Across the bar of an American tavern leaned a young man still in his late teens. His hair flopped loosely over his ears in a disorderly tangled mop, and his rumpled sport shirt and soiled slacks hung carelessly on his frame as he toyed with a glass of beer and gazed vacantly into the mirror before him. One foot kept time with the monotonous rhythm of the juke box that was blaring out the latest popular hit. He was one of those whom Time magazine defined as “oddballs who celebrate booze, dope, sex, and despair, and who go by the name of ‘beatniks’.”
These self-conscious victims of fear and futility may be found anywhere among the younger set today. Two world wars, bringing destruction, taxation, and compulsory military service in their wake, have shattered the hopes of many for a peaceful and orderly life ending in some measure of personal success. As one young fellow put it, “Life is only a pile of rubbish. What have we to look forward to? Somebody is going to start a war, and we go into the army. Then an atomic bomb will drop, and it will be all over.” The inevitable result of such thinking is to while away the intervening hours as pleasantly as possible; to spend all your money now because it may be worthless tomorrow; to accept futility as your goal; and to stop the arduous process of thinking or believing because it will accomplish nothing anyway.
Such an attitude is spiritual suicide. To look upon life as utterly meaningless is equivalent to repudiating God and resigning oneself to an everlasting emptiness. Culture, morality, and faith alike perish in the blackness of this chaos.
Although the consciousness that the world is too much for us may be more acute today than ever before, it is by no means new. Jesus encountered this same attitude as he stood with his disciples in the upper room just before going to the cross. As he declared to them the inescapable outcome of the hatred of the chief priests and of their resolution to kill him, the disciples were plunged into an abyss of despair. They could not understand why their national leaders should be so blind to the obvious greatness of Jesus’ person. The essential injustice of condemning him to death as a blasphemer when his life had been devoted to teaching truth seemed a monstrous incongruity. The whole situation did not make sense, and they protested loudly. They felt beaten by the wall of irrational injustices that confronted them.
The fourteenth chapter of John records how Jesus dealt with these “beatniks” of his own time. Four types are presented in the four questions that were asked of him as he endeavored to unfold the program of God.
PETER, THE ACTIVIST
When Jesus announced that he was about to leave his disciples, Peter asked immediately, “Lord, whither goest thou?” (John 13:36). Upon Jesus’ reply that he could not follow at that moment, Peter pressed the question further: “Why cannot I follow thee now? I will lay down my life for thy sake!” (13:36, 37). The idea that Jesus was going to some place without him was more than Peter could endure. Of all the disciples, he was most nearly like the Americans in temperament, for he had to be doing something in order to be happy. There was little time for contemplation in Peter’s life. “Act first—ask questions afterward” was his motto.
Such activism leads to frustration because it is often mistaken or pointless. Peter was not ready to follow Jesus, even though his intentions were good. Consequently Jesus said with penetrating insight, “Wilt thou lay down thy life for my sake? Verily, verily I say unto thee, The cock shall not crow, till thou hast denied me thrice” (John 13:38). He had to disabuse Peter of his self-confidence before he could impart to him a true faith.
Jesus’ words were a shock to the other disciples. If Peter failed, what would happen to them? A cold wave of discouragement swept over them all. Jesus, noting their pale faces and downcast eyes, spoke a word of cheer: “Let not your heart be troubled; keep on believing in God, keep on believing in me” (John 14:1; original translation). For the “beatniks” who feel that there is no certain destiny and that their activity is beating the air, Jesus had an answer. Confidence in God and in himself can give them courage.
THOMAS, THE PESSIMIST
Thomas, another of the disciples, was utterly skeptical about any certainty. “Lord,” he said respectfully but bluntly, “we know not whither thou goest, and how can we know the way?” (14:5). He felt that action was not only futile, but impossible. Like men trapped in a cave, the disciples could not escape, nor could they see if any avenues of escape might exist.
To this deep-seated hopelessness Jesus brought three answers. First he said, “I am the way” (14:6). Having experienced all the essential aspects of human life, he was familiar with its hunger, poverty, toil, and temptation. Knowing it completely, he was competent to guide men through it.
But what does life mean? Is there any final criterion by which its worth can be judged, or is it to be evaluated only in terms of the present advantages? To the “beatnik” of our generation, expediency and pleasure are the sole criteria; there is no everlasting truth, or if there is, it is undiscoverable. Jesus, however, said simply, “I am the truth.” No two men can or will agree on a definition of truth in all details, but as they engage in a personal relation with Him, they can develop convictions of what is right and wrong. His person becomes the standard for all living.
Thomas’ despairing words imply that he had lost incentive for living. If work is futile and if truth is unattainable, life is valueless. The logical conclusion would be to ring down the curtain on such an empty farce. Surely Jesus himself, who had seen his deepest teachings go unheeded, his greatest miracles overlooked, and his appeal to his nation rejected, would have lost his interest in life. On the contrary, he said, “I am the life.” He possessed both the incentive and the dynamic for the fullest activity, for in doing the will of God he found the answer to the “beatnik” philosophy.
PHILIP, THE MATERIALIST
It is not surprising that the “beat generation” should be materialistic. If the spiritual values of life have evaporated, the material values are all that remain. When Jesus spoke of the Father, Philip said with deep sincerity and with pathetic eagerness, “Lord, shew us the Father, and it sufficeth us” (John 14:8). He knew that Jesus was always conscious of the reality of God, but could he find it? God was to him a beautiful abstraction who could become real only when manifested to his senses.
For Philip Jesus had a ready reply. “Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? He that hath seen me hath seen the Father …” (John 14:9). By His person, in whom the Father dwelt and to whom the Father was intimately near, the reality of God was demonstrated. If Philip could accept Jesus’ truthfulness, he would have to believe that the Father was real to Jesus, and therefore potentially real for him also.
The words of Jesus (14:10) were audible and understandable. Philip could not deny their meaning and maintain any communication at all. If therefore he admitted that Jesus spoke the truth, he would have to concede the reality of the Father, though the Father was invisible and inaudible.
The works of Jesus were even stronger evidence (14:10, 11). Philip had seen Jesus turn water into wine, and, with the rest of the disciples, had “believed” (2:11). He had participated in feeding the crowd with bread and fish which Jesus had multiplied from a small boy’s lunch. He had seen the sick healed instantly of chronic disease, and had stood at the grave of Lazarus when Jesus called him back to life. If he wanted material evidence for the existence of God, the works of Jesus supplied it.
JUDAS, THE RELIGIONIST
As Jesus spoke of the revelation which he intended to give to the disciples Judas (not Iscariot) raised a question: “Lord, how is it that thou wilt manifest thyself unto us and not unto the world?” (John 14:22). The idea of any special manifestation of God to the disciples, and not accessible to the multitude as a whole, seemed ridiculous to him, or at least dubious. Would not further revelation be impossible, and would he not be doomed to everlasting ignorance or uncertainty?
Jesus assured him that God’s love could leap any barrier, and could penetrate any resistance. “We”—the Father and He—“will come unto him and make our abode with him” (14:23). He promised that the Holy Spirit, who is not circumscribed by space and time, would come after his departure and would continue the work that he had begun. The “beat generation” cannot complain that God is inaccessible or silent. He communicates with men through the Spirit who is always in tune with the times and whose message is consequently always relevant.
For this bewildered and frustrated generation Jesus offers an adequate solution to the problems of life. He alone is competent to plumb the depths of the human spirit and comprehend its deep desires. In his imperative call is the challenge that can lift it out of blankness and despair.
To the activist, who wants to do something but does not know what direction to take, He says “Follow me.” Though his realism included the cross, he knew the way through humiliation and death to triumph.
To the pessimist, who had given up all expectation of happiness and even the very concept of attainment, Jesus said, “Trust me.” Nobody ever had a better right than he to be pessimistic, for he was confronted by a failure totally undeserved and humanly inexplicable. Nevertheless he trusted the Father completely, and in the hour when his life was crushed by his enemies he cried out, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). Truly, our Lord Jesus Christ demonstrated the power of complete faith in God.
To the materialist, he said, “Know me.” His personality gives the lie to the dogma that reality belongs only to the world of sense, and that present possession is final good. He had no important property of his own. When he wanted a coin for an illustration, he had to borrow it. When he needed a place in which to meet his disciples, he arranged for the use of an upper room in another man’s house. His clothing was parted by his captors at the cross, and he was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. Better than any other he could have claimed to represent the “heat generation,” but he became for them the way back to God.
For the puzzled religionist, he provided the reality that all men seek. He offered no new and complex philosophy as a panacea for human bewilderment, but said, “If a man love me …” (14:23); and if men have become so sunk in their despair that they cannot love him, he says: “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).
Jesus’ attitude toward the “beatniks” among the disciples sets a pattern for our attitude. Because he walked the way to the Cross, he looked upon them with sympathy and compassion. He did not excuse their failures, but he prayed that they might come to share his victory. They are extreme examples of men and women who have made a cult of frustration, and who need our help to hear His Word of final counsel: “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
The poor in spirit and the poor in gifts
The rich in gifts and the poor in charity
The faithful though weak, the faithless strong
The calléd many, and the chosen few
False saints and sainted sinners:
Up to the altar they come
To Thee, the Sacrificéd Lamb of God
Who taketh away the sin of the world,
And even theirs, their sin.
And even mine, O Lord, even my sin against Thee,
Now enriched with thy peace
Let me, Thy faithless servant,
Disobedient disciple, wavering follower,
Depart from thy spread table
To return unto the world.
JOHN C. COOPER
Jacob J. Vellenga served on the National Board of Administration of the United Presbyterian Church from 1948–54. Since 1958 he has served the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. as Associate Executive. He holds the A.B. degree from Monmouth College, the B.D. from Pittsburgh-Xenia Seminary, Th.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and D.D. from Monmouth College, Illinois.
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