David Brook’s Moral Bucket List, My Dying Friend and the Cross of Christ

crosses along the road

The Doctors Say A Friend of Mine is Dying

He’s nearly my father’s age and his body just can’t take much more of his life.

When I came to this church he knew we would be friends. He was always a fish out of water. He had a degree from Berkeley in anthropology but he spent with all sorts of people. He had highly refined tastes in books and music, loving the life of the mind but was surrounded mostly by people who didn’t share those tastes. He saw quickly that I was someone who loved ideas, books and while I didn’t share his love for opera we would have lots of interesting things to talk about. He was right. We became friends. Today on his death bed he declared me to be his best friend in the world. He does like drama.

A Life of Beauty and Tragedy

He was never a private person. He was always willing to share his thoughts and feelings if you were his friend.

He was always an excessive person. After getting his degree he would marry and have a child. His excessive personality drove him to drink, excessively. His alcoholism wrecked his marriage and nearly his career. After a night in prison and a warning from a judge he became as he always told me, a “friend of Bill” (not Clinton), worked his 12 steps with the same excess he expressed with the bottle and achieved sobriety. Today when we offered him a beer he said “I’ve kept my sobriety this long I’m not ditching it at the end.”

He found love again, remarried and began to build his life once more.

His excessive personality drove him to not be fully satisfied with a slim “higher power”. He wanted to know God. He was a Christian and wanted to be a serious one, so he sought out a serious church, a Christian Reformed church where the children were made to behave and the men were serious too. His wife wouldn’t go with him for a year. “Those people don’t smile or talk.”

He found that CRC pastors were lovers of thought and theology and he could work his mind around doctrine and learning and teaching. It was the church for him.

Even after he had beaten the bottle his excesses didn’t stop. He loved music and so drowned in the excess of tens of thousands of records and CDs. He loved pipes and so collected hundreds. He loved books and filled his home in those too. When I introduced him to the Kindle he was hooked.

He also loved food and his excess in that area would give him hundreds of pounds and hours of inactivity, bringing on diabetes and ruining his knees. While alcohol would never again be a problem for him he needed pills to keep his bodily systems in balance and ease his joint pain.

What he most loved, however, was friendship and so what little money was left over (he wasn’t excessive about making money) from his other excesses he’s lavish on his friends. He loved going out for lunch and would never let me pay.

He was a deeply sensitive man but tried to keep that hidden. He could never have enough friends but when someone wouldn’t call or follow up he’d quietly hurt.

He’s dying now, in some ways the result of all of his excess. It’s a miracle he’s lived as long as he has.

A Religion We Can All Agree On

When David Brook’s Moral Bucket List posted I knew it would be a big hit. It’s similar to a speech he recently gave and probably a preview of the book his about to release. Part of me loves this stuff. This is a non-sectarian moral life, beautiful, selfless, noble. Safe enough for the whole family yet urbane enough for the city. It is able to be embraced across sectarian lines. If there is a common secular space that religious and non-religious can gather within while we tear each other up over gays and religious liberty isn’t this it? I’m far more comfortable with David Brooks as priest of our common virtue than Oprah. Me, my friend, and David Brooks can find a lot of common ground.

Virtue is one of God’s greatest gifts to us. Like many of God’s gifts virtue requires effort, cultivation, protection. Virtue is also gloriously non-sectarian. We find it all over the world, in so many religions and cultures. We want our children, our neighbors, our leaders and our gods to be virtuous.

David Brooks better than most can lay out a vision for virtue for middle and high culture Americans today. He describes meeting truly virtuous people, let’s call them spiritual. They are generous, they are secure, they are honest, they are the kinds of friends, neighbors and citizens we know the world needs. While in our naivety we imagine that we can cheat on virtue in our private lives we want to look and be virtuous in public as we demand our neighbors to be. What the world needs now is virtue, more virtue.

Paul in Corinth

I’ve been working in the book of 1 Corinthians lately. The Apostle Paul begins the book by destroying his brand. The Gentile converts in the diverse church of Corinth have reasonably understood Paul and other Christian celebrity teachers as offering them a formula for a better way of life, a road to becoming better people, holy people, virtuous people. The Jews in the church had their own cultural filters they saw Paul through. He was an expert teacher in the law who could explain what steps they needed to take to fulfill all righteousness.

As naturally happens divisions developed in the church and some thought Paul’s way was best, other thought Peter had it down, he was of course the apostle with the best credentials, and some though Apollos really helped show how Jesus was useful for become wise, and virtuous and achieving status in a world without the pretense of egalitarianism.

Corinth, and the rest of the Roman world was of course awash with philosophies. Everyone knew that Greek philosophy was the best. Romans knew how to conquer and achieve wealth and power but Greeks knew beauty, virtue, thought, and how to identify and pursue “the good life”. Their menu of options included the Stoics, the Epicureans, the Cynics and all sorts of ways to accumulate and synthesize the hundreds of gods accumulated under the big tent of the Roman empire. Surely this Christ had something to offer. This resurrection thing seemed counter intuitive to the Greek mind, but surely Christian virtue could align with the classic virtue lists everyone knew. Paul and Peter both would give lists that looked virtually identical to other moral teachers.

Foolishness to the Greeks

Paul begins by attacking their divisions in the church. We might expect that Paul could have easily pointed to virtue as a way to transcend the divisions. Surely Paul, Peter and Apollos could agree on beauty, love, truth, self-sacrifice, nobility and surely the church could lay down the petty consumer preferences to embrace these larger ideals. They could share many of these ideas, overlooking the particulars with their neighbors who participated in the temple filled and Greek schooled civic life. Paul, in the eyes of the empire seems to take a disastrous turn, one that many virtuous today lament, he points to an emblem of religious particularism, the cross of Christ.

It is hard for us to appreciate how strange a thing Paul pointed to. Everyone knew that in the Empire the cross was the symbol of naked Roman power and aggression. The cross was not only an implement of torture and execution, it was the public display of Roman military and political will to subjugate the masses of the world and offer them the freedom and prosperity of the Roman way. Welcome the Roman way and you will have life. Reject the Roman way and you and your friends may find yourself to be a violent display of Roman resolve along some Roman road.

Paul says it is this cross that counts, not their better ways at finding virtue or making a good life.

We don’t really know how Paul’s message was received. Paul wrote his letters to Corinth to try to help the church even as his relationship with him was conflicted. While we might regard Paul as enormously successful the image we have of him at the beginning of the second letter to Timothy is a man whose assessment of his success with his churches seems dark. Most have abandoned him, just a few are willing to claim him as their friend.

Virtue and the Cross

We can’t talk about “the cross” without two thousand years of educated and folk interpretation. This “cross” is self-denial, self-sacrifice, humiliation, many of the virtues that David Brooks embraces in his piece. Surely Brooks and Jesus are on the same page here. Perhaps they are.

When I look at the persona of David Brooks I see a talented writer with a beautiful drive and desire to make the world a better place. He is socially practical while also being virtuous and politically moderate. He is well read, learned, bi-partisan, coming from the heart of American east coast liberalism while being able to talk to culture warriors from the right as well. I post his stuff on Facebook because I want him to be read, I want his voice to be heard, I want to see many aspects of his vision of the American public square to flourish. I’m a fan.

My fandom of him is even excited by the gossip about his personal life. Is he still married or has his marriage fallen apart? Did he have an affair with an assistant? I’m not so much curious about his weaknesses as cheering for his private victories. You can’t really write about virtue if you don’t know vice and the dark attractions of your heart. I want him to overcome and be a champion.

At the same time, whether or not Brooks has converted to Christianity as it is rumored, while I love the goodness of virtue I know it is not the gospel and it is not finally my hope, and this is the lesson of my dying friend.

Virtue in the Age of Decay

Like all of God’s gifts in this age virtue has a shelf life and an admission price.

David Brooks, while not super rich I assume is financially secure by virtue of his talent and relationships. He’s educated, well read, and has an occupation that will allow him access to the best opportunities for virtue and self improvement. His ideas of “the good life” and the process to its procurement are the best the New York Times community has to offer. He is in some ways not very much different from the Mormon missionaries who offer a path to self-improvement at your doorstep. He just offers a far more reasonable set of exercises and more secular outcome. Instead of being able to become a god in your own universe you get the admiration of those who know you and the satisfaction of becoming a good person, a better person or even a spiritual person that can improve the culture.

While my friend who is dying would probably agree wholeheartedly with Brook’s vision and path to self-improvement he himself could never get as far as David wants. He certainly achieved much in terms of virtue in his life, having beaten the bottle and made his second marriage work. He provided for his family and was faithful to his church and friends and was a booster of arts in the community. While we might point to the ways his excesses have shortened his lifespan he’s dying a man who achieved more years than my father who didn’t those excesses.

David Brook’s program has an accessibility problem and an endurance problem.

Most of us will never achieve his virtue and whatever virtue any of us achieve will be taken by death, eaten by the grave and forgotten in the age of decay. Our virtues, like all things within the age of decay will become dust in the wind and our place will remember us no more.

Few of You Were Wise

When Paul writes to the church in Corinth he notes that few of them were wise, of noble birth, were athletes of virtue when they came into the church. Many likely came in because they assumed that the church would make them better people, improve their relationships, help them in business, give them a better life. Many would likely be disappointed on some or all of these scores. Some things don’t change much.

Paul points to the cross and tries to explain to them that the things they came with don’t really count that much. The things they bring to Christ in their hands looking for approval and acclaim sometimes get in the way of the things that Christ would like to fill them with. Even the spiritual gifts that their new found method and community has offered to them have becomes stumbling stones to trip on. The main thing in Christ is not really self-improvement, it is Christ’s dramatic rescue of us from ourselves, even sometimes our virtues.

Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde

In Tim Keller’s sermon Splitness he reworks the story of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde. Dr. Jekel is a paragon of virtue. He is what David Brooks would love to exceed. Dr. Jekyl figured out, however, how to employ the tools of science and knowledge to attain greater virtue. He found a medical formula to allow his body to assist is character in achievement. He developed a moral performance enhancing drug. What he didn’t know was that his moral performance was also creating a Mr. Hyde that was committing horrible evils he was unaware of. When he discovered this fact like the good virtuous man he resolved to end his life. It is at this place that we see the cross, at the end of our resources and our virtues.

Deathbed Regrets

In many ways we have lost our way in learning how to die. I expect I will have time with my friend to be his pastor. I will invite him to talk about his life, not so much the successes, but the failures. I will invite him to share with me the guilt he might still feel for sins he’s done and the regrets he still possesses for his shortcomings. Any person honest with themselves, no matter how virtuous will accumulate these. I will invite him to speak these to me and together we will nail them to the cross with all of his accomplishments. I will declare to him that in Christ’s cross all of the ways he has missed the mark in his life have been forgiven, separated as far from him as the east is from the west. I will pronounce him righteous, not by virtue of his own accomplishments but by the cross of Christ.

It is here that I part company with David Brooks as I know him. I too, like my friend is someone who falls short. I’m not going to confess my sins in a blog or share my regrets with the Internet by I have my own. While David Brooks has access to moral athletes better than himself I will likely not achieve even what David Brooks manages. I will not be a columnist in the New York Times schooling the world on how to be a better person. I’m a small church pastor with a few friends who keeps a silly little blog.

When Paul writes “not many of you were wise” I’ll raise my hand and claim my foolishness. As I’m helping my friend nail his sins, shortcomings and regrets to the cross I’ll be doing my own. While I’ll be grateful for any virtue I receive or achieve in this world none of it matters as much to me as Christ’s rescue of me from the age of decay and his ability to perfect whatever stumbling foolishness I might happen to achieve and translate it into my resurrected body in the age to come. I am grateful that Paul doesn’t simply tell me “another way to be a better person” but he shows me that in Christ I am a new creation.

This is where I place my hope, for me, for my friend, for this world which is so cruel and lacking in virtue that its rescue and renovation is in my bumbling ways the thing I wish to glory in the most.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in Culture commentary, Devotional Reflection and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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