WASHINGTON – Most of us have an image of the counterculture, shaped by memory or mythmaking, that involves Haight-Ashbury, flea-market clothing, free love and a haze of pot smoke. But as the counterculture has consumed the culture – with hipsterism marketed at Urban Outfitters, pre-, non- and extra-marital sex a firmly established social expectation and a haze of pot smoke covering entire states – countering the culture takes on a different meaning.
With his new book, “The Road to Character,” David Brooks – New York Times columnist, PBS “NewsHour” commentator, and serial mensch – emerges as a countercultural leader. His goal is the recovery of “a vast moral vocabulary and set of moral tools, developed over centuries and handed down from generation to generation.” His method is to profile “heroes of renunciation” – a diverse group, consisting of men and women, minorities and whites, gay people and straight, aristocratic and blue-collar, generally shaped by tragedy and driven to make unsparing demands on themselves.
So we encounter Frances Perkins, who witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, left behind the laziness and glibness that were temptations of her class, steeled herself against criticism and personal loss and became the conscience of the New Deal. And Dorothy Day, who experienced all the sad, fleshly failures of the party girl before discovering a powerful, even saintly, hunger to worship and serve. And Saint Augustine, who lived the Roman dream of sex, wine and lyre ‘n’ roll, only to find a rottenness at his own core, which could only be touched and changed from outside, from elsewhere, from above.
Brooks’ selection of biographical examples is an exercise in cultural criticism. They are chosen to stand in contrast to currently ascendant forms of self-trust, self-love, self-expression, self-esteem and self-actualization. The “Big Self” is the problem. Humility – which Brooks defines as “the awareness that you are an underdog in the struggle against your own weakness” – is the beginning of any plausible solution.
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The literary achievement of “The Road to Character” is inseparable from the virtues of its author. As the reader, you not only want to know about Frances Perkins or Saint Augustine. You want to know what Brooks makes of Frances Perkins or Saint Augustine. The voice of the book is calm, fair and humane. The highlight of the material is the quality of the author’s moral and spiritual judgments. Across the pages, Brooks is a reliable guide and a pleasant companion.
But this description downplays the radical, disruptive ambition of the book. “The Road to Character” can’t be reduced to cultural criticism, because the author doesn’t take our communal struggle to be primary. Like the writer and theologian Frederick Buechner, he finds the greatest drama in our sacred journeys – the saving and losing of souls. This requires the moral vocabulary of a previous era. A consciousness of sin. A real determination to reach holiness. When said in public, terms such as “sin” and “holiness” have the power to shock, like the choicer curse words once did.
Brooks is an effective modern translator of these ideas because he is constitutionally incapable of finger-wagging. His is a call to a cheerful, tolerant, shared struggle with sin. Yet his description of spiritual maturity – of people who have found lives of self-mastery, graciousness, steadiness and a concentrated sense of purpose – will be read by most people as an indictment. I disliked these portions of the book in the same way a cancer patient dislikes a CAT scan. Too much uncomfortable accuracy.
The book, fortunately, did not stop there. “We are all ultimately saved by grace,” says Brooks, right there in thesis No. 10. “It may come in the form of love from friends and family, in the assistance of an unexpected stranger, or from God. But the message is the same. You are accepted. You don’t flail about in desperation, because hands are holding you up.”
Brooks makes this point in a nonsectarian, even nonreligious, manner. He is always careful – always courteous enough – to leave people the space to find their own way. But “grace” is an inherently theological term – a rescue that originates from the outside. The scales of the universe, in the end, come down decisively on the side of love. And we experience it, not like the argument in a book, but like the smile on the face of someone we love. Instead of finding, we are found.
This hope, it turns out, is always challenging to the prevailing culture, because it comes from outside, from elsewhere, from above.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.