Is sin passé? David Brooks and The Road to Character

Posted by on Apr 30, 2020 in Blog | 8 comments

the-scream edvard munch

I’m surprised at how much I am enjoying reading David Brooks’ motivational book, The Road to Character. Amazon classifies it in the “personal transformation/ self help” category, and knowing how flooded and shallow this market is, I am only reading it on the strong recommendation of someone whose work I respect.

First thing to note about this book – don’t think shallow and trite. An easy read, yes, but shallow and trite, no. And while an easy read, it is unsettling and inspiring at the same time. And for a book that makes no claim to be Christian, it is astonishingly Christian in many of its insights. I often had to remind myself that Brooks is a New York Times journalist, not a theologian.

The opening gets straight to the point:

Recently I’ve been thinking about the difference between the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the ones you list on your résumé, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being – whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kinds of relationships you formed.

Brooks then notes the paradox, that while most people would readily agree that the eulogy virtues are more important, we spend most of our life cultivating the résumé virtues. The result is that we become skillful but shallow. It is a theme which recurs throughout the book, and an argument which he builds by studying the lives of 8 both well and lesser known historical figures.

My intent in this post is not to review the book (and there are some excellent reviews), but to focus on a surprising discussion on sin, found in a few pages of chapter 3. If you thought the idea of sin is passé, well think again, for Brooks will have none of it. He begins his discussion with an observation:

Today the word “sin” has lost its power and awesome intensity. It’s used most frequently in the context of fattening deserts…If they talk about evil at all, that evil is most often located in the structures of society… not in the human breast.

Brooks understands why this has happened, and suggests a few reasons:

  •  We’ve left behind the depraved view of human nature, and find its “simply too much darkness for the modern mentality”
  •  “Sin” was used to declare war on pleasure… a pretext to live joylessly and censoriously
  • “Sin” was abused by the self-righteous, by dry-hearted scolds who seem alarmed… that someone somewhere might be enjoying himself.. by people who embraced a harsh and authoritarian style of parenting, who felt they had to beat the depravity out of their children

Brooks, however, recognises that something deeper is at stake, and writes: “But in truth, ‘sin,’ like ‘vocation’ and ‘soul,’ is one of those words that it is impossible to do without. It is one of those word… that have to be reclaimed.”

Whatever I expected from this self help book it was not that sin is a word that we need to reclaim. But the reasons Brooks give are compelling, and let me indulge in a lengthy quote from the book:

Sin is a necessary piece of our mental furniture because it reminds us that life is a moral affair. No matter how hard we try to reduce everything to deterministic brain chemistry… no matter how hard we strive to replace sin with nonmoral words, like “mistake” or “error” or “weakness,” the most essential parts of life are matters of individual responsibility and moral choice: whether to be brave or cowardly, honest or deceitful, compassionate or callous, faithful or disloyal. When modern culture tries to replace sin with ideas like error or insensitivity, or tries to banish words like “virtue,”character,” “evil,” and “vice” altogether, that doesn’t make life any less moral; it justs means we have obscured the inescapable moral core of life with shallow language. It just means we think and talk about these choices less clearly, and thus become blind to the moral stakes of everyday life.

A little later he perceptively writes: “To be aware of sin is to feel intense sympathy towards others who sin.” Even more surprisingly he writes: “Furthermore, the concept of sin is necessary because it is radically true. To say you are a sinner is not to say you have some black depraved stain on your heart. It is to say that, like the rest of us, you have some perversity in your nature. We want to do one thing, but we end up doing another.”

Quite something from an “attend synagogue on rare occasions” New York Times journalist.

He even notes our culpability for sins of omission, and quotes the haunting line from poet Marguerite Wilkinson, that we all commit the sin of “unattempted loveliness.”

He starts to weave his argument together as follows: “The final reason sin is a necessary part of our mental furniture is that without it, the whole method of character building dissolves… People become solid, stable, and worthy of self respect because they have defeated or at least struggled with their own demons. If you take away the concept of sin, then you take away the thing the good person struggles against.”

Rather startling, he then tells of an employer who asks each job applicant, “Describe a time when you told the truth and it hurt you”, noting that the employer is essentially asking if “they have their loves in the right order, if they would put love of truth above love of career.”

He ends his discussion with these words: “…people in earlier times inherited a vast moral vocabulary and set of moral tools, developed over centuries and handed down from generation to generation. This was a practical inheritance, like learning how to speak a certain language, which people could use to engage their own moral struggle.”

At a time when churches are abandoning talk of sin, it is a little surprising to find a secular best seller pleading that we give it more air time, and that we provide a “moral vocabulary” that helps equips us to face the perversity deep within. Brooks’ thesis is clear. There is no road to character unless we name and face the sin within.

Perhaps if we took this struggle a little more seriously, we could begin to order our loves correctly. Perhaps love of self would not need to dominate the list. Why, we might even face our sins of omission, and “unattempted loveliness” might become loveliness attained.

As always, nice chatting…

8 Comments

  1. Sounds like a must read!

    • I think you will enjoy it if you do Barry.

      • I have read a number of David Brooks books and a few of his thousands of essays. He also appears as a regular commentator on PBS. He is a NY Kew turned follower of Christ. A most profound social commentator.

        • Thanks Gregg. Now I have read some more of his work I see that he has made the journey to following Jesus. Most encouraging.

  2. Thank Brian. A timely word for the church at large today too. We seldom hear sin talked about as sin anymore.

  3. What a surprising and insightful emphasis on sin from such a person !
    Thank you.

  4. Co-incidence: I am also reading this book at the moment! And I just read this chapter on Eisenhower in the last day or two. 🙂

    • I think Maxim Institute highlighted the book in their recommendations recently (or that is how I heard of it) – so perhaps there has been a flow on effect from that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.