David Brooks, American Religion, and I: De-conversion and the Quest for the Heroic

I was traveling so I did not get to write this up until now.

On Thursday February 16th, David Brooks called Lin heroic due to his education and belief in contrast to the vulgarity of sports; he even connected Lin to Rav Soloveitchik. I got a smile about it because I had typed the same thing three days prior on Monday February 13th. That prior Monday I had entered into my computer a paraphrase from a new book that “most contemporary religious American life was dogmatic hierarchy grounded in an absolute transcendent with contrasting foreground of the self-obsessed contingent individuals lost in money, sports, and consumerism.” The new book asked: What happened to the hero of modernity? Where are the heroic visions of Camus, Unamuno, or Niebuhr? I noted to myself that Monday: We should compare contemporary Evangelical or Centrist approaches to Rav Soloveitchik’s Lonely Man of Prayer. And my relationship with Brooks has been going on like this for several years.

When Brooks published his Social Animal last March, I had just written my Orthodox Forum paper. Looking at the footnotes to Brook’s book, I saw that we had very similar reading lists, we kept up on the same authors, journals, and schools of thought, and we agree on what was an important fact. The difference was that he glorified the intuitions of the middlebrow upper middle class life style and I had described problems from both secular and Torah perspectives.

So, on Feb 13th I was reading James S. Bielo’s important new book Emerging Evangelicals: Faith Modernity, and the Desire for Authenticity (NYU Press, Oct. 2011) where he contrasts the heroic religion of mid-twentieth century to the combined authoritarian and self-absorbed religion of today. Bielo relied on several articles written by others in 2009 and 2010, but whether Brooks had just read Bielo or had read the earlier articles we are still keeping pace. The differences was that Brooks offered a self-comforting message that Lin is our religious heroic similar to Soloveitchik and my notes pointed out the contrasts.

In any case, James S. Bielo’s Emerging Evangelicals is a good book and worth reading by academics, its notecard summaries of the current data and micro-studies would be too much for a general reader. His book is part of a new trend of Christian Anthropology, that is, not asking questions about the relationship of religion and modernity, rather the more subtle questions that distinguish between congregations.

Bielo points out how many people are now moving beyond their Evangelical religion of the 1990’s to new forms especially the Emergent Church. He contrasts what they are leaving and what they are seeking. You can compare the Evangelical issues to the Orthodox concerns of the gen y and gen z.

1) 1990’s made everything into “objective” facts, into truth claims and dogmatic truth or wrapped themselves up in a mantel of scientific objectivity.
Now people want their religion to speak about the human narrative, human relations, or our problems and frailties.
2)The 1990’s made everything text based and now people want local concerns, local color and lived life.
3)The 1990’s counted heads and wanted outreach and now people want saintliness and sincerity. (Germane to the Brooks discussion, we don’t do kiruv by sports and pop culture. Brooks found the heroic in sports.)
4)The 1990’s dogmatically insisted that one must follow the religious mores and practices of the 1980s and 1990s, now people want to go back to medieval, Renaissance, and even early twentieth century. We can now go back to viable practice and ides from earlier times.
5)Finally, the current trends seek an authenticity in religion – liberation from false beliefs and practices of suburban life that undermine freedom. Now there is desire to overcome fragmented, economic pressured consumerism. For more, see Bielo’s introduction.

The best part, in my opinion, of Bielo’s book is his discussion of deconversion. Bielo contrasts those who go off the path and leave- usually from a more restrictive enclave- to those who are deconverted and are left in a wilderness or looking for a new formulation. The latter group of Emergents find that the religion is not what they were promised or what they think is correct so they go the way of many greats before them and seek a return to true religion. They don’t question religion as a whole, rather they want something different. In Bielo’s case, they become Emergent Church. They are self-conscious about what they want, unlike those who leave religion and their conversion involves an opening of the eyes and a loss of naivete (see Louis Frankenthaler on Haredi Departure Narratives).

Bielo and the hundreds of studies of the last six years show that knowledgeable people are leaving because they find their religious group too dogmatic, or too anti-science, or lacking artistic values, intellectual striving, and creativity. They were promised a religion has the best of Orthodoxy and the modern world and did not find it. This is the point where Bielo shows that they are not leaving the Church but “deconverting.” They are involved in a two step process of turning from their communities and formulating a self-conscious critique. They become more into relgion rather than less into it.

Bielo compares them to the 17th century author John Bunyan in Pilgrim’s Progress, and those who want to leave the association of religion with specific demands of materialism, vanity fair, and a culture of belonging, not one of virtue.

This group does not seek to jettison faith, rather they cultivate a self-conscious highlighting of religious attention because they find that their former their religious lives were wanting. They have hope and choice as effective tools for change. They want a return to the heroic virtues of religion, the aspirations and heights of the heroic struggle. They want to do it as religious individuals not as self-obsessed consumers or submissive to an authoritarian hierarchy.

They are now are concerned about the loss of their soul, they despise the consumerism, they start to read socially banned books and they seek to apply religion to broader realms of their lives.

They show irony and mock the established wisdom like Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life. And they are willing to read negative criticism of their own community or secular books and to ask how their community is lacking. They are self-conscious about living post-Durkheim and acknowledge the social elements of what they do. And they want social change, to go beyond consumer society, and to transform the world into a kingdom of God, not Brook’s acceptance of it.

Brooks saw a tension between the shallow consumerist life and religion and was criticized on a NYT watch for seeing the mere existence of Lin, the future Presbyterian pastor, as a solution to our current consumerist un-self reflective religion. But the real tragedy, is that all the people who took pride that Brooks quoted their patron saint Rav Soloveitchik did not realize that he quoted him wrong and that their own Orthodoxy reflected the very banality that David Brooks and the Emergents decry. But Brooks, and those who linked to it, thought all that is needed to change reality is a good quote rather than seeking to face our human condition with the requisite heroic virtues. For a long detailed take down of the piece with full quotes from Rav Soloveitchik, see here.

Modern Adam the second, as soon as he finishes translating religion into the cultural vernacular, and begins to talk the “foreign” language of faith, finds himself lonely, forsaken, misunderstood, at times even ridiculed by Adam the first, by hinself. When the hour of estrangement strikes, the ordeal of man of faith begins and he starts his withdrawal from society, from Adam the first—be he an outsider, be he himself. He returns, like Moses of old, to his solitary hiding and to the abode of loneliness. Yes, the loneliness of contemporary man of faith is of a special kind. He experiences not only ontological loneliness but also social isolation, whenever he dares to deliver the genuine faith-kerygma. This is both the destiny and the human historical situation of the man who keeps a rendezvous with eternity, and who, in spite of everything, continues tenaciously to bring the message of faith to majestic man. (“The Lonely Man of Faith,” p. 65)

Yes, I assume Brooks just read his copy of Bielo. But our solutions are different.

3 responses to “David Brooks, American Religion, and I: De-conversion and the Quest for the Heroic

  1. Reblogged this on jewish philosophy place and commented:
    I am going to have to decide how often to re-blog posts from Alan Brill’s “The Book of Doctrines and Opinions.” But I like this one a lot.

  2. Your post made me think about Nikos Kazantzakis and his descriptions of a heroic spiritual journey in his writings. A spiritual journey of “Saviors of God,” which in some sad way has turned into the simple, easy spirituality of today. Makes me think I should read him again.

  3. I am not clear how generation Y and Z correspond to different stages of MO. I haven’t recovered from the baby boomers.Could you elaborate how this mapping is supposed to work?
    You write ” They want to do it as religious individuals not as self-obsessed consumers or submissive to an authoritarian hierarchy.”
    I am not clear what they would (should) say about the following video…consumerist, authoritarian, existentially lonely?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s