Tag Archives: David Brooks

Public Theology

Theology in the middle ages use to be called the queen of the sciences. When it was called that, what they meant was that theology, what you said about God, was both the bedrock and the capstone of knowledge. Christ is the alpha and the omega; the one through whom all things were made and the one to whom we are being conformed. The reason I include that prolog is that while most people today don’t think very much of theology, if they think anything of it, the fact hasn’t changed. Our theologies are constantly slipping out, even if we say we don’t have one.

1) This is Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of the DC city school system, pumping her book and talking school reform. Ms. Rhee confronts the golden rule. That speaks well of her that she could both a) change a position potentially to her disadvantage and b) put herself if positions like the one described. The typical benefit of high office is insulation. It is really easy to treat other people as yourself when the only people your know are like yourself already. They don’t ask troubling questions.

“But we didn’t get in. I was devastated. So now I don’t know what to do. I went to DCPS. My parents went to DCPS. I believe in public schools, but I simply can’t send my child to the local school. Can you help me?”

It was a painful experience for me, each and every time. My instinct was always to tell the mother that I’d let her kid into Mann or Key and make the school make room for one more child. But honestly, it just wasn’t doable. Or fair. There were so many parents who visited me with these requests and so many more who were on waiting lists for those schools who had followed all of the rules.

Oh, I could have found a spot for them at another D.C. public school, perhaps marginally better than their home school. But that wasn’t what they wanted. They were looking for the exact same thing that I wanted for my two girls: the best school possible”

2) This is David Brooks talking about Big Data. Do you have any free will, or are you simply a complex machine responding to stimuli? The underlying theology of Big Data is a complex machine. With enough data, we can figure out what stimuli to apply to make you by a new car. Of course a Lutheran Theology might say complex machine as well (at least pre-baptism) and the only thing they are doing is creating ever finer harmatology – the science of sin. Think Screwtape with a super-computer profile of his “subject”. Mr. Brooks doesn’t like being boxed in.

If you asked me to describe the rising philosophy of the day, I’d say it is data-ism. We now have the ability to gather huge amounts of data. This ability seems to carry with it certain cultural assumptions — that everything that can be measured should be measured; that data is a transparent and reliable lens that allows us to filter out emotionalism and ideology; that data will help us do remarkable things — like foretell the future…I confess I enter this in a skeptical frame of mind, believing that we tend to get carried away in our desire to reduce everything to the quantifiable.”

3) A short interview with Mark Driscoll. Now, Mr. Driscoll is usually publicly painted as both a neanderthal and a troglodyte. He too is hawking a book, but the interview actually shows you some of the reasons people actually listen to him. Here is a clear concise paragraph on identity, practical parenting, discipleship and modern idols.

Our oldest daughter is 15. When it comes to identity, the pressure is immense on everyone in general, but especially for young women—from how much you weigh, to the friends you have, your grade point average, the music you like, the hobbies you enjoy, the sports you play, the clothes you wear, and the technology you own. All are identifying markers of who you are. On social media we create an identity only to have it scrutinized. Much of parental work, then, is knowing who we are in Christ and then helping our children understand who they are in Christ. In that sense, parenting is discipling.

Who we believe we are, and whose we believe we are, are foundational statements for how we respond to the world. The bondage of the will, the freedom of the christian, the responsibility to the other and the family (identity) you’ve been adopted into, think the bible and Luther might have something to say about those? Nah, theology is just boring stuff with no relation to real life, right?

The Crews Missile

I’m sure you might have caught this letter from a “bitterly disappointed” father already.

David Brooks comments on it in a way that is meaningful. He’s using psychological and therapeutic language for something Christianity has talked about for a long time. We can change, but slowly and only laboriously. And we doing it mostly not by dropping bad behaviors but by crowding them out with good ones.

People don’t behave badly because they lack information about their shortcomings. They behave badly because they’ve fallen into patterns of destructive behavior from which they’re unable to escape.

Human behavior flows from hidden springs and calls for constant and crafty prodding more than blunt hectoring. The way to get someone out of a negative cascade is not with a ferocious e-mail trying to attack their bad behavior. It’s to go on offense and try to maximize some alternative good behavior. There’s a trove of research suggesting that it’s best to tackle negative behaviors obliquely, by redirecting attention toward different, positive ones.

Note that “unable to escape”. In Lutheranism we have two big phrases: sinner and saint, law and gospel. We all know the law. It is written on our hearts. We just can’t keep it. We are unable to escape the law, both its accusation and its trespass. Getting real theological Christianity calls this original sin. After Eve took that apple, all the bad apples looked good. We can’t help ourselves.

The big internal break is when you stop trying to keep the law but rest on grace. When you know that you are a sinner and as long as you are in this body will be a sinner, but that God has saved you by grace. Jesus Christ released us from the penalty of the law and put his Spirit within us. That is the gospel. You are a sinner, but also a saint. And the call of the Saint is to follow Christ, to pick up the cross. What does that mean? To crucify all that bad stuff. Laboriously, bit by bit. How do we do it? I prefer what I ended last week’s sermon with. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Phi 4:8 ESV) Or “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” (Gal 5:22 ESV) Or what David Brooks calls “obliquely, redirect attention toward positive things”.

Here is the difference. You try and do that yourself as Brook’s psychology language would lead you to believe you can, still trying to perform, you still fail. You are still under the law. The first two steps of AA have the truth: 1) We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.
2) Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. The Word comes from outside of us. Christ puts his Spirit within us.

The Crews Missile was an impressive piece of preaching the law. But the law does not save.

Close to the Bone

One article recently really hit my cranky bone. Way more information than a pastor should be writing.

That article was David Brooks. The truth is that I haven’t felt at home in a political party for most of my voting life. The last guy I felt completely comfortable voting for was G. H. W. Bush (Bush 41) which was also the first ballot I cast. Clinton was an opportunist and the moral example set gave cover to the worst of our natures. Bush (43) I’d liken to Old King Stephen – “a good man who did no justice”. (Less poetic but better the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s verdict – “he took action without judgment”.) And let’s just not talk about Obama. The lawlessness of the current resident of 1600 shocks even me. I recount my “man without a party” narrative because David Brooks laments the loss of “the traditional conservative”. The modern GOP started out as a coalition between people like me best defined by Brooks’ paragraph…

Because they were conservative, they tended to believe that power should be devolved down to the lower levels of this chain. They believed that people should lead disciplined, orderly lives, but doubted that individuals have the ability to do this alone, unaided by social custom and by God. So they were intensely interested in creating the sort of social, economic and political order that would encourage people to work hard, finish school and postpone childbearing until marriage.

…and so-called economic conservatives which are best thought of as libertarians. And Brooks is right that “The two conservative tendencies lived in tension. But together they embodied a truth that was put into words by the child psychologist John Bowlby, that life is best organized as a series of daring ventures from a secure base. ” But here is where David Brooks starts misfiring or let’s steal a phrase from getreligion, “there is a religious ghost haunting the story”.

David Brooks complains,

“In the polarized political conflict with liberalism, shrinking government has become the organizing conservative principle. Economic conservatives have the money and the institutions. They have taken control. Traditional conservatism has gone into eclipse. These days, speakers at Republican gatherings almost always use the language of market conservatism — getting government off our backs, enhancing economic freedom. Even Mitt Romney, who subscribes to a faith that knows a lot about social capital, relies exclusively on the language of market conservatism.”

Why does Romney use only market language? Why is shrinking government the organizing principle? Did anybody see what happened to Mike Huckabee in 2008?

The answer or the ghost is that “traditional conservatives” are really religious conservatives. WFB, patron saint and original forger of the coalition, was an every day mass attending Catholic. They have received help from God in ordering lives. And we as a people, we won’t hear talk about God. As a Lutheran what I would say is that we won’t hear the Law. We won’t stand for the traditional teaching of the church. A wall of separation has been erected to prevent anyone from accidentally having their feelings hurt by being implied a sinner and feeling the law. Those people and that language have been run out of polite society as just not acceptable by a corrupt and decadent elite from both parties. We can have plenty of nonsense about God and lots of dressed up language, but direct to the bone Orthodoxy; the type that you say “This is the Word of the Lord” after, none of that stuff allowed.

Brooks again,

“There are few people on the conservative side who’d be willing to raise taxes on the affluent to fund mobility programs for the working class. There are very few willing to use government to actively intervene in chaotic neighborhoods, even when 40 percent of American kids are born out of wedlock. There are very few Republicans who protest against a House Republican budget proposal that cuts domestic discretionary spending to absurdly low levels. “

The government has been doling out programs and money for decades and all the illegitimacy rate does is rise. You know what used to work? Its called the 6th commandment – “don’t commit adultery.” Who and what are exactly the programs or people that are excluded from receiving dollars? People that might accidentally say- “Hey, God says don’t screw around”. Who are the people who are declared ineligible for higher office like Huckabee in 2008? The same people who might tax a little and spend a little through government because the seventh commandment that says “don’t steal” includes the positive force of “helping your neighbor to improve and protect his possessions and income”. (Small Catechism) {Of course being conservative they’d rather see that taking place in city hall or the county seat compared to Washington.}

The fact is that the “traditional conservatives” that Brooks laments are exactly the people that are tarred and feathered the second they are in public life. And that is in both parties. They haven’t gone missing, they’ve just been forced underground.

Now not all the fault is on a secret cabal. The gospel has a consistent external enemy. But it has had an internal enemy as well, recently best described by Brooks co-worker Ross Douthat in Bad Religion. If we don’t take our own religion seriously, why would anyone outside? This takes so many forms its not even funny. Let’s just say when you are willing to change the name of God to something silly, or are willing to ignore clear scripture because of the passions of the day, I wouldn’t take you seriously either.

Law and Gospel, sin and absolution, is serious. You don’t like the thought of Hell, we’ll do away with it and everybody gets a free pass, is not serious. The theology of the cross is serious. Your best life now is not serious.

So, David Brooks, are you willing to say that serious religious people deserve to be heard, or are you lamenting something but not willing to accept the answer?

Slight Momentary Diversions

Our organist, Dennis Hein, passed away this week from cancer. He was 64. The service is Saturday at 11 AM.

I’ve always had trouble turning off my brain. It is a cliche now, but a computer keeps cycling those giga-hertz even when 99% of them are spent running a screen saver and idling. When there are those things that come along that say “I’m going to take 100% of your cycles” and you can’t think of anything else, from hard experience that is where I tend to crash. Making sure there are slight momentary diversions is what re-introduces you to life. The daily routine prevents the crash.

This David Brooks article was fascinating. He might not like this, but Brooks is a top flight public theologian. I have a tough time thinking of anyone else who applies theology as deeply and as simply. From the article on the problem of Jeremy Lin:

The odds are that Lin will never figure it out because the two moral universes are not reconcilable. Our best teacher on these matters is Joseph Soloveitchik, the great Jewish theologian. In his essays “The Lonely Man of Faith” and “Majesty and Humility” he argues that people have two natures. First, there is “Adam the First,” the part of us that creates, discovers, competes and is involved in building the world. Then, there is “Adam the Second,” the spiritual individual who is awed and humbled by the universe as a spectator and a worshipper.

Soloveitchik plays off the text that humans are products of God’s breath and the dust of the earth, and these two natures have different moral qualities, which he calls the morality of majesty and the morality of humility. They exist in creative tension with each other and the religious person shuttles between them, feeling lonely and slightly out of place in both experiences.

Not to dispute that Rabbi Soloveitchik is a great teacher (he is), but those ideas are a little older than that. (I’m wondering if David Brooks is playing to his audience in the NYT?) St. Paul stated those thoughts in 1 Corinthians 15:47 and elsewhere. The Gospel according to Luke is at great pains to portray Jesus as the second Adam. And Luther’s Heidelberg disputation talks about the theologian of glory and the theologian of the cross. The morality of the athlete is that of glory. The morality that saves is that of the cross. The life of the disciple is running the race under the cross.

Martin Luther Sightings

In David Brook’s column an interesting wrap-up.

Liberalism has not expanded because it has not had a Martin Luther, a leader committed to stripping away the corruptions, complexities and indulgences that have grown up over the years.

If you’ll forgive some outside advice, President Obama might consider running for re-election as Luther. It’s not enough to pick a series of small squabbles and then win as the least ugly man in the room. He might run as someone who believes in government but sees how much it needs to be cleansed and purified.

Just two thoughts. First, politically (which you should care about my opinion as much as the crank on the street), he’s probably right, and it would take someone with a D after their name to do it. Just like it took a former extremely pious monk. Second, and this is the deeper problem, arguing for greater purity of anything this side of heaven is a losing battle. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. The first use of the law is as a curb – the civil use of the law. In this case the corruptions, complexities and indulgences need to be curbed. But the law does not save. The more you focus on the law the more it exposes the depth of our degradation. We would create new ways of selling indulgences (cross reference K Street Project, Fannie Mae, TARP – friends of Angelo were just plain refreshing old school corruption). The good news is that there is a Lord who knows our plight. He was crucified under Pontius Pilate. And the increase of his government and his peace will never end. (Isa 9:7)

Three interesting things, no four…

1. Pinterest – the front site is very pretty if in a way-too-unreal sort of way. I’m sure I’m way behind a curve here but it appears to be a visual orientation social networking site. You “pin” up things you like. It also appears to be populated primarily by women. First thought, can you imagine if this was populated only by guys, or even if guys started to be a significant minority? That is going to be a problem for them. But the second thought is with my first impression: lots of glossy mag, vaguely inspirational, way too cute visuals that are deeply seductive but not real in any sense of the word. Still, an interesting visual view of the current zeitgeist. A romantic movement in a non-romantic age? (HT)

2. David Brooks’ Life Reports – One, Two – Number Two is the payoff. If you want the actual data its on his new blog. He’s been reading the life reports of 70+ year olds that he requested. There is a lot of stuff to mentally chew on. There is one line that I’m not sure he backed up. (It also could be selection bias).

Metaphysics is dead; very few of the writers hewed to a specific theology or had any definite conception of a divine order, though vague but uplifting spiritual experiences pepper their reflections.

Christianity isn’t a philosophy. It isn’t a metaphysics completely in the way Brooks uses the term. But I can understand what he means. The bible says things like Psalm 90:12 or Ecclesiastes 3:1ff or Luke 8:4ff. Jesus (or the Bible) has some good thing to say about evaluating a life. The Americans Brooks is tapping sound like they majored too much in psychological jargon and self-actualization hierarchies to examine themselves. They would be better with an old form Roman preparation for confession or even just a reading of Sermon on the Mount. I sometimes wonder how many of my physical countrymen will be saying Lord, Lord…(Matt 25:11-12)

3. Better Living Through Pharmacology – A fascinating post (and the comments are insightful and raw as well) about anti-depressants and the Christian life. The question is a good one and something that I’ve spent time thinking about. I’m pretty sure that most of the “saints” and by that I mean the big ones that inspire us all went through serious dark nights. Luther found the gospel in the midst of his Anfechtung. Wesley was there. Francis. Loyola. Even Aquinas whose writing is so clear and logic so profound you wouldn’t think it possible. I’m not sure there is a place where Theology contrasts more with the reigning psychological therapeutic regime then around what today is called depression. It used to be called accidie or the noon-day demon or a dark night and it was all about spiritual struggle. (We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the power and principalities of this dark realm…Eph 6:12). Today it is all flesh and blood. It is all chemical imbalances to be treated with medication. Neither is correct.

3b/4. The problems with a simplistic numbers = God’s will equation. – This is an outgrowth of number 3. Those dark nights are often what throw you onto the Lord. I’m a numbers type guy. This is a constant temptation of mine to look at numerical failure as spiritual failure. Likewise to look at numerical success as spiritual success. It’s not that easy. I’d tie it back to Brooks even. Brooks extrapolates lessons for a “good life”, but it reads like a self-help book. Are self-help books read 50 years after they are written? 1 year? But St. Paul’s prison letters are read 2000 years later. The Freedom of a Christian is still read. I’m not sure what of our modern age might even survive 100 years even though we publish vast amounts more. The failure of our age has yet to be written.