; fewer Americans, after all, regularly went to church in the 1760s and 1770s than now, celebrity pastors or not.
I talk mostly about America because it is my area of specialization, but why stop there? Despite Sayers’s assertion that “road culture” is a contemporary phenomenon, you can see pretty heavy traces of it throughout the literature of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, from Medieval hagiography to Everyman to The Canterbury Tales to Margery Kempe to Pilgrim’s Progress. Sayers attempts to account for this earlier peripatetic trend by suggesting that pilgrimages are different than road trips: “These journeys were focused on an eternal destination, a spiritual transformation of the individual. Today, however, the ‘pilgrimage’ is all about the individual’s own life journey.” I am not sure what distinction he is drawing here, other than that post-Christian pilgrimages are earth- rather than heaven-focused—and if that’s true, contemporary “road culture” is merely a manifestation of secularization rather than creating it.
Sayers’s great flaw, then, is his tendency to paint with too broad of a brush—and a related one is that he cannot pick a single method of analysis. If he did, he would be able to adequately develop it and demonstrate the complexity of Western secularization. You simply cannot arrive at an appropriate general analysis in a 271-page popular-level book, and it’s insulting to your audience and dangerous for the uninformed to try. Sayers would have been better off talking about only a fragment of what he talks about here—an analysis of the change in the pilgrim motif through the influence of secularization, for example, would have made a much more interesting book, even a popular-level book.
His solution to the ills of the modern West, incidentally, is to suggest that his readers become “an old kind of Christian,” one built on covenant and community. I appreciate the sentiment (and the understated shot at Brian McLaren) and perhaps even agree with the solution—but the analysis that leads up to it does not earn the conclusion. There are a number of good ideas in The Road Trip That Changed the World, but ultimately, Sayers ruins all of them by taking on too many of them.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.