This collection of letters, two-thirds of which have never previously been published, follows the adventures of Kerouac and Ginsberg, as well as William S. Burroughs and many of their other friends, as their journeys crisscross the globe. The editors have provided helpful notes that fill in many of the gaps in the story of their friendship. This volume offers not only a captivating travelogue, but also is a helpful literary companion, as the writers frequently swap bits of poems and stories on which they are working, as well as comment on works-in-progress from each other and from friends. On one hand, the story of the friendship between Ginsberg and Kerouac is marked by the counter-cultural sort of lifestyle for which they have come to be known. On the other hand, however, their story could be read as stereotypical of American culture, the epitome if you will of individualism, characters driven through all kinds of adventures in search primarily of self-fulfillment.
There is much in the story of Kerouac and Ginsberg’s friendship from which churches can (and should) learn: their creativity, their keen and piercing critiques of the dominant culture and perhaps most of all their practice of what David Dark has called “the sacredness of questioning everything.” And yet, despite all their rage against the machinations of American culture, there were certain key tenets that they took as axiomatic and beyond question: individualism, the myth of redemptive violence, etc. Perhaps it is fair to say that while Kerouac and Ginsberg (and their tight-knit circle of Beat friends) were counter-cultural individuals, they failed to forge a counter-culture, but rather only spawned a generation of imitators and groupies. What churches need as we follow in the way of Jesus is not so much to be merely counter-cultural, but rather to be a “contrast society,” to borrow a term from the German theologian Gerhard Lohfink, a culture that not only stands against but also models in its life together a different way. We should follow in the footsteps of the Beats in questioning everything, but should do so not for reasons related to self-fulfillment, but rather out of faithfulness to the scriptural call to be a community of God’s people who together embody the self-denying love and reconciliation of Christ in a specific place. We should be a people in conversation among ourselves and our neighbors as well as with the key voices in the culture around us (e.g., in this case, the Beat Writers) – reading, talking, listening, even arguing at times and ultimately discerning what faithfulness to Jesus looks like in our particular places. And the starting point of this conversation must be for us, as it was for Jesus’s disciples, the three-fold commitment to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow Jesus. And maybe, just maybe, God will forge out of our meager faithfulness to our commitments and the chaos of our conversational life together, a counter-culture that does model a different and contrasting way.
IMAGE CREDIT: Brent Aldrich, from ERB Print Issue #1 (Advent 2010)