Chapter 1: The Shift in “The Road to Character”

world war ii

Brooks the Conservative

While Brooks’ conservative credentials are often in question chapter 1 begins by him working a dualism between the World War II generation and our present generation.

The World War II generation was “Little Me” compared to today’s “Big Me”

I arrived home before the program was over and listened to that radio show in my driveway for a time. Then I went inside and turned on a football game. A quarterback threw a short pass to a wide receiver, who was tackled almost immediately for a two-yard gain. The defensive player did what all professional athletes do these days in moments of personal accomplishment. He did a self-puffing victory dance, as the camera lingered.

It occurred to me that I had just watched more self-celebration after a two-yard gain than I had heard after the United States won World War II.

This little contrast set off a chain of thoughts in my mind. It occurred to me that this shift might symbolize a shift in culture, a shift from a culture of self-effacement that says “Nobody’s better than me, but I’m no better than anyone else” to a culture of self-promotion that says “Recognize my accomplishments, I’m pretty special.” That contrast, while nothing much in itself, was like a doorway into the different ways it is possible to live in this world.

Brooks, David (2015-04-14). The Road to Character (pp. 4-5). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

 Age of Narcissism

Brooks nails the “Big Me” culture we live in. For a pastor the list of illustrations of our culture is probably worth the price of the book.

Not only are we about the “big me” but the true me lies inside waiting to explode into glory.

As I looked around the popular culture I kept finding the same messages everywhere: You are special. Trust yourself. Be true to yourself. Movies from Pixar and Disney are constantly telling children how wonderful they are. Commencement speeches are larded with the same clichés: Follow your passion. Don’t accept limits. Chart your own course. You have a responsibility to do great things because you are so great. This is the gospel of self-trust.

As Ellen DeGeneres put it in a 2009 commencement address, “My advice to you is to be true to yourself and everything will be fine.”

In her mega-selling book Eat, Pray, Love (I am the only man ever to finish this book), Elizabeth Gilbert wrote that God manifests himself through “my own voice from within my own self…. God dwells within you as you yourself, exactly the way you are.” 6

Brooks, David (2015-04-14). The Road to Character (p. 7). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Joel Osteen gets a shout out too.

The contrast is clear and obvious and Brooks brings it out in stunning clarity. I do get the sense, however, that we implicitly imagine Brooks is preaching here to the choir. My sense in the culture today is that the embrace of the new ethos is so strong and implicit that if there is any reflection at all on this new orthodoxy the conclusion is that it is axiomatic and self-evident to those who believe it. Brooks highlights this to many of us who already believe that this is evidence that we have lost our way. He expresses his preference for the older way but the goal isn’t to dispel the new as much as to lament its ascendance.

The Humble Path

He works his dualisms again with this amazing quote.

The self-effacing person is soothing and gracious, while the self-promoting person is fragile and jarring. Humility is freedom from the need to prove you are superior all the time, but egotism is a ravenous hunger in a small space— self-concerned, competitive, and distinction-hungry.

Brooks, David (2015-04-14). The Road to Character (p. 8). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Again, for a preacher, this stuff is gold.

He also drops many great quotes from others, another terrific asset if you are a preacher.

Montaigne once wrote, “We can be knowledgeable with other men’s knowledge, but we can’t be wise with other men’s wisdom.” That’s because wisdom isn’t a body of information. It’s the moral quality of knowing what you don’t know and figuring out a way to handle your ignorance, uncertainty, and limitation.

Brooks, David (2015-04-14). The Road to Character (p. 9). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The challenging of the implicit and often unnoticed “Big Me” will take the shape of story telling that will come in subsequent chapters. Because we see humility as attractive we imagine ourselves as possessing it whether we do or not. Brooks will employ the CS Lewis definition of humility “thinking of yourself less” but that’s always tricky when the focus of the book is an invitation to examine our self. How can we be self-forgetful when the entire project is an attempt to see our self, critically examine our self and improve our self. There is a sense in which the book itself can’t escape the gravity of the self in the way that “Eat Pray, Love” may fail to. We’re just more sophisticated in the traps of the self.  How can we stop obsessing about our selfish self and come to a place of self-forgetfulness?

The U-Curve

The people in this book led diverse lives. Each one of them exemplifies one of the activities that lead to character. But there is one pattern that recurs: They had to go down to go up. They had to descend into the valley of humility to climb to the heights of character

The road to character often involves moments of moral crisis, confrontation, and recovery. When they were in a crucible moment, they suddenly had a greater ability to see their own nature. The everyday self-deceptions and illusions of self-mastery were shattered. They had to humble themselves in self-awareness if they had any hope of rising up transformed. Alice had to be small to enter Wonderland. Or, as Kierkegaard put it, “Only the one who descends into the underworld rescues the beloved.”

But then the beauty began. In the valley of humility they learned to quiet the self. Only by quieting the self could they see the world clearly. Only by quieting the self could they understand other people and accept what they are offering.

When they had quieted themselves, they had opened up space for grace to flood in. They found themselves helped by people they did not expect would help them. They found themselves understood and cared for by others in ways they did not imagine beforehand. They found themselves loved in ways they did not deserve. They didn’t have to flail about, because hands were holding them up.

Brooks, David (2015-04-14). The Road to Character (pp. 13-14). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

All good writing of course. Don’t you just wonder “whose hands” are holding you up?

Brooks for his mass audience is going to have to stay nameless on whose hands are holding them up. We’re in the territory here of “higher power” even though the U-Curve looks something like Kenosis theology.

In CS Lewis’ “The Grand Miracle” Lewis makes the very clever move of seeing such things not as offering “Christianity Lite’ but rather recognizing these dynamics in nature as following the archetypal movement of Christ in history.  The fact that you have to go down to go up is because of the deeper magic. Is it any wonder we find this pattern all over, not only in Christianity? The Christ story is the true myth.

The Project Again

The central fallacy of modern life is the belief that accomplishments of the Adam I realm can produce deep satisfaction. That’s false. Adam I’s desires are infinite and always leap out ahead of whatever has just been achieved. Only Adam II can experience deep satisfaction. Adam I aims for happiness, but Adam II knows that happiness is insufficient. The ultimate joys are moral joys. In the pages ahead, I will try to offer some real-life examples of how this sort of life was lived. We can’t and shouldn’t want to return to the past. But we can rediscover this moral tradition, relearn this vocabulary of character, and incorporate it into our own lives.

You can’t build Adam II out of a recipe book. There is no seven-point program. But we can immerse ourselves in the lives of outstanding people and try to understand the wisdom of the way they lived.

Brooks, David (2015-04-14). The Road to Character (p. 15). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

So in a sense chapter 1 is still part of the introduction. How does reading about kenosis relate to actual growth? Will these stories give hope to the sufferers? Does the promise of moral growth give consolation to the suffering?

We will see if Brooks sticks to the secular box, the confinement of our cultural conversation that says all goods must be limited to the birth to death timeline. The awkward truth about the Christian narrative is that the cross really makes little sense without the resurrection. Without the resurrection Jesus is a nice emblem of suffering for a cause but while there might be some consolation that Jesus didn’t die in vain because the church started it was really the resurrection that launched the church. Suffering can only ennoble the sufferers who survive it.

What we will see, I suspect (I’ve read most of the chapter 2 already) is also that the presumed vantage point of the reader will be the typical one for white, secure, affluent North Americans. We are often tourists of suffering and imagine our journeys as passing through, but not ending in suffering. In chapter 2 we will follow the affluent woman who witnesses the Triangle Factory Fire and becomes an activist, how does the story play out for the woman who dies in the fire?

Jesus died on the cross. If there was no resurrection you can make a good argument that it was in vain. Only the resurrection, or if you are a prisoner of the secular box, the belief in the resurrection that releases Jesus’ crucifixion from futility.

Pastor TakeAway

None of my comments should lead you to believe again that the chapter isn’t worth it. Again, there is gold for the preacher looking for illustration material and juicy quotes. The book maybe worth your 12 bucks for the Kindle version already. We’ll have to see what more we can learn from the stories that are to come. Again, this book is potentially a treasure trove for stories and quotes for sermons.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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