The October issue of First Things also includes a thoughtful reflection by R. R. Reno on Kerouac’s book On the Road.
These are the paragraphs from the article that I found most thought-provoking:
The Beats were quintessential bohemians who felt the plain-Jane expectations of middle-class American life as an infecting, constraining force. Wife, career, mortgage, children, savings accounts, and quiet suburban streets: These were realities overlaid by the deadening expectations of conventional morality. Escape was essential, and, although Kerouac and the other Beats lacked Rousseau’s clarity about the constant impulse of human nature to accept and submit to social authority, they intuitively recognized the need for dramatic acts and symbols of transgression.
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In 1957, the New York Times review hailed the novel’s publication as “a historic occasion.” The review trumpeted that On the Road offers “the clearest and most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as ‘beat,’ and whose principle avatar he is.” Of course, as David Brooks so cleverly observed in Bobos in Paradise, we’re all weekend beatniks now. The counterculture of transgression that dominates On the Road has thoroughly colonized our middle-class world.
Transgression and marginality have become the new normalcy. The bohemian rejection of social convention was first theorized as a normal stage of psychological development (“adolescent rebellion”), and more recently it has been made into both commercial fashions and academic dogma. Aging rock musicians go on tours and play their songs of youthful lust and rebellion to graying Baby Boomers . . . . College professors theorize transgression as an act of political freedom. It’s easy to see that Kerouac’s road that leads from the Beat fantasies of primal innocence to our own day, where white boys from the suburbs dress like drug dealers, girls like prostitutes, and millionaires like dock workers. Crotch-grabbing rap singers play the role of well-paid Dean Moriartys.
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It is as if we very much want to believe in Dean, but, like Sal at the end of On the Road, we know we cannot rely on him to give us guidance. We want to believe the promises of bohemian life—to live according to our own innermost selves—but we are surrounded by the sadness of disappointed hope. The transgressive heroism of our imagination now looks as tawdry as daytime television. Bohemianism becomes banal and disappointing as it becomes dominant. We suffer the failures of the countercultural project even as we surround ourselves with its music, its rhetorical postures, and its fashions.
These paragraphs raise this question: If the current culture’s music, postures, and fashions reflect a “banal” and “tawdry” culture of transgression seeking to escape from conventional (and oftentimes Biblical) morality, then should not the church reject this culture’s music, postures, and fashions? Should not the church be culturally distinct in ways that point the surrounding society beyond its own cultural failures toward the culture of shalom that Christ will establish at his return?