Posts tagged ‘David Brooks’

+ In Memoriam: George H.W. Bush +

When George H.W. Bush passed away nearly a week and a half ago, our nation lost a statesman, a war hero, and a president.

State funerals are relatively rare, but Mr. Bush, thanks in large part to his service to our nation as its president, received one.  However, when his son, George W. Bush, stood in the pulpit of the staid and storied National Cathedral to deliver a eulogy, he spoke not so much of Mr. Bush as a president, but as his father.  He reminisced:

To us, he was close to perfect.  But not totally perfect.  His short game was lousy.  He wasn’t exactly Fred Astaire on the dance floor.  The man couldn’t stomach vegetables, especially broccoli.  And by the way, he passed these genetic defects along to us.  Finally, every day of his 73 years of marriage, dad taught us all what it means to be a great husband.  He married his sweetheart.  He adored her.  He laughed and cried with her.  He was dedicated to her totally…

In his inaugural address, the 41st president of the United States said this:  “We cannot hope to only leave our children a bigger car, a bigger bank account.  We must hope to give them a sense of what it means to be a loyal friend, a loving parent.  A citizen who leaves his home, his neighborhood, and town better than he found it.  What do we want the men and women who work with us to say when we are no longer there?  That we were more driven to succeed than anyone around us, or that we stopped to ask if a sick child had gotten better, and stayed a moment there to trade a word of friendship?”  Well, dad, we’re gonna remember you for exactly that and much more.  And we are going to miss you.  Your decency, sincerity, and kind soul will stay with us forever.  So through our tears, let us know the blessings of knowing and loving you, a great and noble man, the best father a son or daughter can have.

It was this last line, at which the younger Bush choked up, that captured the hearts of many who were tuning into the service this past Wednesday, for his words were a reminder of what really matters in a life.  What is done from an oval-shaped office is certainly historically significant and nationally critical.  But what is done around a kitchen table is also significant and critical – perhaps even more so.  God calls us to love others personally long before He calls any of us to lead others politically.  George H.W. Bush knew this – and lived it.

In his book, The Road to Character, New York Times columnist David Brooks makes a distinction between what he calls “the resume virtues” and “the eulogy virtues.”  He writes:

Recently I’ve been thinking about the difference between the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues.  The resume virtues are the ones you list on your resume, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success.  The eulogy virtues are deeper.  They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being – whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.

At Mr. Bush’s funeral, the eulogy virtues were certainly on display.  And at a time when many are openly questioning whether or not these types of virtues really matter in public service, the life of George H.W. Bush reminds us that they certainly do.  The virtues we cultivate shape the decisions we make, the wisdom we display, and the legacy we leave.

With all of this being said, we must remember that, for all of George H.W. Bush’s commendable and imitable virtues, nobody is perfect.  The younger Bush said as much about his father.  But, of course, human imperfection goes far deeper and into much more shameful territory than the humorous examples given by George W. Bush of George H.W. Bush.  The younger Bush pulled a rhetorical sleight of hand as he spoke not so much of his father’s imperfections, but of his idiosyncrasies.  But each casket is a reminder that each of us has been infected by real imperfection, the wages of which is death (Romans 6:23).  This is why, as great and as needed as eulogy virtues are, they are not enough.  Something more is needed.

Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, pointed out that, at a certain moment in last Wednesday’s funeral service, during one of the prayers, Mr. Bush went from being referred to as “President George Herbert Walker Bush” and instead began being referred to as “our brother George.”  This was liturgically intentional.  The greatest thing that can be said about George H.W. Bush was not that he was a successful man with many resume virtues.  But it is also not that he was a good man with many eulogy virtues.  Instead, the greatest thing that can be said about George H.W. Bush was that he was a redeemed man, brought into the family of God by the blood of Christ – a brother in Christ.

The eulogy virtues extolled at last week’s funeral leave legacies, which make them of inestimable importance.  Redemption, however, gives hope, which makes it of eternal significance.  Our brother George may have been a good man, but, even better, one day, through faith in Christ, he will be a resurrected man.  His casket will be empty and last week’s funeral will be undone.  That’s Christ’s promise.  And that’s our hope.

Come, Lord Jesus.

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December 10, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The Scandals Keep Coming

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It’s far better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust any human. It’s far better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust any human leader. (Psalm 118:8-9)

If there were ever words we needed to read, re-read, and take to heart in the chaos of our heady political milieu, it would be these.  Our human leaders fail us again and again – time after time, leader after leader, politician after politician.

The latest political failures come conveniently in both a left and a right form – a liberal scandal and a conservative one.  On the liberal side, there is U.S. Senator Al Franken from Minnesota, who was revealed to have groped a radio newscaster during a 2006 U.S.O. tour.  The senator has issued an apology, but there are already questions boiling under the surface as to whether or not this kind of behavior was common for him.

On the conservative side, there is the candidate for the U.S. Senate, Judge Roy Moore from Alabama, who stands accused making unwanted advances at female teenagers in the early 80s and, according to the two most serious allegations, sexually assaulting one girl who, at the time, was 14 and attacking another girl who, at the time, was 16, by squeezing her neck and attempting to force her head into his groin.  Judge Moore was in his 30s when the alleged assaults took place and he has denied the allegations.

Senators Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer have called for an investigation of Senator Franken by the Senate Ethics Committee, a move which Senator Franken himself supports.  Politicians on both sides of the aisle have called on Judge Moore to drop out of the Alabama Senate race, with some interesting exceptions.  Alabama State Auditor Jim Zeigler defended the judge’s alleged actions using what can only be described as a tortured – and, it must be added, an incorrect and incoherent –theological logic, saying:

Take the Bible – Zechariah and Elizabeth, for instance.  Zechariah was extremely old to marry Elizabeth and they became the parents of John the Baptist.  Also, take Joseph and Mary.  Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter.  They became parents of Jesus.  There’s just nothing immoral or illegal here.  Maybe just a little bit unusual.

Alabama Representative Mo Brooks defended Judge Moore more straightforwardly by calculating the political cost of electing a Democrat to the Senate instead of a firebrand conservative like the judge.  He said:

America faces huge challenges that are vastly more important than contested sexual allegations from four decades ago … Who will vote in America’s best interests on Supreme Court justices, deficit and debt, economic growth, border security, national defense, and the like?  Socialist Democrat Doug Jones will vote wrong.  Roy Moore will vote right.  Hence, I will vote for Roy Moore.

Whether among Democrats or Republicans, it seems as though the stakes on every election, every seat, every position, and every appointment – yea, every scrap of political power – have become sky high.  A national apocalypse, it can feel like, is only one political loss away.

New York Times columnist David Brooks recently bemoaned how our perceived astronomical political stakes have turned politics itself into an idol for many in our society.  He wrote:

People on the left and on the right who try to use politics to find their moral meaning are turning politics into an idol.  Idolatry is what happens when people give ultimate allegiance to something that should be serving only an intermediate purpose, whether it is money, technology, alcohol, success or politics.

In his column, Mr. Brooks quotes Andy Crouch, who is the executive editor at Christianity Today, and his excellent description of what idols do in his book Playing God:

All idols begin by offering great things for a very small price.  All idols then fail, more and more consistently, to deliver on their original promises, while ratcheting up their demands, which initially seemed so reasonable, for worship and sacrifice.  In the end they fail completely, even as they make categorical demands.  In the memorable phrase of the psychiatrist Jeffrey Satinover, idols ask for more and more, while giving less and less, until eventually they demand everything and give nothing.[1]

This is most certainly true.  All idols fail.  This means that if we fancy our politicians to be saviors who can rescue us from the wiles of our political opponents and some looming national apocalypse, those for whom we vote will inevitably fail – sometimes modestly by an inability to pass key legislation, and other times spectacularly in some grave moral collapse.  Senator Franken and Judge Moore are just the latest examples of this.

David French, in a recent article for National Review concerning the Judge Moore scandal, wrote simply, “There is no way around dependence on God.”  These scandals serve to remind us of this profound truth.  The fact that our politicians fail should grieve us, as sin always should, but it should not scare us.  After all, even if a national apocalypse should come, it is still no match for the Apocalypse, when, instead of a politician, a perfect Potentate will appear to set the world right.  That’s not an apocalypse of which to be scared; that’s an apocalypse by which to be comforted. I hope you are.

_____________________________

[1] Andy Crouch, Playing God:  Redeeming the Gift of Power (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), 56

November 20, 2017 at 5:15 am 2 comments

The Art of Manliness

Victorian Men“I see some men that are men in mind and body and a great many that are only men in body.”[1]  So said a Union soldier who fought in the Civil War.

In her book, The Gentlemen and the Roughs, Lorien Foote, professor of history of Texas A&M University, outlines two distinct types of masculinity prevalent during the Civil War.  One was a gentlemanly type of masculinity, centered on self-control, character, and faithfulness.  This type of masculinity embodied what we might think of today as “the family man.”  The other type of masculinity was that of the “roughs” – those who are “rough around the edges,” so to speak.  This type of masculinity focused on physical domination and sexual exploitation.

Writing for The New York Times, David Brooks outlines these same two types of masculinities when he writes:

The ideal man, at least in polite society, gracefully achieves a series of balances. He is steady and strong, but also verbal and vulnerable. He is emotionally open and willing to cry, but also restrained and resilient. He is physical, and also intellectual.

Today’s ideal man honors the women in his life in whatever they want to do. He treats them with respect in the workplace and romance in the bedroom. He is successful in the competitive world of the marketplace but enthusiastic in the kitchen and gentle during kids’ bath time.

This new masculine ideal is an unalloyed improvement on all the earlier masculine ideals. It’s a great achievement of our culture. But it is demanding and involves reconciling a difficult series of tensions. And it has sparked a bad-boy protest movement and counterculture.[2]

Brooks’ “new masculine ideal” is not really all that new.  It shares much in common with the older masculine ideal of what it means to be a gentleman.  Foote, in her book, writes about Francis Lieber, a nineteenth century political philosopher who outlined some rules for warfare that eventually came to serve as the basis for the Geneva Convention.  Along with rules for warfare, Lieber also outlined traits essential to being a gentleman that included “self-possession,” “calmness of mind,” “a studious avoidance of giving offense to others,” and a refusal to indulge “in careless vulgarity, unmanly exaggeration, or violent coarseness.”  The New York Illustrated News, in a fawning review of Lieber’s gentlemanly characteristics, wrote, “Let us have a new chivalry instituted – a new order of intellectual and moral knighthood.”[3]  Lieber’s ideal masculinity was nothing short of a perfectly balanced chivalry that shares much, though not everything, in common with Brooks’ “new masculine ideal.”

There is much for us, as Christians, to learn from these two types of masculinity.  Although neither comports perfectly with what it means to be a Christian man, one certainly comports better.  A masculinity that is crude, sexually exploitive, and ostentatious not only does not make a man, it hurts a man because it is flatly sinful.  On the other hand, masculinity cannot simply be reduced to a list of traits, as Lieber and Brooks attempt to do, no matter how virtuous those traits may be.  After all, not every man is the same, so different men will inevitably display different traits, and not every life situation calls for the same masculine characteristics.  Ultimately, to be a Christian man is much more about living out a vocation – a divine calling – than it is about living up to a checklist of virtues that inevitably changes, both in content and in emphasis, with each successive generation.  To be a Christian man means to reflect Christ.  To hearken back to the Union solider quoted at the beginning of this blog, being a man is not about only your body biologically, it is also about your mind.  You can be a man in body without being a man whose mind has been renewed by Christ (cf. Romans 12:2).

In his column, David Brooks’ concern lies in how faulty masculinities affect the political arena.  He notes that in this election cycle, there has been “a revolution in manners, a rejection of the civility codes.”  This is certainly true and it is certainly troublesome.  But what is even more troublesome is not how faulty masculinities affect our politics, but how they affect our families.  Study after study has shown how men who reject their vocation to reflect Christ adversely affect their families.  Faulty masculinities do not just plague national elections, they plague your neighbors down the street.  And, if you’re really honest, they may even plague you.

So gentlemen – and I hope you do fashion yourself as and aspire to be gentlemen – the next time are tempted toward a masculinity that does not reflect your Savior, remember, to quote one more time from David Brooks, “This is the world your daughters are going to grow up in.”

That alone should be enough to make you stop and think.

__________________________

[1] Cited in Lorien Foote, The Gentlemen and the Roughs:  Violence, Honor, and Manhood in the Union Army (New York:  New York University Press, 2010), 3.

[2] David Brooks, “The Sexual Politics of 2016,” The New York Times (3.29.2016).

[3] Lorien Foote, The Gentlemen and the Roughs, 55.

April 4, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment

On Confederate Flags and Moral Clarity

South Carolina CapitolOn the heels of a terrible tragedy has come a robust debate. When 21-year-old Dylann Roof walked into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston for a Wednesday evening Bible study, 50 minutes later, he had shot eight people dead with a ninth victim who died later at the hospital. His stated reason for the rampage was horrifyingly racist. “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country,” he said to the African-American churchgoers, “and you have to go.”

As our nation has been processing its grief, it’s also been engaging in a debate over an old symbol connected to racism and slavery: the Confederate flag – specifically, the one that flies at the South Carolina State Capitol. In one way, I am still trying to wrap my head around how this debate was sparked by this tragedy. Although I would heartily agree that racism and slavery, in all their forms, are egregious, it seems that a debate over how to keep a firearm out of the hands of a man like Roof would be much more directly related to the tragedy at hand. In one way, I can’t help but wonder if we needed to find something over which to be morally outraged as a catharsis for our deep shock and grief. My psychologizing notwithstanding, this is still an interesting debate.

Sadly, as with so many of our debates, this one has quickly degenerated into cheap attacks. Take, for instance, this tweet from Vox’s David Roberts: “The American South has always been the most barbaric, backward region in any developed democracy. Can we admit that now?” Somehow, Roberts managed to connect a racist lunatic with a gun and a Civil War era symbol to a whole region of our country and its prevailing cultural sensibilities. Thankfully, CNN ran a much more nuanced piece on the history of the Confederate flag, which, it turns out, is not the Confederate flag at all, but the battle flag of General Robert E. Lee’s army unit. David Brooks of The New York Times provided us with a thoughtful biographical analysis of General Lee – both the good and the ugly.

I, for one, though I certainly see and would uphold the value in preserving the history of the Confederate flag, am not quite sure why this particular flag needs to fly outside the South Carolina State Capitol, especially when it is a reminder of terrible pain and division to so many. Preserving history is more the job of museums than it is of flagpoles outside capitol buildings.

But there is more here than just a debate over a flag. For out of this debate, a broader trend has once again emerged that deeply troubles me. Our cultural conversations have become so anemic and, in many instances, so vile that they are often of little to no value. Politically, sociologically, and morally, we have divided ourselves into traditional and progressive camps, loathe to admit that there is any worth, insight, or righteousness on the side to which we are opposed.

I happen to come from the generally progressive Pacific Northwest while finding myself much more at ease now living in the generally traditional state of Texas. This does not mean, however, that progressivism has nothing to teach me. I think of Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s speech at the University of Kansas in 1968:

Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year.  But that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage.  It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them.  It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl.  It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities.  It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.  Yet the Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play.  It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.  It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.

Senator Kennedy may have been progressive, but it is hard to find sharper moral clarity than his. Traditionalists need to listen. Likewise, in what may come as a surprise to David Roberts, traditional culture – even when it’s from the South – has a lot that is good and outright charming. Chivalry, Southern manners, and a biblically informed, even if imperfectly so, moral compass are important to the thriving and future of any civilized society. Progressivism needs to take note.

As Christians, no matter what our general cultural sensibilities may be, we will always find ourselves as strangers in the midst of raging culture wars. After all, our first loyalty is not to the sensibilities or hobbyhorses of any particular culture, but to the truth of the Word of God. And God’s Word has a funny way of challenging every culture and every sinner.

Let’s remember that when we fight over flags – or over anything else, for that matter.

June 29, 2015 at 5:15 am 4 comments

It’s All Relative

Right and wrong are relative.  At least, we treat them like they are.  This is the thesis of an op-ed piece for The New York Times by David Brooks.  In “The Moral Diet,”[1] Brooks explains:

Nearly everybody cheats, but usually only a little…That’s because most of us think we are pretty wonderful.  We can cheat a little and still keep that “good person” identity.  Most people won’t cheat so much that it makes it harder to feel good about themselves.

The basis for Brooks’ thesis is a new book by Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology at Duke University, titled The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty.  Through a series of surprisingly creative studies, Ariely finds that people are disturbingly comfortable bending moral standards to suit their own purposes…as long as they don’t bend them too much.  For instance, for the purposes of his book, Ariely asked a blind and a sighted colleague to take several taxi rides.  The drivers happily cheated the sighted client by taking longer routes in order to rack up higher fares.  They did not, however, cheat the blind client nearly as often because of the stinging psychological guilt associated with cheating a blind person.

Brooks summarizes Ariely’s findings:

For the past several centuries, most Westerners would have identified themselves fundamentally as Depraved Sinners. In this construct, sin is something you fight like a recurring cancer – part of a daily battle against evil.

But these days, people are more likely to believe in their essential goodness. People who live by the Good Person Construct try to balance their virtuous self-image with their selfish desires. They try to manage the moral plusses and minuses and keep their overall record in positive territory. In this construct, moral life is more like dieting: I give myself permission to have a few cookies because I had salads for lunch and dinner. I give myself permission to cheat a little because, when I look at my overall life, I see that I’m still a good person.

The Good Person isn’t shooting for perfection any more than most dieters are following their diet 100 percent. It’s enough to be workably suboptimal, a tolerant, harmless sinner and a generally good guy.

Brooks and Ariely assert that when it comes to our modern moral reckonings, most people assume close is good enough.  But are Brooks and Ariely right in their analysis?

One of the bad habits I have is reading what commenters post at the bottom of online articles.  These comments range from the insightful to the mundane to the paranoid to the bellicose.  Nevertheless, the reason I read these commenters – as maddening as they can sometimes be – is because they give me a sense of our society’s zeitgeist.  It is with this in mind that I had to chuckle at the top comment, as chosen by The New York Times, on David Brooks’ piece:

Most people in the world today are just trying to survive. A billion people don’t have access to clean water. In America, we see people who destroyed the economy not prosecuted. We see soldiers fight in far off lands, many coming home damaged for life. We see corporations allowed to buy elections. Millions of dollars are thrown away on tawdry campaign commercials that only enrich the coffers of media companies.

There is so much angst in the world today, and Mr. Brooks thinks we should worry about stealing office supplies, or eating an extra cookie.

Thank you for proving Mr. Brooks’ point, kind commenter.  Notice how this commenter gauges morality.  There are big moral issues – things like dirty drinking water, crimes left unprosecuted, physically and emotionally wounded soldiers, and corporate corruption – and there are small moral issues – things like stealing office supplies or eating an extra cookie.  Who has time to sweat the small stuff when there are bigger fish to fry?

But notice the subversive self-aggrandizement that undergirds this commenter’s response.  For all of the immoral injustices this commenter identifies are “out there.”  Immorality resides in greedy politicians and corrupt corporations, not in people who casually comment on New York Times pieces.  This commenter intimates his own morality by decrying others’ immorality.  He implies his own relative goodness by opining about the macro-moral problems of our world while jettisoning the micro-moral failings of his life.  He seems to believe, to use Brooks’ language, in his own “essential goodness.”

All this is not to say our macro-moral problems are somehow unimportant.  They are vitally important.  But our micro-moral problems matter too.  Why?  Because there is no macro-immorality problem in our world that did not begin as a micro-immorality problem in a life.  Big injustices begin one person and one decision at a time.  Just ask Adam and Eve.

David Brooks concludes his column with a sage warning:  “We’re mostly unqualified to judge our own moral performances, so attach yourself to some exterior or social standards.”  Brooks is almost right.  An exterior standard is indeed necessary to gauge human morality in any sort of meaningful way.  But I would argue that this exterior standard should not be a social one.  For social standards, though they might be relatively external to us, are not absolutely external to us, because they are based on the collective consensus of human societies – you and me.  Thus, even morality guided by social standards ultimately collapses into an internal moral narcissism.  Only God is absolutely external.  Therefore, in the Christian view, only God can serve as humanity’s enduring moral compass.  Only God can judge our moral performances for what they truly are.  Is it any wonder the preacher of Hebrews declares of the Lord, “‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ and again, ‘The Lord will judge His people’” (Hebrews 10:30)?

Our modern moral mores decry judging other people’s morality.  Christianity decries this too (cf. Matthew 7:1-2).  But Christianity takes it a step further.  For Christianity not only prohibits judging other people’s morality, it also prohibits judging our own morality.  Christianity teaches that we are so morally depraved, we can do nothing less than judge ourselves with a foolhardy rose-colored ethical optimism.  In other words, we dupe ourselves into believing we are better than we really are.  This is why it is God’s job to adjudicate morality – all morality…our morality.  And we are called to listen, follow, and believe God’s verdict on morality – all morality…our morality.


[1] David Brooks, “The Moral Diet,” The New York Times (6.7.2012).

June 18, 2012 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


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