Jeff Haanen

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David Brooks


Greatness and Grace

Today Christianity Today published my interview with New York Times Columnist David Brooks on his incredible new book The Road to Character. Here it is in its entirety:


The New York Times columnist asks what it takes to build character in a ‘Big Me’ culture.

Interview by Jeff Haanen /


Several years ago, David Brooks hit a wall. Although his résumé sparkled—a columnist for The New York Times, a political commentator for PBS and NPR, and the author of best-selling books like Bobos in Paradise—his inner life felt impoverished.

Brooks’s quest to fill that hollowness culminated in his latest book, The Road to Character (Random House). He pairs sketches of historical figures like Augustine and Dwight Eisenhower with analysis of our culture’s retreat from biblical notions of sin and righteousness. Jeff Haanen, executive director of Denver Institute for Faith & Work, spoke with Brooks, a cultural Jew, about recovering the classical quest for virtuous living—and great men and women who can light the way.

Throughout The Road to Character you distinguish between “Adam One” and “Adam Two,” or the “resumé virtues” and the “eulogy virtues.” Can you explain the difference between the two and how they influenced your project?

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik made this distinction between Adam One and Adam Two. Adam One is the career side of ourselves, and Adam Two is the internal side, the spiritual side of ourselves. The crucial thing is that they operate by different forms of logic. Adam One operates by a straightforward, economic logic: Input leads to output, and effort leads to reward. Adam Two operates by an inverse logic, basically the logic of the Beatitudes: The high will be made low; you have to give to receive; you must lose yourself to find yourself.

I didn’t have a midlife crisis or anything, but I came to realize that I pay too much attention to the Adam One side of my life, and that I’m not articulate enough about my inner life. I came to a realize that career success doesn’t actually lead to happiness. It doesn’t lead to the deepest fulfillment. I started looking for something more.

You note that since roughly World War II, we’ve lived in a different “moral country.” What’s changed?

Most people believe the big cultural shift happened in the 1960s. But when I investigated the books and culture of the late 1940s, I found that the transformation happened then. There were tons of best-selling books, and some movies, arguing that the notion of human sinfulness was outdated, and that we should embrace the idea that we’re really wonderful.

When you lose awareness of sin and start thinking that, deep down, human beings are pretty wonderful, you lose the struggle of character building. Building character is not like being better than someone else at a career. It’s conquering your own weakness. But you won’t make that effort if you lose a sense of what your weakness is and where it comes from.

How did losing sight of human weakness pave the way for what you call today’s “Big Me” culture?

We’ve encouraged generations to think highly of themselves. In 1950, the Gallup organization asked high-school seniors, “Are you a very important person?” Back then, 12 percent said yes. Gallup asked the same question in 2005, and 80 percent said yes.

There are surveys called “The Narcissism Test” that ask whether respondents agree with statements like, “I like to be the center of attention because I’m so extraordinary,” or “Somebody should write a biography about me.” The median narcissism score has gone up 30 percent in 20 years.

Our economy encourages us to promote ourselves with social media, to brand ourselves and get “likes.” In theory, we know humility is important, but we live in a culture of self-promotion.

Much of the book is about historical figures who stand in contrast to the culture of self-promotion, such as Frances Perkins, Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of labor and a major player behind the New Deal. What about her upbringing and education shaped her character?

Perkins went to Mount Holyoke College back when the main purpose of higher education was not intellectual skills (though that was certainly a priority) but character-building. Since she was weakest in chemistry, the school made her major in chemistry. If you can do what you’re weakest at, you can handle any challenge. Holyoke also sent its students around the world on missionary trips. They picked up this heroic sense that they could do something brave.

Perkins was unsure of how to dedicate her life until, in 1911, she watched workers die in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. That gave her what some have called “the call within the call.” She had her career, but now it had become a vocation. Forever after, she would do anything she could to advance the cause of workers’ rights.

You write about two military figures, Dwight Eisenhower and George Marshall. What are some differences between their view of morality and our “culture of authenticity” today?

They didn’t trust themselves. Eisenhower knew that he had this terrible temper. So he was always checking himself. He knew that if he was going to lead, he needed to show cheerfulness, certainty, and confidence. But he didn’t feel that inside. He felt anxiety and anger.

And so he knew he couldn’t be his “true self” in public. Nowadays, we say that you should always be sincere, but Eisenhower was self-distrusting. He said, “If I’m sincere, I will not be effective. I have to work hard on building myself into something better.” So he built himself into a very cheerful, happy person, at least externally. But that construction took a lot of effort. Sometimes, when he was angry at certain people, he would write their names down on a piece of paper, rip it up and throw it in the garbage just to purge his anger.

Marshall was a very scattered and disorganized young man. He was always afraid of being humiliated. But he dedicated himself to the military so powerfully. He said to himself, “There are certain organizations that have been here before I was born, and they’ll be here after I’m dead, and I’m going to serve those organizations. And I’m going to try to live up to the standards of excellence that they embody.”

Sometimes that did make him austere. He was not the easiest guy to get to know. But he served his country with amazing steadiness. Occasionally you’ll run into people who were heroes in history, but not to those closest around. Marshall was a hero to those closest around him. They regarded him as a man of almost unbelievable integrity and honesty.

You also write about Augustine of Hippo and Dorothy Day. What can these portraits of Christian faith teach us?

Augustine is quite simply the most capacious mind and intelligent man I’ve ever encountered.

He was a successful young rhetorician, but the more he achieved, the more uncomfortable he felt. So he investigated his own mind to see what was going on. He understood psychology, 1,600 years ago, as well as we do today. When Augustine plumbed the depths of his mind, he found infinity there. In other words, he found God. As Reinhold Niebuhr said, the road into the self leads right out of the self.

As a bishop, Augustine fought many battles over church doctrine. But he had achieved a certain tranquility. If you focus only on your outer life, you never can. Worldly ambitions always have a way of demanding more.

Dorothy Day is another amazing character. Some people come to faith in moments of suffering and pain, but she came to faith in a moment of joy, at the birth of her child. She said, “I’ve never felt as great a love as I felt in the days after the birth of my daughter.” And with that came a need to worship and to adore God.

Day became a Catholic, a social worker, and a newspaper writer, and she spent her life building communities. There’s a phrase from Nietzsche that Eugene Peterson turned into a book title, “a long obedience in the same direction.” Our culture praises choice and individualism, not obedience. But obedience is where Day found joy.

With Augustine and Dorothy Day, their faith had a huge impact. Do you see a connection between religious faith and the development of character?

There are two issues here. First, I found there were many people who were secular but who we would say had great character. We can just see that.

But even if they didn’t have faith themselves, they had what I call the “biblical metaphysic.” They had the categories of Christianity and Judaism in their heads. Categories like sin, redemption, the soul, virtue, and grace. They knew the words. Eisenhower wasn’t particularly religious, but his mother gave him those words. Abraham Lincoln’s faith, to take another example, is always mysterious to me. But he certainly felt the pull of Providence.

I don’t think you need to have faith to be a good person. I observe people who are great people without faith. But I do think you need to have the biblical metaphysic. You need to have the words and categories.

Your book describes two paths to character. One is the path of moral effort, of emulating great heroes like the ones you profile. The other is the path of grace, the experience of receiving the gift of goodness. Which path works best?

It’s both. You may be able to build character and greatness through disciplined effort, but I don’t think you can experience the highest joy without grace. Nor can you experience tranquility. That only comes from gratitude, the feeling that you’re getting much more than you deserve.

My book includes a beautiful passage from the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich. He writes about certain moments when you are feeling down, and then suddenly you feel this tremendous sense of acceptance. You’re not asked to do anything—only to accept the fact that you’re accepted.

The word character can sound tough and austere. But most of the characters in my book had moments of profound joy, of feeling overwhelmed by gratitude.

You end the book with “The Humility Code”: “We don’t live for happiness, we live for holiness.” “Humans are flawed yet deeply endowed.” “Humility is the greatest virtue. Pride is the greatest vice.” “We are all ultimately saved by grace.” Is it any accident that these sound like the teachings of Jesus and the apostles?

I spend a lot of time going to Israel. Christian art there has a certain “face.” When you walk the Stations of the Cross, you enter different chapels from different traditions: Greek Orthodox, Catholic. But the art features the same facial expression: one of gentle, loving kindness. In Greek or Roman art, the expressions are much “harder” and less grace-filled. But the Christian art has a kind of joy-filled humility.

The Gospels brought about a revolution in morals. To put it broadly, there was a shift from a desire for power to a desire for sacrificial love. Even just speaking as a historian of ideas, culture, and behavior, that was a radical revolution that created a radical counterculture.

Today when we hear the word counterculture, we think of hippies in the 1960s. But the hippies ultimately represent the same individualistic striving we see from Apple computer and Ben & Jerry’s.

The true counterculture is found in faith, whether Jewish or Christian. It’s about living by a totally different moral logic. The logic of the Bible and the language of humility—that’s the real counterculture.

When I read your book, I couldn’t help thinking about how evangelicals (myself included) often capitulate to Big Me culture—positive psychology, the self-branding of social media, “life plans.” What can evangelicals learn from both secular and religious people who have taken the road to character?

Recently I met with the Gathering [a group of Christian philanthropists] in Orlando, Florida, and spoke, as an outsider, on the ramps and the walls the evangelical community builds for outsiders. Ramps are things that welcome people into a community, and walls are things that drive people away. I argued that what drives people away the most is a mixture of an intellectual inferiority complex with a moral superiority complex.

Intellectual standards in the evangelical community are not as high as they could be. It’s getting better. Everyone wants to be kind to each other. But sometimes you have to be a little cruel to disagree, and to disagree sharply and honestly to raise the intellectual standard of the enterprise.

On the other hand, as someone who has come to know a lot of evangelicals in the past years, many through writing this book, there are so many people who embody serenity and joy. They radiate caring love.

Words and theology are important. But I’m a big believer that “the message is the person.” When you run across somebody who is joyfully giving, humbly giving, that’s a more attractive evangelical move than any book or tract could be.


How should I choose a career?

Today most career counselors and well-meaning friends would respond to this question with: What are you good at? What do you love to do? What’s your personality type? Where do you want to live? What kind of lifestyle do you want? These are good, normal questions. Yet I have to wonder, are the goals of self-fulfillment and maximizing my personal potential the best way to think about a lifetime of work?

These views are hardly uncommon. According to the Barna Group, the top career priority for millennials (I’m one of them) is “finding a career they’re passionate about” (42%). David Kinnamen, the CEO of Barna, says about millennials, They cite working for themselves, a job adaptable to their strengths, having a lot of variety, and the freedom to take risks as essential career priorities, in addition to being able to fund their personal interests.” He adds they also have a strong desire to make a social impact through their job. Somewhat tongue in cheek, he remarks Young adults want to make their own hours, come to work in their jeans and flip-flops, and save the world while they’re at it.”

Despite these good intentions, for many of us (not just millennials) job choice has become little more than a calculating process of maximizing psychological or financial gain while minimizing discomfort. Career selection is a process that begins with the self and ends with the self. And if I’m not satisfied, just change jobs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average worker today changes jobs every 4.4 years.  We’ve embraced the logic behind William Henry Ernest’s poem Invictus:I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul.

But it wasn’t always this way.

Consider the example of Frances Perkins, the former Labor Secretary under Franklin Roosevelt and a key player behind the New Deal. Perkins attended Mount Holyoke College, a member of the class of 1902. At Mount Holyoke, the end goal of education was not only knowledge, but virtue. She enjoyed history and literature, but she struggled in chemistry. So one of her teachers, Nellie Goldthwaite, badgered her into majoring in chemistry, with the idea that if she could overcome her greatest weakness, she could handle any challenge life threw at her. So she majored in chemistry.

Having been formed by Mount Holyoke—a college that sent hundreds of women to missionary service in places like India, Iran, and Africa under the motto “Do what nobody else wants to do; go where nobody else wants to go,”—a vision of sacrificial service was embedded in her at an early age. Self-denial, not self-fulfillment, was the bedrock of her vocational vision.


Yet it wasn’t until 1911, when Perkins watched in horror as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burned to the ground, that she received the “call within the call.” As she watched hundreds of workers desperately trapped by fire on the ninth floor (over 47 people jumped to their death from a window to avoid being roasted by the flames), Perkins made a life-long commitment to advocate for worker’s rights. She felt summoned by a force outside herself, not by a desire for “success” or to accomplish her personal “life plan.”

Her calling led her into politics, which culminated in her joining FDR’s cabinet. She took the job on the condition that FDR would commit to a broad array of social insurance policies: massive unemployment relief, minimum wage laws, the abolition of child labor, and a Social Security program for the elderly. Her entrance into government followed her calling, not vice versa.

Politics took a toll on her, and she often felt as if she would buckle under the pressure. To strengthen her soul, she would frequently make trips to All Saints Convent in Catonsville, Maryland, where she would pray two or three days at a time. In one particularly stormy season, after she had been accused of being a Communist, she said of her trips to All Saints Convent,I have discovered the rule of silence is one of the most beautiful things in the world. It preserves one from the temptation of the idle world, the fresh remark, the wisecrack, the angry challenge…It is really quite remarkable what it does for one.” (She preferred to use the word “one” to “I” to refer to herself. Self-effacement even worked its way into her vocabulary.)

In David Brooks’ brilliant new book The Road to Character, he writes, A vocation is not a career. A person choosing a career looks for job opportunities and room for advancement. A person choosing a career is looking for something that will provide financial and psychological benefits. If your job or career isn’t working for you, you choose a different one.

A person does not choose a vocation. A vocation is a calling. People generally feel they have no choice in the matter. Their life would be unrecognizable unless they pursued this line of activity.

Vocation in this sense is not doing what you love nor finding the ideal job. It is a response to something already chosen for you. It expects suffering. It doesn’t run from it. When Albert Schweitzer left a successful career in music to become a jungle doctor, he said,Anybody who proposes to do good must not expect people to roll any stones out of his way, and must calmly accepts his lot even if they roll a few more onto it.” Difficulty was to be expected.

Having a vocation is not about fulfilling a personal desire or want, in the sense of avoiding pain and seeking pleasure. It’s opening yourself to be used by God as He chooses. Perkins said this mentality develops in “a man who’s more an instrument than an engineer. The prophets of Israel would have called him an instrument of the Lord. The prophets of today could only explain his type of mind in terms of psychology, about which they know so pitiable little.”

Is having a vocation all pain and suffering? By no means. Being devoted to a work that is given to you often is accompanied by a deep, inner joy. As Dorothy Sayers says, there is a deep sense of purpose when working reflects the creative work of the Creator.  A desire to serve God and “the work” is not merely responsive to the ever-changing demands of the community, but is an expression of simply doing a thing worth doing and obeying a call. In such unswerving commitment over the long haul, work takes on a deep, quiet satisfaction that modern job hoppers struggle to understand.

To desire the path of least resistance may be normal, but it is to desire too little. As C.S. Lewis says, “Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

Questions like What are you good at? What do you love to do? What’s your personality type? Where do you want to live? are not inherently wrong. But they should be secondary, or tertiary, to a greater purpose, one which may call us to do things we’re not good at, things we don’t love, that don’t fit with our personality and in a place we may not find ideal.

When Jesus foretold his own death and resurrection in Mark 8, “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.” How could Jesus, the paragon of human life, suffer and die? Jesus responded to Peter with perhaps the harshest rebuke of the New Testament: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

In our desire for career success and fulfilling our dreams, have we not also set our minds on the things of man? What would it mean to choose a career with a disposition open to God’s purposes, even if it means hardship for a greater purpose beyond ourselves? Could fulfillment actually be found in self-denial instead of self-actualization?

“And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.’”

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