david brooks

Why David Brooks Is My Rabbi

Photo via Random House / RNS

Author David Brooks at home in Bethesda, Md. Photo via Random House / RNS

Is David Brooks becoming a Christian?

That’s the question that some people have been asking about The New York Times’ op-ed columnist, especially in the wake of his new book, The Road to Character.

As Jonathan Merritt wrote, “Brooks claims to have written his latest book ‘to save my soul,’ and he told NPR that reading books by authors such as Christian convert C.S. Lewis has ‘produced a lot of religious upsurge in my heart.’”

Q&A: David Brooks on Character, Sin, and Rumors About His Religious Journey

Photo courtesy of Random House / RNS

Author David Brooks at home, in Bethesda, Md. Photo courtesy of Random House / RNS

Brooks’ new book, The Road to Character, traces human virtue throughout the centuries, and then profiles a handful of “heroes of renunciation” who he believes serve as models of character. The book has sparked conversation about Brooks’ views on morality, theology, and even his own Jewish faith.

Brooks talked about society’s obsession with selfies, whether we’re too self-absorbed, and rumors about his own religious journey. Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.

'The Road to Character' Misses Grace

Cover art for "The Road to Character."

Cover art for "The Road to Character."

Virtue is worth thinking about. We should think, carefully, about the kind of person we want to be and the kind of habits we want to develop. In The Road to Character, Brooks asks these questions of us, rightly urging us to be concerned with developing an inner moral life of virtue and integrity. Unfortunately, his self-focused attitude toward morality leaves little room for grace for the morally weak — which is all of us.

When asked directly about the relation of grace and individual agency, at a recent Trinity Forum event, Brooks confessed that he simply didn’t know — that he had no idea which of the two should take precedence.

I don’t know Brooks’ personal faith, nor do I intend to cast aspersions on his morality. Still, he panders to all of my worst inclinations in writing The Road to Character as a stoic moral theology, with only slight glimmers of grace to lighten the way. Brooks holds up several vastly different exemplars of a moral life, from Montaigne to Eisenhower, who are united in a certain integrity and humility — an unwillingness to be governed by circumstances that are outside of our control, while focusing on the things that we can.

Brooks reduces God to being a helper needed by some, while others are perfectly capable of struggling through their moral issues alone. To Brooks, a self-built journalist should be imitated as much as a grace-oriented social worker, or a novelist who was motivated by adulterous love as much as a bishop who was driven by love for God. In his moral universe, there are many ways of developing yourself. The better ones focus on building virtues rather than a resume, but all provide pathways for individual development.

David Brooks and Religious Hostility: Tasting Goodness

Boundary illustration, Bohbeh/ Shutterstock.com

Boundary illustration, Bohbeh/ Shutterstock.com

In his New York Times column, Alone, Yet Not Alone,” David Brooks laments the “strong vein of hostility against orthodox religious believers in America today, especially among the young.” Even more disturbing for Brooks is that in his experience, the opinion of young people is too often justified. He observes that religious believers can be “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” “old-fashioned,” and “out of touch,” and he wonders why that’s so. Brooks, who is Jewish, knows that the Judeo-Christian tradition reveals a God who desires mercy and not sacrifice, who calls us toward a radical love that includes our enemies. As evidence of the core of orthodox belief, he offers two giants of the Judeo-Christian tradition, Rabbi Abraham Heschel and Augustine, who give testimony to lives of compassion and love inspired by devotion to the biblical God. Lives that tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty as essential components rather than disqualifiers of faith.

So what gives? Why do religious believers spend so much energy reinforcing their (our – I’m one of those orthodox believers) borders, building thicker and higher dividing walls designed to keep out the underserving, the sinners whom not even God can love? Just who is kept out varies widely, but it seems religious people are utterly convinced that they are on the inside with God. No doubt about it. Musing on this sad fact, Brooks comments:

There must be something legalistic in the human makeup, because cold, rigid, unambiguous, unparadoxical belief is common, especially considering how fervently the Scriptures oppose it.

Brooks is on to something here – there is something rooted in our “human makeup” that the Scriptures fervently oppose, but it is not legalism per se.

Our Broken Social Contract

Throughout the years, authors and academic scholars have studied and revealed their opinions of whether economic equality is in fact possible in the United States. A variety of them pose the question of whether or not social struggles in the U.S. stem from economic injustices, or from the lack of our own moral responsibility. The New York Times reports:

With the blessing of the new right, Krueger argues, corporate America has abandoned its commitment to the commonweal over the past three decades. It no longer honors norms of fairness and equality. To Krueger, it is in the economic sphere that American integrity has been eroded and its ideals corrupted.

Read more here.

David Brooks, Producing People, and Saving the World

Wall Street sign outside New York Stock Exchange, Stuart Monk / Shutterstock.com

Wall Street sign outside New York Stock Exchange, Stuart Monk / Shutterstock.com

New York Times op-ed columnist, David Brooks, responded, this week, to an intriguing article in the Washington Post about Jason Trigg, a recent MIT graduate, who chose a career on Wall Street as a way to redistribute wealth. 

Trigg’s plan is simple. Make lots of money. Live simply. Give lots of money. It’s not far from John Wesley’s advice of, “Earn all you can. Give all you can. Save all you can.”  Actually, it’s almost identical.

Brooks perceptively sees the dangers and pitfalls in the road ahead. Most specifically, wealth and the surrounding environment can have a corrosive effect, no matter good our intentions. Brooks writes:

…the brain is a malleable organ. Every time you do an activity, or have a thought, you are changing a piece of yourself into something slightly different than it was before. Every hour you spend with others, you become more like the people around you.

Gradually, you become a different person. If there is a large gap between your daily conduct and your core commitment, you will become more like your daily activities and less attached to your original commitment.

But, while I echo Brooks concern, I disagree with his ultimate conclusion. He goes on to argue that we should pursue careers that elicit passion (seeming to indicate that hedge funds couldn’t be a passion for some people) and that if we truly care about children in Africa, it’s best to go there – not Wall Street.

David Brooks on 'The Structural Revolution'

For the International Herald Tribune yesterday, David Brooks examines what he perceives as the coming 'structural revolution' in the global economy:

"The country is divided when different people take different sides in a debate. The country is really divided when different people are having entirely different debates. That’s what’s happening on economic policy....

Make no mistake, the old economic and welfare state model is unsustainable. The cyclicalists want to preserve the status quo, but structural change is coming."
Read his full analysis here