Culture At Large

The Christian undergirding of David Brooks’ moral bucket list

John Van Sloten

I am seriously considering taking David Brooks’ recent New York Times essay, “The Moral Bucket List,” adding a dozen Bible references, tacking on an “Amen” and preaching it this Sunday. The piece begins with these words:

About once a month I run across a person who radiates an inner light. …They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. …They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.”

What a beautiful description of what it means to be human and “have the light of life.” Brooks wants to be this kind of person. “I set out to discover how those deeply good people got that way,” he wrote. “I didn’t know if I could follow their road to character … but I at least wanted to know what the road looked like.”

Don’t we all? But what is the road to character? To help us figure it out Brooks listed several experiences that take place along the way, most of which have echoes of the Gospel message.

The Humility Shift. Brooks wrote: “We live in the culture of the Big Me. …Your parents and teachers were always telling you how wonderful you were. But all the people I’ve ever deeply admired are profoundly honest about their own weaknesses. They have identified their core sin, whether it is selfishness, the desperate need for approval, cowardice, hardheartedness or whatever.”

This sounds like the Apostle Paul, who called himself the worst of sinners. Paul was brutal when it came to self-examination, admitting that he simply couldn’t control his bad behavior.

Self-Defeat. Brooks: “External success is achieved through competition with others. But character is built during the confrontation with your own weakness.”

Again, Paul underwent a similar transition, from angry religious zealot to humble, selfless servant. His journey included suffering chronic pain, which led him to hear God say, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."

What a beautiful description of what it means to “have the light of life.”

The Dependency Leap. Brooks: “People on the road to character understand that no person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own. Individual will, reason and compassion are not strong enough to consistently defeat selfishness, pride and self-deception. We all need redemptive assistance from outside. …Character is defined by how deeply rooted you are.” 

Jesus knew this! “By myself I can do nothing,” He said. Jesus embodied moral perfection because He was deeply rooted in a perfect triune community. Jesus selflessly prayed that we would be able to experience that loving community too, that we would be with Him as He was with God.

Energizing Love. Brooks: “(This) kind of love decenters the self. It reminds you that your true riches are in another. …It puts you in a state of need and makes it delightful to serve what you love.”

To be a Christian is to "set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” Everything that Jesus did was about helping us find the richness of that place. But you need faith to get there.

The Conscience Leap. Brooks: “In most lives there’s a moment when people strip away all the branding and status symbols, all the prestige that goes with having gone to a certain school or been born into a certain family. They leap out beyond the utilitarian logic and crash through the barriers of their fears.”

It’s a leap of faith into the arms of a God who is love. And it’s only after you jump that you realize that all of the world’s branding is nothing in terms of your true identity. Paul called it “dog dung” and dumped it all in the trash so that he could know Christ more.

Brooks concludes by observing that “people on the road to inner light do not find their vocations by asking, what do I want from life? They ask, what is life asking of me?”

Life is asking us to follow Him. God is calling you into His larger narrative. He’s reaching out everywhere - through the salvation narrative of the Bible and through the opinion columns of the New York Times - so that you may have life, and have it to the full.

Topics: Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Philosophy, Theology & The Church, The Bible, Theology, News & Politics, Media