A (Dis)content Generation
Jack Kerouac famously felt the gravitational pull of people “mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved,” who “burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”
I know mad ones, people like those Kerouac describes—they both inspire and scare the hell out of me. Their desires, like circus cannons, fire them out into the world. Perpetually restless, they travel from experience to experience, afraid to sit still, to stagnate. This ever-forward motion leads them to the underseen edges of experience; just as often, they fail to account for who and what they leave behind.
On the other side of Kerouac’s road, people who fail because they never try. These people experience contentment not as a state of holy satisfaction, but an excuse for complacency.
The title of this column, which I started just more than a year ago, works itself out in two ways. I hope to push back against a dilution of craft and meaning, a wave of diminishing returns crashing against the shore when we uncritically accept the job description of content creators.
Those two words send a shiver through me. “Content creator” provokes visions of listicles and fleeting filler, of people using—or misusing—their gifts in service of work that will be swallowed up in a moment, spit out the next.
Last weekend, the gifted author D.L. Mayfield asked her Twitter followers why they write; the replies I read tapped into a desire for connection and understanding, a need to treat others and ourselves as fully human. Mere content creation fails these aims. Sure, we all welcome a moment of levity, a temporary trivial pursuit. But which is the exception, and which is the rule?
The second meaning stretches out like a hand of welcome. The people I align with and aspire to become carry some of Kerouac’s mad gene. But they express their madness in a particular place, among a people. The Wendell Berrys, Eugene Petersons, Mary Olivers, and Dallas Willards of the world write as if grasping for a world just outside their own. Yet they believe they will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living, traces of heaven in the stuff of earth.
I find another model in the way of Paul, the original mad disciple. In Philippians, he testifies to learning the secret of contentment, yet breathlessly race toward a holy prize yet on the horizon.
I apprentice at the Jesus-washed feet of these saints. I long to live a restless existence, unsatisfied both with the world outside my front door and within the hidden spaces in me. But, if I believe everything my eyes, ears and experiences tell me, this restlessness finds its fullest expression within covenant commitments, not in vision-less careening.
My friend Jenny the painter spent years creating images of solitary trees. Like a pop song stuck in her head, she meditated on a Brother Lawrence quote as she worked: “The secret to the life of a tree is that it remains rooted in something deeper than itself.” I picture Jenny’s trees as I ponder the lives of people I respect. Branches stretching outward and upward toward something more, yet rooted in that which gives it the life and freedom to reach.
I hope that a holy discontent animates this column—something which grasps rather than grumbles. I pray my words reach out and up for more faith. More peace and love. More dignity for my fellow man. More of Christ—and more of the abundant life he actively stitches into the world by the power of his life, death, and resurrection.
In the movie Stranger Than Fiction, Will Ferrell plays a number-cruncher two ticks short of mild-mannered. Discovering that he is actually the creation of a novelist—who intends to kill him off—he moves with fresh purpose and risks big, fueled by his discontent with living the rest of his life in the grip of the status quo. Knowing the end of the story changes how we live in the story.
Christians know the end of the story. The knowledge of the glory of the Lord filling up the earth like waters covering the sea. Every one of our faithless deeds forgiven. Everything stolen from us returned—and then some. Knowing the end of the story, we live restlessly in the present.
May we be a generation discontent with civic religion, false choices and slandering our neighbor as we slander ourselves. Discontent with sin and division, with the homemade walls which keep God and others at a distance. Impatient for the end, restless to see the world look more and more like itself. Resting in God’s promise that it will.
Jesus fuels and fulfills our discontent. He supplies our every spiritual need. He holds the promise of recreation in front of us, and calls us to chase the light of that day. Restless yet reaching, discontent yet satisfied in him, we strive for the better things.
We long to see every trace of racism and misogyny, every scar from sexual and domestic abuse, every broken marriage, every fear and doubt, dissolved by the brilliance of Jesus’ presence, like a billion Roman candles, like the light of the world that he is.
And we work believing it will be so. The truly mad ones, filled with a discontent that spills out of us, bringing peace and rightness to everything it touches. If you judge my words, judge them by this standard. And let’s be discontent together.
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