By Matt Boulter
It was circa 2002. I was an urban church planter in an evangelical denomination in my early 30s, working in a trendy American city. I was full of enthused, energetic adrenaline for gospel-based cultural engagement (which was probably mostly faithful to God), fresh out of seminary in a milieu of ministry, ideas, local coffee, and rich community.
One of my lifelong passions, which began back in those days, is the cultivation of leaders. One young leader in our church plant community was a thoughtful African American brother, Collins, the first in his family to graduate from college. Our small team of leaders would regularly gather to discuss not just the nuts and bolts of ministry, but also to think together, to progress together on our journey of going deeper into Christ, in the very midst of our culture, with all its pressures and crosscurrents.
One thought-provoking book which found its way into our discussions was David Brooks’s Bobos in Paradise (2001). The “bobos” in the title is an abbreviation for “bourgeois Bohemians,” and the thesis of the book, in broad strokes, is that in the USA at the beginning of the 21st century, those who were then the real cultural shapers (I suppose today we’d say “influencers”) of society were essentially former hippies (who had come of age in the 60s and 70s), who had now become enamored with the creature comforts and indulgent pleasures of late-modern capitalism. Yet, paradoxically, they had retained their liberal values, and so this era, Brooks claimed, was witnessing the emergence of a novel social creature never before countenanced by Western civilization: the bourgeois Bohemian.
Think John Denver driving an SUV (hybrid, of course) with plenty of cupholders.
Now, along with Collins, I was not much taken by the book, not only because it seemed a bit banal, but also because I had then (and still have to this day) a gag-reflex-like aversion to the political posture being described. (Granted, Brooks was not advocating this position so much as documenting it.) Even today, decades after Bill Clinton made it cool, well-meaning Episcopalian parishioners still come up to me and, fancying themselves clever, describe themselves as “economically conservative, and socially liberal.”
My objections to this stance are legion. If we can get past the unavoidable confusion packed into the phrase “economically conservative” (well dissected by Patrick Deneen in his Why Liberalism Failed, showing how “economic conservatism” is rightly regarded as a subspecies of Enlightenment liberalism), I’m still left with the feeling that such individuals are simply drinking the Kool-Aid of the culture, and not thinking for themselves. Certainly, it seems to me, they are not thinking theologically, since on that account one ought to criticize both capitalistic consumerism and moral libertinism, in my opinion.
Be that as it may, I, personally, was underwhelmed by Bobos. Consequently, I took a more-than-a-decade hiatus from paying much attention to Brooks.
But all that began to change around… gosh, when did it change? Come to think of it, it must have been in December of 2016, when the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency forced untold droves of thinking Americans to re-evaluate everything they thought they knew. Around this time, the voice of David Brooks began to reverberate back into my head, and this time it felt more like a soothing balm.
It turns out that Brooks, too, was having something of a personal revolution at around this time, narrated to some extent in his 2019 Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life, the first of three more recent texts of Brooks which I’d like to highlight in this, my penitent note of thanksgiving for David Brooks.
In Second Mountain, Brooks, in the wake of a painful divorce, narrates something like a conversion story to the Judeo-Christian Faith. He tells of his formative and healthy experience as a Jewish boy (raised in a Jewish home) attending Grace Episcopal School in Manhattan. He speaks of his newfound respect for religious conviction in the modern world, arguing in many ways for the non-negotiable need for virtue in today’s America. While he does extol the benefit of liberal tolerance, and while he comes just short of identifying himself as either a full-throttled Christian or religiously-committed Jew, he does root his vision in the concrete specifics of both religious traditions (which, after all, stem from the same Jewish root).
The second text I’d like to draw attention to as part of my effort to extol David Brooks is the March 2020 Atlantic Monthly article, “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake,” in which he helpfully “flips the script” in the way I had thought about the role of the family in society. Let me explain.
For decades I’ve heard it said (and also read) that the family is the building block of human society. As true as this statement might be, it still begs the question, “Okay, but what is the family?” Is it the social unit we witness on black-and-white episodes of Leave It to Beaver, in which June and Ward Cleaver perform highly scripted social roles forged in the crucible of 1950’s Americana (cheekily parodied more recently on the first episode of WandaVision)? As easy as it still is for us to assume an answer in the affirmative, the burden of Brooks’s essay is to show the contrary.
In fact, until about 1950, the vast majority of human beings lived in networks of extended families, with, in addition to the head of the household and spouse, droves of siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, and others, all nestled under one roof, usually in the middle of a family farm. But in America in 1955, all that began to change, and now it was assumed that “healthy people” lived in a nuclear family consisting merely of two parents and 2.5 kids.
Having thus demonstrated the contingent arbitrariness of our typical assumptions about the family, Brooks goes on to narrate the ways in which the family is evolving in our culture, many of which are resonant with the older, pre-1950’s model. If the nuclear family is breaking down, Brooks argues, then this is the breakdown of something already flawed at its root. In typical Brooks fashion, he is holding out hope for these emergent configurations (for example, co-ops and other forms of “chosen family”) to promote well-being and the common good.
My last “text” to highlight is a sermon which Brooks preached on July 5, 2020 at the Washington National Cathedral. Even more than either of the two “texts” above, here Brooks emits a tone which is viscerally shaken by the travails of the day: the COVID-19 pandemic, street demonstrations and violence stemming from racial division, and the loss of civility embodied by Donald Trump. At points during the sermon, his voice quivers audibly.
The homiletic theme is beauty in the midst of the storm. Taking his lead from Jesus, he describes the life of faith as anything but tranquil. Instead, like Jesus, it is tough. It opts for the protection of and fidelity to one’s neighbor. Flipping the script of our tattered culture, it affirms the beauty inherent in such acts.
Brooks ends the sermon this way:
At one level these acts of beauty and pure gift and loving care are radically illogical. They’re vulnerability in the face of danger. They’re gentleness in the midst of bitterness. They’re compassion in the midst of strife. But these are the acts that have the power to shock. These are the acts that have the power open hearts. These are the acts that have a power to shock a revolution in our culture and in our consciousness. We don’t get to choose our condition; we do get to choose our response. And even in the bitterness of this hard time I’ve seen individual acts and collective acts of giving and change and facing hard truths and uncomfortable conversations. There are little sparks of beauty in what has all been rocky and dark.
There is no doubt that, right now, we in the West are living through a time of epic upheaval and transition. Sometimes the effort to find one’s bearings is a real challenge. David Brooks’s voice is not the only one I look to for such orientation. But it is one of the principal ones, and for it I am grateful.
Fr. Matt Boulter is the associate rector at Christ Church in Tyler, Texas, and recently completed a PhD in medieval philosophy at Maynooth University, Ireland.