A Christmas Meditation from David Brooks: “A Holy Friend”

David Brooks comes in for a lot of heavy weather from conservatives for supposedly going native at the New York Times, and especially his early fondness for Obama, but let’s not go too far overboard here: he just said he liked the crease in Obama’s pants, and didn’t go all leg-tingly like Chris Matthews.   And if you follow him closely, you’ll have noted that he stopped saying much about Obama quite a while ago. I think Brooks’s relative silence about Obama must sting at the White House, which courted him assiduously during the first term.

In any case, there’s another side of Brooks that is really more meaningful and should be considered by all fair-minded readers. You can catch a glimpse of it in his column earlier this week, “The Subtle Sensations of Faith.” There’s a lot in here and it is hard to make a short excerpt that captures it, but perhaps this paragraph is a useful jumping off point for further thoughts:

The process of faith, of bringing moments of intense inward understanding into the ballyhoo of life, seems to involve a lot of reading and talking — as people try to make sense of who God is and how holiness should be lived out. Even if you tell people you are merely writing a column on faith, they begin recommending books to you by the dozen. Religion may begin with experiences beyond reason, but faith relies on reason.

Brooks has been reading and thinking on a lot of serious theological books for quite a while now. Our mutual friend Michael Cromartie pointed me to a column of Brooks’s from ten years ago on the prominent evangelical thinker John Stott, entitled “Who Is John Stott?” Turns out on Mike’s recommendation Brooks went and read nearly all of Stott’s well-regarded books. And offered this thought:

When you read Stott, you encounter first a tone of voice. Tom Wolfe once noticed that at a certain moment all airline pilots came to speak like Chuck Yeager. The parallel is inexact, but over the years I’ve heard hundreds of evangelicals who sound like Stott.

It is a voice that is friendly, courteous and natural. It is humble and self-critical, but also confident, joyful and optimistic. Stott’s mission is to pierce through all the encrustations and share direct contact with Jesus. Stott says that the central message of the gospel is not the teachings of Jesus, but Jesus himself, the human/divine figure. He is always bringing people back to the concrete reality of Jesus’ life and sacrifice. . .

Politicians, especially Democrats, are now trying harder to appeal to people of faith. But people of faith are not just another interest group, like gun owners. You have to begin by understanding the faith. And you can’t understand this rising global movement if you don’t meet its authentic representatives.

Now, if you have a spare half-hour over the next couple of days (or podcast download capabilities), you should hear David’s more recent broad-gauge thoughts, which he gave at a speech to a group of evangelical philanthropists, called “The Gathering,” in Florida about three months ago. You can read a transcript of his remarks here, but I think it is much better to hear David deliver this talk, which you can do by clicking the button at the bottom of this blog post by The Gathering’s Fred Smith. But here’s one sample from the text, where, in discussing the “walls” people of faith sometimes put up around themselves, he has this very interesting passage:

And the final wall is this wall of intellectual insecurity.  I teach at Yale. We are not nice to each other. We brutally attack each other. We are not good Christians.

But out of that comes a hardened appreciation of truth. And sometimes we are brutal to each other because we are brutal in pursuit of the truth and we don’t take…we take our ideas very seriously and we’re sometimes willing to hurt each other because the ideas are so serious. Sometimes we veer on the side of just nastiness. Sometimes in my experience in Bible Study, the desire to be nice, the desire to be affirming, softens all discussion. So the jewel of truth is not hardened. Vague words and ethereal words are tolerated because nobody wants to be too offensive.

If you read the transcript or listen to the whole talk, you won’t find a hint of politics anywhere in it. Yet somehow Brooks was attacked by the Left for giving this talk anyway, in an article in The Daily Beast. In September The Daily Beast published an attack on The Gathering describing it as a “billion-dollar-a-year right-wing conspiracy you never heard of.” Among other complaints in the article was Brooks’s forthcoming appearance at the group’s annual meeting:

Well, there are two possibilities. One, Brooks knows a bit about the underlying politics of The Gathering but doesn’t care, which is to say he’s on board with that political agenda to the extent he’s willing to lend his reputation to the event. Two, he’s relatively clueless. He’s been conned. Which would raise questions about his political acumen.

Now, no one can listen to Brooks’s talk and not be embarrassed for the completely tone-deaf, off-base hackery of The Daily Beast article. (In typical Rolling Stone-style shoddiness, its author, Jay Michaelson, never contacted any of the targets of his piece for a comment. It’s just a pure hit piece.)

Most of the philanthropic focus of The Gathering is for things like missions, soup kitchens, literacy programs—in other words, traditional Christian charities. Michaelson conducts a complete “guilt-by-association” piece that wanders off to the common ties between specific attendees and other organizations that engage more directly in political activity. But so what? Meanwhile, I wonder how much similar charitable giving the editors and staff of The Daily Beast can claim? I’d be willing to bet it’s close to zero.

John Avlon, the editor of The Daily Beast, was supposed to attend the same conclave that I attended in October on how to reduce political polarization, but he had to cancel. Good thing he cancelled, as I was looking forward to asking him very directly how he dared to speak of reducing political polarization when he publishes mendacious hit pieces like Michaelson’s.

On the other hand, I can count as a Christmas blessing never reading The Daily Beast again, or thinking I might miss something useful or important.

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