David Brooks on His Journey as a Wandering Jew and Confused Christian

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David Brooks on His Journey as a Wandering Jew and Confused Christian

Collin Hansen interviews David Brooks


The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy. 

Collin Hansen: Think of it as an extended commencement address on the meaning and purpose of life. That’s how I read The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life, the latest New York Times number one bestseller by David Brooks. We’re drowning in freedom when we need direction, Brooks says. We’re looking inside ourselves to discover our inner passion when we should be looking for a cause that serves others. We can’t tell right from wrong when we should be drawing on the wisdom of the ages. We need to live on that second mountain, a life of commitment to others, Brooks argues. We need guidance in the good life. Brooks writes, “Students are taught to engage in critical thinking, to doubt distance, to take things apart, but they are given almost no instruction on how to attach to things. How to admire, to swear loyalty to, to copy and serve. The universities, like the rest of society, are information-rich and meaning-poor.”

Brooks guides readers in the quest for a moral and meaningful life through four commitments, vocation, marriage, community, and philosophy in faith. I especially appreciated what he said about the marriage decision: “You would think that the schools would have provided you with course after course on the marriage decision on the psychology of marriage, the old science of marriage, literature of marriage. But no, society is a massive conspiracy to distract you from the important choices of life in order to help you fixate on the unimportant ones.”

That’s really the benefit of The Second Mountain, wisdom for focusing on the important choices of life. Brooks joins me on The Gospel Coalition Podcast to talk about joy, community, faith, and much more. Thank you for joining me again, David.

David Brooks: Oh, it’s good to be back with you.

Hansen: Well, we last talk for your 2015 book, The Road to Character, but you say you wrote The Second Mountain, which does overlap in many ways to compensate for the limitations of The Road to Character. You say that in the earlier book, you were still enclosed in the prison of individualism, but in this latest book, you write, “I no longer believe that the cultural and moral structures of our society are fine and all we have to do is fix ourselves individually. Over the past few years as a result of personal, national and global events, I’ve become radicalized. I now think the rampant individualism of our current climate is a catastrophe. The emphasis on self, individual success, self-fulfillment, individual freedom, self-actualization is a catastrophe.”

So, David, how do we escape the mentality that the “best life is the freest life”?

Brooks: Yeah, I’ve sort of been asking myself that question for the past six years. I went through a rough patch in 2013. My marriage had ended, my kids had left home to go to college. I drifted away from the political movement that I had been a part of most of my life. And so, I was lonely. I was disconnected from people and not really knowing it but facing a spiritual emptiness or void in myself. And so, what I did was what a lot of people do, I tried to work my way through it, just work all as soon as I could a way to try to escape relational and spiritual crisis. And so, I was in my apartment, I was doing my writing, writing my column, and I never had anybody over. So, if you went to my kitchen and opened the drawer where there should have been silverware, there was just post-it notes. And if you went to where there should have been plates, there was just stationary and paper and folders. And I was just leading a working life, and I was just disconnected.

And the weird thing is, as I was getting disconnected from other people, at least, falling out of thick relationship, it was happening to a lot of people. We have a rise of loneliness—the rise is 30 percent; rise in suicide rates—70 percent; rise in teenage suicide rate. So, the whole country was going through a process of disconnection, and it was the same cause, a culture of individualism, a culture that says, “You are what you accomplish.” And so, I found when you’re in the valley, you learn a couple of things. You learn that freedom stinks. You know, political freedom is good, economic freedom is good. Social freedom is no good. If you’re unattached, you’re unremembered, and you aren’t committed to anything. And I learned that lesson.

The second thing I learned in the valley is that you can either be broken or you can be broken open. And some people get broken by pain. We all go through seasons of pain, and some people cower in on themselves, and they get resentful and hateful, and sometimes they lash out in self-pity. There’s a great saying, “Pain that is transformed gets transmitted.” But some people are broken open. The people I admire most are broken open in those moments. There’s a great theologian, Paul Tillich, who says that what suffering does is that it reminds you you’re not the person you thought you were. It carves through what you thought was the floor of the basement of your soul and it reveals a cavity below. And it carves through that and reveals a cavity below. And when you see into the depths of yourself, you realize that only spiritual and emotional food can fill those depths and then you’re ready to get out of the mountain.

Hansen: A lot of the book is about individuals and then the problems there, but you have drawn an interesting connection between individualism as a problem, but then tribalism. It would seem that if the problem is individualism, then tribalism actually would bring us together and connect us. But explain why individualism actually leads to tribalism and why tribalism is not the same thing as community.

Broooks: Psychologists have a saying that the hardest thing to cure is the patient’s attempt to self-cure. Sometimes when we tried to solve the problem, we solve it in the wrong way. And that’s what tribalism is. Our society, as I said, at least people are making it alone, a lot of detached. And so, they try to solve the problem by joining a tribe. And tribe seems like community, it’s like a form of bonding, but it’s actually the dark twin of community, because community is built on a mutual love of something. You love your town together, you love a cause together, you love God together. But tribalism is based on mutual hatred toward another. Tribalism is always us/them, friend/enemy distinctions, you know, politics is war. Life is a zero-sum game, scarcity mindset, let’s build the walls, let’s erect barriers. So, what it does is it leads people to gang together but ganged together, not around love but around hate.

Hansen: Yours is a very quotable book. I agree with you on many of these. Here’s one: “Our society has become a conspiracy against joy.” And you differentiate between joy and happiness. So, how do we aim toward joy instead of happiness?

Brooks: Happiness is fine. Happiness is what we shoot for on when we’re on our first mountain. And it’s when things are going our way when we’re moving toward our goals. So, if you get a promotion at work, if your team wins the Super Bowl, then you’re happy, and that’s good. What happiness is the expansion of self. You feel better about yourself, you feel prouder about yourselves and the self sort of expands. Joy, the self sort of disappears. When a mother and daughter are enraptured in love with each other, they sort of lose the contact that’s in the barrier of where one person ends and the other begins. When somebody is lost in prayer, they lose this sort of the sense of where they end and God begins. When somebody is out in nature, they feel at one with nature. And that sense of self-forgetting, that sense of transcending the self, that’s what joy is. And my view is happiness is good, but joy is better. Happiness is a moment, but joy can transform you.

Hansen: You’ve enjoyed a lot of professional success, which would indicate some of that happiness. You’ve had the kind of wealth and fame and accomplishment that many others want but can never have. And yet one of the things that you observe is that even within this inner ring, none of that spares you from the valley, from that experience. So, I’m wondering, just maybe amplify a little bit of what you talked about before. When you got to the top of that first mountain, what did you see?

Brooks: I found it unsatisfying. And this is an absolute typical experience. I remember a few years, like, several years ago, my first book, I got a call from my editor that it had made The New York Times bestseller list, and I felt nothing. It was just something happening out there. And so, and I would trade that away for one dinner with my wife or one meal with my kids, or one experience with the group of my best friends. I used to go to summer camp, but camp reunion is better than anything. I remember once I was driving home from work and I pulled into my house, and my house then had a driveway that went around the side of the yard, and my kids were then like 12, 9, and 4. And I saw them in the backyard as I pulled in, and they were playing with little plastic ball, the Safeway balls they kick in the air, and they were chasing each other across the yard, and they were laughing and giggling and piling all over each other and having the greatest time. And I just sat there in the car looking at them through the windshield, and for some reason, the lawn looked great, and the sun was coming through the trees, and that sort of reality spilled outside its boundaries. And I was aware this was happier than anything I’d ever experienced at work. And what it was was a joy that beyond anything I could ever deserve. It was grace. And any parent probably has experienced this grace, this overwhelming sense that life is magical. And so that’s what you get through relationship, that’s where you get through transcendence. That’s what you get one of your life is giving towards something. And it’s not what you get when you’re negotiating or trying to figure out where you rank or how your ego is doing.

Hansen: I think I told you this, probably when we last talked about The Road to Character, but it was your book Bobos in Paradise that actually helped me to see myself from an external perspective and kinda see how pathetic I was, and some of my aspirations were, and sent me on a journey of trying to value some of these things, this relational life.

Can you talk about some of that progression, because there are some significant shifts that you indicate in this book? You know, at the same time, it seems like you really have been talking about these things for a long time, or at least recognizing some of these problems inherent to our modern culture.

Brooks: You know, my life and my books, there are five of them now, cover the same sort of American society but usually at a level one step down. And so, that book Bobos in Paradise, since a lot of it was about consumerism. And then I wrote a book about emotion called The Social Animal, then I wrote a book about character called The Road to Character, and this book is really much more about spiritual life. And it’s also comes at a time when our society’s in much worse shape than it was when I wrote Bobos in Paradise. And you know, American lifespan is going down, not up. The depression rates are rising to a sad rate. Suicide rates, as I said, are spiking. Mental health problems are rampant. And so, there’s something much more of the disease has accumulated. And so, I think we need a much sharper cultural and spiritual and social transformation. And so I think as I got in deeper, I’ve gotten more alarmed about the state of our culture. And I’ve tried to imagine, “Well, what would that culture shift look like if we’re gonna reject the culture of individualism and where everything is based on the ego and the meritocracy, what’s the alternative?”

And in this book, I have plenty of stories of people who have found the alternative. They found a better way to live. They live for community and not for self. And I tried to tell their stories as a way to illustrate how we should be living. And I find I get that most of the lessons I get in life are from finding people who just look joyous, who lead really admirable lives and just trying to copy them.

Hansen: It’s a good method. You talk about a number of different ways that that dynamic is counter-intuitive to what we want or what we expect. And one illustration you gave that stands out, you said, “No one becomes a deeper, less selfish person by taking a vacation to Hawaii.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it doesn’t tend to follow. You talked about this a little bit earlier, but I would love to hear more. How did you begin to see your suffering as the place of moral transformation? I was really moved when you wrote this: “Suffering opened up the deepest sources of the self and exposed fresh soil for new growth.”

Brooks: You know, five years ago I read a book by Henry Nouwen, and he said, “When you have moments of pain, you have to stand in the pain and see what it has to teach you.” And when I first read that, I really was shocked, and I said, “No. I’m in pain. I want to get out of pain.” But I think, in some sense, he’s right. But the next thing I learned was that you can’t climb out of the valley on your own. Somebody has to reach down and pull you out.

And I was fortunate that, about toward the bottom for me, I was invited over to a couple’s house, named Cathy and David, and they live in D.C., and they had a kid in the D.C. public schools who had a friend whose mom had some health issues and the kid often didn’t have a place to sleep or eat. And so they said, “Well, you know, he can come over and stay with us sometimes.” And then that kid had a friend, and that kid had a friend. And by the time I went to their house on a Thursday night in 2013, there were like 30 kids around the dinner table and 15 sleeping all over the house. And I walked in that room with all those kids, about 16-17 then, and I reached to shake a hand of one of the kids, and he said, “We really don’t shake hands here, we just hug here.” And I’m not the huggiest guy in the face of the earth, but I’ve been going back every Thursday and hugging all of them, all around the table. And we just throw our stuff on the table or our woes and our joys. And one of the girls, her kidney failed and David, the father figure in the family, gave her a kidney. And so, it is just a warm and embracing community. And they taught me how to do relationship a little better, I’m a struggler at it, but it became a way to get out of my head and live a more emotional and spiritually rich life. They were the first step for me, and they really pulled me up.

Hansen: Certainly I think what’s going to stand out to a lot of people in this book is your reflections on faith and your own, you know, personal journey in that regard. You narrate a walk on American Lake at the top of a mountain near Aspen, Colorado. And this walk really helped me to understand and gave meaning to the book’s title, The Second Mountain. And the mountain, you read the Puritan prayers of The Valley of Vision, and you listed everything you’d have to give up if God existed: work, reputation, friends, life, loves, family, vices, bank accounts. And earlier in the book, you had cited what you called one of the inescapable truisms of life and as, “You have to lose yourself to find yourself. Give yourself away to get everything back.” And Jesus famously made that point about himself in giving up our lives for him in Matthew 10:39. So, I’m wondering, how did you determine that believing in and following Jesus is worth that sacrifice?

Brooks: Well, you know, you just try to follow what’s true. And I think what happened to me was that the realities of life were bigger and more enchanted and more transcendent than the categories I was using to try to understand life. So, you have to change your categories. And frankly, the secular categories just don’t encompass what life as I experience it. You know, I’m a journalist, and when I write stories about somebody, it’s not just a bag of genetic material. The person I’m writing about has an immortal soul, has that soul that gives them infinite value and dignity and gives them moral responsibility. And once you see that people have souls, then you begin to see that we’re connected by a giant soul. And my concept of God, the phrase that rings most true to me is the ground of being, that the very fabric of the universe and the ground everything is on is a force of divine love. And we live within that force, and we live within those stories, and we lived within those truths. And that just seemed gradually to come true to me.

And it wasn’t like, you know, there was that experience at American Lake where, in Colorado, where I felt things clicking into place, but it wasn’t dramatic. Some people have this dramatic Road to Damascus experiences. Mine was gradual over many years. And I liken it to riding in a train, like, you’re in a train, and everything is normal, you know, somebody is sitting next to you, you’re drinking a cup of coffee, you’re opening your computer, and everything seems normal. But in the middle of the journey, you look out the window, and you realize we’ve traveled a long way and there’s a lot of ground behind us and maybe we’ve even crossed the border without noticing it. And I’m not an atheist anymore, and I’m not even agnostic. I do feel that we live in a created order that’s being created still. And so, that process was as slow, and as boring as it’s possible to imagine. I wrote that chapter to illustrate that faith can come to anyone (audio drops out) realized didn’t seem true. Now it seems true. And the stories you’ve been reading all your life in the Bible now seem like the ground of being.

Hansen: Well, I understand that you don’t think books are the best tool for evangelism based on some of the comments that you made in here, especially about how many people sent you copies of Mere Christianity. That was some of your characteristic wit and humor there. So, what is the best way to share our love of Jesus and invite others to worship him? I thought, in particular, the comments that your wife, Anne Snyder, had made were particularly powerful, especially on what it means to receive grace.

Brooks: I grew up in a culture like a lot of us where you earn. You do your homework, and you earn it. And so, I thought, Well, I feel this faith growing in me. I should do all the reading. And I believe in books. In my books, I try to take along the passages from other books that helped me, and I try to pass them along. Somebody said that writers were beggars who teach other beggars where we found bread. And so, I do think that’s part of it. But I wanted, in the early days, to earn my way there. And Anne reminded me that, you know, that denies grace’s power, that grace is radical because you don’t earn it and it reaches those who sit still. And you’ve gotta teach yourself that you’re not totally in control. I read in the book that, “Nobody finds faith without struggling toward it, but nobody finds faith simply by struggling towards it. Something else has to move.” And so, I think it was that complex process. Eugene Peterson has a concept that we’re taught to act and live in the active voice. Taking charge, being the captain. You know, we’re taught to never work in the passive voice, never sits still. And he says, “But there’s a third voice, which is the middle voice, which is the voice of response.” And that’s how we should live our lives, by responding to the circumstances around us, by responding to the sensations that come to us and by responding to call that’s been made for us.

Hansen: Your reflections in the book on faith are transparent throughout, and you admit that your belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ comes and goes. And you also say that you don’t resonate with most religious people you meet. Your encounter with John Stott might have been different in that regard, but I’m wondering in general, how can those religious people that you tend not to resonate with, learn from a self-professed borders stalker like yourself?

Brooks: Well, I would only say what happened to me. I mean, there are many ways to come through the gate. And some people had some dramatic religious experience, and they become faithful. I never had that. And some people, they feel contact with the divine every day, and it’s a normal part of their daily lives. I resonate with those for whom it comes and goes. There’s a writer named Frederick Buechner who says, “If you wake up every morning and you say, ‘Can I believe all that again?'” And he says, “If you wake up every morning, 10 days out 10 and say, ‘Oh yeah, I believe it all again.'” He says, “Well, you may be pulling that wall over your own eyes.” He says, “Some days you should wake up and say, I’m not feeling it today.” And he says, “Those days are important because the nos are as important as the yeses because they prove that you’re human.” But he says, “A couple of days out of 10, you should wake up and say, ‘Yes, I do believe.’ And those days should be days of joy and great rapture.” And I resonate with that.

There’s another great writer that I recommend named Christian Wiman who wrote a book called My Bright Abyss. And he says, “Faith is having sensations some of the time. And then trying to be faithful to those even if they don’t last all the time.” And so the doubting faith and moving faith, that mysterious faith, the faith that comes and goes, that, to me is, that’s how it feels to me. And so, I find that more compelling, to be honest.

Hansen: You explained in The Second Mountain that you feel more Jewish than ever before, and as a Christian, you can’t unread the Gospel of Matthew. And I thought that’s one of the more beautiful depictions of Jesus that I’ve heard. You write this: “He came not to be the awesome conquering Messiah that most of us would want, but to be the lamb, to submit, to love his enemies. He came not to be the victim of sin, but the solution. His strength was self-sacrificial and his weapon, love, so that we might live.” Again, I just found that to be beautiful there and I wondered just how did you come to particularly see the beauty and joy in loving Jesus? How did that enter in?

Brooks: You know, first, I was raised in a Jewish home and when I was an atheist, I was just (audio drops out) never change. But now I think the story of Exodus is a true story, and so now I feel religiously connected to the Almighty. But then to me, the revolution and the radical realism comes from the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount. I have a quote in the book that that’s where the celestial grandeur comes true. And people wonder about the miracles in the Bible. Well, did they happen? Did they not happen? But to me, the books themselves are the miracle. The fact that Exodus is such a rich story, such a story that contains so much of human wisdom and so much not of transhuman wisdom, this fabric of the universe. And then the Beatitudes that such a radical document set from entirely different moral vision could descend upon us. That to me is a miracle. And so, when you read that, it’s really a call to shed the ego and live a very different sort of life. And that is just a revolutionary concept. And to me, it’s not only revolutionary, it’s the ultimate source of beauty with a depth that you fall into and fall into and fall into. And so, it felt like just awe in wonder when I really encountered that for, you know, the first reading Exodus as a real thing.

Hansen: Just one more question here. You have some pointed advice and at the same time critique of Protestant evangelicals. I think it’s a fairly fair description here, “not quite as at least in self-conception, often in reality, not quite as intellectually rigorous or as cool as the secular world and at the same time inflated by the notion that our quantum leap or too more moral.” But in particular, what stood out to me was your comments on culture. So, from this kind of position on the inside of these cultural institutions that people talk about so often, explain why the common evangelical critiques of the culture lead to an unhelpful siege mentality or what you also described as the innocence of victimhood.

Brooks: Sometimes I think when pastors think they’re gonna give a sermon on the “culture,” they should just lie down and take a nap. Because the culture is very complicated. And I think it’s too simple to say the culture is out to get us or that we’re besieged in the culture, we’re under threat in the culture. The culture has a lot of things going on, and then one of them is the individualism I talked about. And one of them is the overemphasis on merit and achievement. But another thing that’s happened in the culture, and I think I’m typical example of this, too, is spiritual hunger. I teach at secular schools, and my students are hungry. They want a more of a vocabulary. They want to understand some ultimate end in life. They want to understand what grace is. They wanna understand what redemption is. They’re haunted by sensitive shame and sin. And so, they are aware we live in a moral universe, and yet they don’t. . . . Sometimes they’re not given, it’s not their fault, they’re not even a vocabulary to understand these moral sensations they have.

And when I look at either the Jewish world, or the Christian world, or the Muslim world, I see moral richness and spiritual richness. And I see communities that have what their culture wants. And so, you know, my only advice to people in Christian institutions is, “Walk in confidence and show the benefits of what you have.” And that’s the most attractive form. And there’s no need to declare war on the culture. There’s just, “I need to be, you know, a salty light to the world.” Sorry, I’m mixing metaphors here. And so, to me, I just think a lot of Christian institutions, if they would live out the faith that they say they believe in, they would be so attractive and so much a beacon for everyone else.

Hansen: Let me go back to one thing that I brought up earlier, John Stott. Was that something that you’d seen in him in your early encounters with him? I think it was 2004 or something like that when you wrote your column on him.

Brooks: Right. I wrote a column on him, and I got to have a lunch with him. And to be honest, you know, I grew up in New York City and live in Washington. I, of course, had known many Christians, but I’d never quite known one like him. And it was a shock to me when I first met him that he was someone who, first of all, just super-brilliant man, very clear mind, but also a humble graciousness and a settled peacefulness that, I think, anybody would very much like to have. And so I was sort of struck by him. And then when we had that lunch, he was not, I wanted to talk about him because he’s a remarkable being to me. He just wanted to talk about me and where I was in the faith, and he was very forceful. And I learned years later is that he’d spent some time thinking about our lunch and preparing for it. And he really hammered home various questions, and I was not in any position to come close to answering them at that point. But it was an encounter with someone who I will say impressed just by his gentle faith, but his strong faith. And when you see it, you realized you were in the presence of something very forceful and very compelling.

Hansen: Well, I think maybe the best way to conclude is for me to just read back your invitation in the book, which I found so moving to consider: “Consider the possibility that a creature of infinite love has made a promise to us. Consider the possibility that we are the ones committed to the objects of an infinite commitment, and that the commitment is to redeem us and bring us home. That is why religion is hope. I am a wandering Jew and a very confused Christian. But how quick is my pace, how open are my possibilities, and how vast are my hopes.” Well, thank you, David, for writing this book and also then for joining me on The Gospel Coalition Podcast.

Brooks: Oh, it’s been a great pleasure. Thank you.

Think of it as an extended commencement address on the meaning and purpose of life. That’s how I read The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life, the latest New York Times #1 bestseller by David Brooks. We’re drowning in freedom, Brooks says, when we need direction. We’re looking inside ourselves to discover our inner passion, when we should be looking for a cause that serves others. We can’t tell right from wrong, when we should be drawing on the wisdom of the ages. We need to live on that second mountain, a life of commitment to others, Brooks argues. We need guidance in the good life. He writes:

Students are taught to engage in critical thinking, to doubt, to distance, to take things apart, but they are given almost no instruction on how to attach to things, how to admire, to swear loyalty to, to copy and serve. The universities, like the rest of society, are information rich and meaning poor.

The New York Times columnist guides readers in the quest for a moral and meaningful life through four commitments: vocation, marriage, community, and philosophy and faith. I especially appreciated what he said about the marriage decision.

You would think that the schools would have provided you with course after course on the marriage decision, on the psychology of marriage, the neuroscience of marriage, the literature of marriage. But no, society is a massive conspiracy to distract you from the important choices of life in order to help you fixate on the unimportant ones.

That’s really the benefit of The Second Mountain: wisdom for focusing on the important choices of life. Brooks joined me on The Gospel Coalition Podcast to talk about joy, community, faith, and much more, including his religious journey as a self-professed wandering Jew and confused Christian.

Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast.