The Road to Character – Book Review

road to characterDavid Brooks has always been one of my favorite commentators on public life in America. After reading his new book, The Road to Character, he is now one of my favorite authors as well. His self-effacing style on TV sets him apart from the many loud voices that often sit on the same panels competing to see who can shout the loudest. Though he is a conservative voice, I have always appreciated his even- handed approach to hot topics and his willingness to criticize and complement politicians from both sides of the aisle. I first heard about this book on a podcast from the Gospel Coalition and couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.

Having read the book now, I think it may be my favorite book of the summer and one of the most important books published this year. While David Brooks is not an evangelical, he is clearly influenced by a number of key people like Tim Keller, James Davison Hunter and others. What is so striking about the book is his willingness to call a “spade a spade” and to discuss sin and repentance as words that need to be reclaimed in our culture. As a public intellectual in America, his willingness to “go there” had real potential for ridicule and scorn from his colleagues. His primary point in the book is that we as a nation have embraced moral romanticism over moral realism and as such are much more focused on what he calls resume virtues – achieving wealth, fame and status than our “eulogy virtues” – kindness, bravery, honesty and faithfulness.

A surprising aspect of the book for me was his placing the timing of this shift in our culture to the late 1940’s after World War II rather than in the 1960’s when most evangelicals assumed it was taking place. He makes the case that “it was the Greatest Generation that abandoned moral realism”. He says, “By the fall of 1945, people around the world had endured sixteen years of deprivation – first during the depression, then during the war. They were ready to let loose, to relax, and to enjoy”. Brooks points out that there were several key books that reinforced this shift like Peace of Mind by Rabbi Joshua Leibman that urged people to “engrave a new morality on their hearts” and the work of Carl Rogers who said that the words that best describe human nature are “positive, forward moving, constructive, realistic and trustworthy.” It is amazing how far the pendulum had swung in a world that had just experienced some of the greatest atrocities that man can inflict on man.

Some of the best chapters in the book deal with the life of Augustine and later in the book when Brooks applies his thinking to the way that modern parenting has reinforced the cultural emphasis on “resume” virtues. That said, the final chapter in the book, entitled, The Big Me, is worth the price of the book. It defines his concept of what he calls The Humility Code and is his roadmap for The Road to Character. Here are his 15 principles that provide what he calls “a coherent image of what to live for and how to live”:

1. We don’t live for happiness, we live for holiness.
2. We are flawed creatures that have an innate tendency towards selfishness and overconfidence.
3. Even though we are flawed creatures, we are also splendidly endowed and “fearfully and wonderfully made”.
4. Humility is our greatest virtue.
5. Pride is the central vice.
6. The struggle against sin and for virtue is the central drama of life.
7. Character is built in the course of your inner confrontation.
8. The things that lead us astray are short term – lust, fear, vanity, gluttony. The things that we call character endure over the long term – courage, honesty, humility.
9. No person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own.
10. We are all ultimately saved by grace.
11. Defeating weakness often means quieting the soul.
12. Wisdom starts with epistemological modesty.
13. No good life is possible unless it is organized around a vocation.
14. The best leader tries to lead along the grains of human nature rather than go against it.
15. The person who successfully struggles against weakness and sin may or may not become rich and famous, but that person will become mature.

While Brooks does acknowledge God as one possibility for helping with the self-mastery concept mentioned in point number nine above, he places far too much confidence in traditions and institutions as the solution for all our moral problems. While most of his fifteen principles are Biblically rooted, he never mentions Jesus Christ in the book nor did I expect him to. As a Christian, it is deeply encouraging to know that I do not have to do all this hard work on my own. In reality, I can’t do any of it by myself. It is no wonder that most people have a morally nuanced view of life when they are rewarded for “the ends justify the means” behavior and tolerance is the highest cultural virtue in our world today. The only hope for our world remains the redemptive work that Jesus did on the cross over 2000 years ago and that will never change.


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