On the road with Jack Kerouac and Rosa Parks

A review of PostChristian: what’s left? can we fix it? do we care? by Christian Piatt (New York: Jericho Books, 2014)

PiattIn chapter two of this book, Christian Piatt describes his ambivalent response when as a young person he read On the Road by Jack Kerouac. The first time through he was puzzled because “nothing actually ­happens in the story.”

More than a year later, Piatt realized that “the journey, and the adventures along the way, was the whole point. . .Once I surrendered to the idea that a story didn’t have to have good guys and bad guys, didn’t have to have a clear beginning, middle, and ending, didn’t have to conform to a predictable formula, I enjoyed On the Road” (11).

After proposing that “the journey itself is the point,” Piatt adopts a more conventional pattern to organize the next hundred pages. He sets up and discusses a series of contrasting vices and virtues that characterize power-bearing, theologically conservative, institution-bound churches. His exposition draws extensively upon the work of Bart D. Ehrman, John D. Caputo, and Peter Rollins. Following Rollins’ lead, Piatt is ready to let old systems and ideas burn away so that something new can come to life.

In chapters thirteen through seventeen, Piatt returns to his first metaphor and takes to the road once again. He describes growing up in a conservative denomination that emphasized the importance of memorizing Scripture and using it to keep sinners from going to Hell. “My daily decisions . . . were increasingly governed by fear and guilt rather than by love or a sense of what was right” (147).

The foundation of the Christianity in which he was reared was a God understood as “a terrible, jealous, ferocious creature [who] hungered for vengeance, called for the death of his innocent son, and condemned much of his own beloved creation to eternal suffering.” Piatt cites studies that show how this understanding of God is associated with “an increase in social anxiety, paranoia, obsession, and compulsion. Conversely, belief in a benevolent God is associated with reductions in these four symptoms” (151).

He refers to other studies which indicate that nearly half of all Americans, irrespective of religious affiliation, “perceive God as fundamentally angry” (150). This theology also emphasizes suffering and death as the punishment we receive at the hands of an angry God. Consequently, Christians are “often poorly equipped to deal with people’s present fears, struggles, and suffering in effective ways,” and many people are afraid of death.

With Psalm 23 as his scriptural reference, Piatt continues his journey, writing that we would like “a way around the hard reality of dealing with our fears, a panacea that will make it all better. But in this Psalm, the darkness is still there, as is the evil all around. . .Rather than finding an easy way out, it’s about summoning the courage to make it through” (154).

He recounts other moments in his journey: a hiking trip in the Pecos Mountains when he was in junior high, experiences and insights drawn from a ministry with his wife in a new church designed to reach out to people like himself, and experiences in his family and others that show people struggling with the temptations and challenges of faith that are encountered in our society today.

During this part of the journey, Piatt gradually becomes aware of a cluster of theological ideas that are radically different from those that had been so damaging earlier in his journey. This new theological vision is brought into sharpest focus by Jesus who “was abandoned by all who claimed to love him. . . and taunted and tortured by figures of authority. All of this was because he refused to abandon his message of radical, empire-shaking love that stood firm in the face of any force, fear, or hate intent on destruction” (178).

Piatt points to the road ahead and encourages us to move forward boldly. In the process, he warns his readers that many things will change: ways of worship, patterns of association, understandings of the faith, and expectations of what happens when we die. Although we will never experience it fully, we will have glimpses here in this life of the kingdom of God breaking in upon us.

At this point in his story, Piatt tells his reader about the moment when he and his family discerned with new clarity that just up ahead of them there were other travelers, including Rosa Parks and a host of other ordinary Christians whom God had used “to change history, hopefully forever” (203). Piatt concludes his book by restating the theme of earlier chapters in the book, that Christians often get bogged down in the journey, teaching bad ideas, investing too much stock in institutions, and maintaining alliances with principalities and powers.

“Meanwhile, something calls us forward. Toward what, we’re not entirely sure. It’s a story only partially written and still in progress” (205). This sentence is a fine way to close a book that keeps looking at the road behind us and could be the organizing idea for another book, a book in which Piatt describes the landscape ahead and invites us to join him as we all take to the road again.

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