Saturday, October 31, 2015

David Brooks: Born Again?

Columbia Journalism Review is running a great piece of long-form journalism by Danny Funt, a "Delacorte Fellow" at Columbia Journalism School. The topic is David Brooks.

Funt  portrays Brooks as a New York Times columnist searching for spiritual and moral answers to life's big questions. 

Here is a taste of his piece "The Transformation of David Brooks":

DAVID BROOKS WAS STRUGGLING WITH SIN. More precisely, he was seeking a way to translate the Christian understanding of sin into secular terms for millions of readers. His emerging specialty, whether in his New York Times column or best-selling books, is distilling dense concepts for the mainstream. An ugly word for that, he notes, is popularizing. On religious topics, some might say proselytizing. He calls it reporting. “He’s the master,” says Princeton professor Robert George, a onetime adviser to Brooks. “Nobody is better at that than David.”
Explaining Christian theology has bedeviled Brooks for several years now, in writing his latest book, The Road to Character, and in recent columns, much to the bewilderment of readers. It’s strange partly because Brooks was raised Jewish, but also because the opinion pages are generally reserved for current events and politics. For counsel on political punditry, Brooks used to make a practice of interviewing three elected officials a day. To flesh out his sense of sin, he sought a different sort of expertise.  
He consulted Pastor Timothy Keller, founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan and one of the country’s most prominent evangelicals. There are many explicitly Christian descriptions of sin: fallenness, brokenness, depravity. Keller suggested Brooks try a more neutral phrasing: “disordered love.” When we blab a secret at a party, for example, we misplace love of popularity over love of friendship.
Brooks recounted that guidance to me at a coffee shop in Arlington, Virginia, in between his regular Friday afternoon appearances on NPR’s All Things Considered and PBS’ NewsHour. He’s held those gigs for nearly two decades, and though he claims not to be bored with politics, his mind can seem elsewhere. When Brooks arrived that day at the bustling NPR headquarters in Washington, there was much to sort out. It was the day after the school shooting in Oregon, and the host wanted to know whether a gun crackdown was foreseeable. Would there be a contested race to replace John Boehner as Speaker? Did the Vatican really arrange the pope’s meeting with Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who refused to certify gay marriages? E.J. Dionne Jr., the Washington Post columnist who is Brooks’ liberal counterpart on NPR, provided a bubbly stream of punditry. Brooks was almost listless. On air, his hot takes lacked spark.  
Within minutes of arriving, he’d bagged a book from a give-away shelf,The Opposite of Loneliness, Marina Keegan’s posthumous bestseller about starting over. “I’ve been thinking about writing a column on loneliness,” he explained.
That topic might justifiably be on his mind. Just that week, he’d flown alone to a Gordon College event in Boston, Hope College in Western Michigan, and Washington and Lee University in Virginia to promote his book. He takes the train alone to Yale most weeks to teach, and lives alone (he’s recently divorced) in an apartment near the National Cathedral, a 10-minute drive from the Times DC bureau. His office, on a hallway some call “Murderers’ Row” but which he dubbed “The Hall of Big Egos,” is between Maureen Dowd’s and Thomas Friedman’s, but there isn’t much water-cooler banter among Op-ed staff.
Brooks, 54, also now occupies a lonely journalistic space. When he began using his column several years ago to philosophize about personal morality, he says, “I felt like I was wandering off the map into weird territory.” Where to, exactly, remains mystifying. Brooks thinks a tradition of journalists fluent, or at least conversant, in moral concepts dissipated in recent decades. Theologians were walled off within their denominations, and public discourse about values grew dysfunctional. A life of “meaning” by today’s standard, he wrote in hisTimes column to begin 2015, “is flabby and vacuous, the product of a culture that has grown inarticulate about inner life.”
In general, Brooks contends, journalists balk at sharing moral viewpoints, and readers bristle upon receiving them. His critics find him an insufferable scold, a pompous sermonizer. “I think there is some allergy our culture has toward moral judgment of any kind,” he reflects. “There is a big relativistic strain through our society that if it feels good for you, then who am I to judge? I think that is fundamentally wrong, and I’d rather take the hits for being a moralizer than to have a public square where there’s no moral thought going on.” There is at least marginal evidence that this is changing. His book, published in April, spent 22 weeks on the Times best-seller list.
For Brooks, studying sin (and other moral categories) has been transformational. His political views have shifted before, quite publicly, but this is closer to an intellectual rebirth. Whether it is also a religious one, he won’t say.  
On his book tour over the summer, Brooks committed to a mission for the rest of his career: to restore comfortable, competent dialogue about what makes a virtuous life. If that is truly an area of cultural illiteracy, then journalists have neglected it. Like Brooks, their values have been out of order.
Brooks's search for meaning reminds me a lot of Eric Miller's portrayal of Christopher Lasch in Hope in a Scattering Time.  Both men had intellectual conversions. 

Lasch became disgusted with liberalism and the idea of "progress" that defines modern life.  In order to find purpose in his life he turned toward historically conservative values such as place, limits, family, community, virtue, and something akin to sin.  Lasch may have been close to embracing Christianity, but, as Miller argues, he never quite got there.

Brooks's intellectual conversion seems similar.  He has been speaking at a lot of Christian colleges lately.  He hangs out with Tim Keller at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.  He is trying to make connections between his conservative ideals and the teachings of orthodox Christianity.

Is a conversion experience in Brooks's future?  Has it happened already? Read Funt's piece and decide for yourself.