Jack Kerouac & The Use Of Labels

Some time ago, I picked up the original scroll version of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, “the legendary first draft – rougher, wilder, and racier than the 1957 edition,” as the front cover states. I’d like to say that I bought this particular edition because I wanted to glimpse the raw creative, literary genius of The Beat King. Truth be told, I was struggling to keep my one-year-old from pulling books off every shelf she could reach, so I quickly grabbed the first one I found that looked like the cheaper, paperback version.

The first hundred pages or so of this edition consists of introductory essays by academics. One essay by Penny Vlagopoulos, however, got my attention and actually convinced me to bypass the other essays and jump into the novel itself.

Here’s one quote from Vlagopoulos that I got particularly excited about:

“[Kerouac] understood how the radical potential of art becomes sanitized in shadow versions that distill the critiques behind the original creative articulations. . . Kerouac refused the rigidity and reductiveness of categories. On the Road asks that people find the beauty in failed journeys, in the discovery of personal excess, in feeling the sting of limits, but these are the boundaries around which humanness is constructed. Labels, on the other hand, can sometimes evacuate the presence of that which they attempt to contain.” (emphasis mine)

I find so many parallels here with current discussions in modern Christianity. Many leaders engaged in the battle for a proper definition of terms such as “missional” or “postmodern” or even “Evangelical” would do well to be reminded of that last statement about labels.

Beyond the labels being debated within the shrinking circles of Christian subculture, the persistent use of the term “faith-based” gets very problematic, often in ways that bring unnecessary limitations to the work of Christ-followers attempting to promote justice and social good in society.

It begs the question(s) for those of us trying to be on mission with God outside of church programs: Is it necessary to label our efforts “faith-based” in order to stay true to our missionary calling in society? Or can we move ahead in our efforts to promote the transformational ways of the Kingdom in substance but drop the label?

Funny enough, in the U.S. this only seems to be an issue that confronts Christians in the nonprofit sector. Christians who are business owners are (mostly) NOT expected to call their businesses “faith-based,” even if they’re serious about their missionary calling as Christ-followers.

So what say you? Is the “faith-based” label necessary? If not how can we continue to be faithful to our missionary calling as Christ-followers without it?