“Beats and Beatitudes”

2. The Beat Goes On

Matthew 5:1-12

First Presbyterian Church of Jamestown , New York

The Reverend Thomas A. Sweet

June 29, 2008

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Our sermon series this summer, entitled “Beats and Beatitudes,” means to employ the insights of and about the “beat” social, cultural, and literary movement of the late 1940s and 1950s to illuminate our reading in our day of the Beatitudes of Jesus.  “Beat culture” sometimes has been caricatured as drug-addled and sex-crazed, and there were some “beats” who were so inclined, but, at its core, the beat movement was a spiritual quest.  Jack Kerouac, usually considered the father of the beat generation and author of the iconic novel On the Road, wrote that

                                    …beat doesn’t mean tired or bushed or beat up so much as it

                                    means beato, the Italian for beatific: to be in a state of beatitude,

                                    like St. Francis, trying to love all life, trying to be utterly sincere

                                    with everyone, practicing endurance, kindness, cultivating joy of

                                    heart.  (The question is), how can this be done in our mad modern

                                    world of multiplicities and millions?…


Peter Gilmour teaches at Loyola University in Chicago and, in his article entitled “Blessed are the Beatniks,” he claimed that  

                                    Kerouac was enchanted by the mysticism of the Beatitudes.  Kerouac

                                    was a deeply religious writer who once responded to a divinity student’s

                                    question about the theme of his book, On the Road, by saying, “It

                                    really was a story about two Catholic buddies roaming the country in

                                    search of God.  And we found him.”


What do I know about the beat generation?  Frankly, not much, though I am learning.  There surely was never a time in my life when I could have been mistaken for a beatnik.  Well, I did kind of have long hair for a few years in college.  The thing is, though, I went to Grove City and, trust me, that is the last campus this side of Venus and Mars on which you will find a beatnik.  I took up the guitar a lot of years ago for a couple of weeks but I could tell by the look on Andy Schmidt’s face who tried to teach me that I ought to take up something else, anything else.  The closest I ever came to hallucinating on drugs was one day a few years ago when I took a double dose one of Claritin for my allergies.  I never wore jeans to school a day in my life and, my first car being a Pinto, well, hipster-dom has eluded me.  Though I was born in the 50s, I was not “beat” material.  Except that, from an early age, I knew myself to be on a spiritual quest, sometimes painfully so.  I still am.  Come to think of it, the fact that I hated to miss even a single Sunday of worship as a teenager was pretty counter-cultural.  

Kerouac insisted that he and his fellow Beats really were pilgrims on a religious and spiritual quest in the new and uncertain land that America had become following the most horrific war in human history.  To the larger society, however, the persons identifying themselves as part of the Beat Generation of the late 1940s and 1950s appeared to be the very antithesis of the religious and spiritual ethos of the post-World War II years in America . To think of religion and spirituality in the America of the 1950s was to think of Billy Graham crusades or the early television broadcasts of preachers like Bishop Fulton J. Sheen.  It is to remember the construction boom of mainline Protestant churches in America ’s newly emerging suburbs and Sunday Schools bursting at their seams.  It is to recollect President Eisenhower opening his 1953 Inaugural Address by asking the nation to join him in a word of prayer.  To disavow or ignore traditional religion, as it was then conventionally understood, was to place oneself under suspicion of not quite being a real and true American.  When, in 1954, the United States Congress, by Official Act, added the words "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag, it was reflecting and validating this cultural ethos.  

But those who generally are credited with coining the name Beat Generation, people like Jack Kerouac and John Clellon Holmes, spoke of it in clearly religious terms.  What Kerouac and Holmes both had recognized was a kind of uneasiness and furtiveness among people their age.  These people still had most of their lives in front of them, and they were wondering and asking, “What's next?" and “Where do we go from here?” following the most devastating war that human beings had ever waged.  To be “Beat,” as Holmes and Kerouac saw it, was to be reduced to one's essentials.  It was to have all one’s pretexts, poses, and pretensions stripped away and to find oneself facing such bare-naked questions as, "Who am I?" and "How do I make sense of my life as well as Life itself?"  These questions had taken on a new kind of immediacy in a world that just had witnessed death on a level never before known in human history and had seen the expendability and disposability of human life demonstrated in ways and to an extent never before imagined.  These are ongoing and universal questions, however, now as well as then. They pose themselves again and again to any of us who have any capacity at all for self-reflection.  “Who am I?”  “How do I make sense of my life as well as Life itself?”   

Kerouac linked the term “Beat” with Beatitude, saying that to be Beat was to show kindness, compassion, and sympathy in a culture that demonstrated very little of those qualities toward anyone who did not attune themselves to the culture’s majority ethos and values.  Kerouac drew on the Beatitudes as put forth by Jesus of Nazareth in the Sermon on the Mount for his explanation of what it meant to be “Beat.”  For Kerouac, “beat” also meant a kind of sadness, a sense of life’s tragic dimension, and of the need to find joy in the face of sadness and tragedy.  

The original Beats wrote against the backdrop of a world that had witnessed death on a scale never before experienced.  There were battlefield deaths, the deaths of civilian populations across Europe, the systematic and assembly-line deaths of the Holocaust, and the mega-death and destruction brought on by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki .  With this kind of death-laden backdrop, the real religious and spiritual challenge of the 1950s was how meaningfully to live after a time in which life had been made to look very cheap.  

The mainstream American response to this challenge, for the most part, was to place a veneer of normalcy and conformity over the fears, disruptions, and hunger for meaning that World War II evoked, a time to assert that, once again, “everything is all right” and “back to business as usual.”  Except that it wasn’t.  And isn’t.  It never is, really, not if we dare to lift the veneer with which our cultural overseers want us to be content.  The spiritual restlessness felt by those who refused to be anesthetized to reality gave rise to the beats then and to those of us who in our own time want to live with eyes and souls wide open to the truth beyond the veneer.  Listen to this short passage from the beat novel called Go by John Holmes as he writes of a fictitious, but nonetheless real, New York City jazz club called The Go Hole:  

“These restless youngsters (were) finding a passion in this music [jazz] that belonged defiantly to them… The Go Hole was where all the high school bands, the swing bands, and the roadhouses of their lives had led these young people, and above it all was their vision of a wartime America as a monstrous dance land...  In this modern jazz, they heard something rebel and nameless and their lives knew a gospel for the first time.  It was more than a kind of music; it became an attitude toward life…and these introverted kids (emotional outcasts of a war they had been too young to join, or in which they had lost their innocence), who had never belonged anywhere before, now felt (belonging) somewhere at last.”   

“Their lives knew a gospel for the first time…”  Holmes used an interesting choice of words.  His restless kids were looking for a gospel.  As are ours.  As are we all.  When Holmes wrote of how the Beat Generation was occupied with a “need for faith” he meant they were looking for something to believe in at a time when authentic faith options beyond cliché, platitude, and party line seemed slim.  And if the jazz musicians and the poets provided the music and substance of this gospel, then the Beats were the gospel writers.  If the role of mainstream religion with its traditional gospel was to maintain the veneer of normalcy, it was the Beats who were pushing and probing beneath the veneer.  

That is what Jesus did, too, pushing and probing beneath the veneer of life to uncover where the true blessing and blessings of life may be found.  Here is a clue: they are not found where we usually think they are, for as Jesus said:  

                                    Blessed are the poor in spirit…

                                    Blessed are those who mourn…

                                    Blessed are the meek…

                                    Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…

                                    Blessed are the merciful…

                                    Blessed are the pure in heart…

                                    Blessed are the peacemakers…

                                    Blessed are those who are persecuted for their loyalty to God’s way of life…  

“To be yourself,” poet e.e. cummings wrote, “in a world that is doing its best, day and night, to ask you to be like everybody else – is to fight the hardest battle any human being can fight.”  The beat generation of the mid-twentieth century, like the beat generation of the first century that Jesus inaugurated, encourages us in our struggle to become as fully and truly human as we can.  We need the Beatitudes to help us to do that.  So they will comprise the substance of our worship here this summer as the “beat” goes on in us.  


This sermon is greatly indebted not only to the literature of the “beat generation” such as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road but also to Stephen D. Edington’s fine book, The Beat Face of God: The Beat Generation as Spiritual Guides (Trafford Publishing, 2006).

© Copyright 2008 First Presbyterian Church

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