Faculty Book Reviews
The Road to Character
David Brooks | 320 pages | Random House, 2015
Reviewed by Assistant Professor of Bible and Ministry Alex Sosler
In The Road to Character, New York Times Opinion Editor David Brooks introduces the book by orientating the reader to Genesis 1. He references Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who argued there were two opposing sides to our nature: Adam I and Adam II. Adam I could be labeled our external self. This side is concerned with what Brooks labels our résumé virtues: what makes us look good, attractive, marketable. It functions on a market and economic scale. Adam II refers to the internal self—the moral part of us that functions on the reverse logic. In Jesus’ concepts, the last being first, the humble being exalted, the way up is the way down, etc.
By and large, the university functions on the logic of Adam I. We train people for careers; we serve the economy. We subliminally guilt students with questions like, “What are you going to do with that?” Compared to fifty years ago, students are much more concerned with being “famous.” A study shows that in 1976, young people reported that fame ranked fifteen out of sixteen on a list of life’s most important goals. By 2007, 51 percent of young people reported that fame was one of their top goals in life. It seems like we’ve become obsessed with the external, Adam I self.
Brooks challenges the reader to think about life differently. He prepares his readers for a life of character by exhibiting moral exemplars. Vocation is not a pursuit of external goals but a life of internal consistency. As Fredrick Buechner is often quoted, “that place where our deep gladness meets the world’s great need.” What if college wasn’t about solely meriting a high paying job but about helping teenagers become adults? What if a liberal arts college wasn’t concerned first with résumés but with character? The aspect that marks those people we admire is not necessary what they accomplished; it’s who they were. They were marked by a consistent joy, a life well-lived, a coherency and consistency. They weren’t fragmented but whole. In short, they flourished.
Brooks makes his case through moral exemplars. Each chapter features a different aspect of virtue and a case study of a particular person. The Christian reader may not find every example exemplary, but each person described does exhibit something worthy of imitation. He uses a wide range of examples: from social worker Dorothy Day to church father St. Augustine to civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph to President Dwight Eisenhower. The book ends with a “humility code” featuring 15 principles of humility in an age of selfies.
12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos
Jordan Peterson | 409 pages | Random House | 2018
Reviewed by Assistant Professor of Bible and Ministry Alex Sosler
Another way to approach character comes from Canadian Clinical Psychologist Jordan Peterson.
Peterson has become the go-to guru for navigating the complexities of emerging young adults, particularly young men. As a young man myself, I try to ignore fads that my cohort enjoys. So I eagerly looked past the growing excitement and interest in 12 Rules for Life as another trendy self-help guide. But if you know a young person, they are likely engaging with Peterson in some form or fashion, and as a person who works with young people, I picked up and read. Rather than moral exemplars like Brooks proposes, Peterson proposes rules for growing into a certain type of person.
What one finds in Peterson is a well-read thinker and articulate writer. He references everything from the philosophy of Nietzsche to hard neuroscience to various religious myths. He can be meandering, but the book is regularly entertaining and well-written. It’s in this gift that he’s both charming and likable. Even if you don’t like who or what he references, if you read long enough, you’ll agree with him on some point. More appealing is his tactile description of growing up in the post-modern age, especially those experiences of young males. Whether it be the coddling of children, utopian visions run by ideologues, or the denial of personal responsibility, the reader can resonate with modern inadequacies. He accounts for the complexity of good and evil lying within the same person.
Into the vacuum of chaos caused by both the scientism of modernism and the suspicion of postmodernism, Peterson introduces new rules into our secular age. He does so by re-introducing something shocking to our modern ears: tradition. I might title Peterson’s book a religion of generous humanism or a tradition of autonomous individualism. In a world with no tradition, there is no meaning and no purpose. Peterson references tradition and story and myth and then manipulates it to make the point he wants. Tradition never seems to challenge Peterson’s views; it is always a reinforcement of his point. However, at least he’s appealing to things that have shaped history and are compelling, rather than dismissing them as archaic and meaningless.
In our current moment, everyone is left to themselves, and young people are lost. 12 Rules for Life provides a sort of rogue individualist tradition for life. He sums this up pretty well in his discussion of what men should value: “Do not be dependent. At all. Ever. Period.” Well, that’s an impossible thing, but it is riddled throughout his writing. In his chapter on hierarchy and power (Rule 1), he describes power as a limited resource that we all crave. We want to be strong and well thought of and at the top of the social class. Those who are at the bottom of the lower class are in danger of many things that those at the top are not bothered by. But he fails to mention Christ’s call to love the least of these, those at the bottom of the social spectrum.
In Playing God, Christian Author Andy Crouch describes power not as a limited resource but as exponential. It’s a multiplying resource, so that we can give it away and there’s more of it. It’s not a zero-sum resource when used in love. But for Peterson, there are winners and losers, and you ought to be a winner by getting all the power you can through competition. Or, in the chapter on personal responsibility (Rule 2), chaos is the domain of ignorance and unexplored territory. Chaos is a signifier for all things we do not know, which makes Christ’s call to love the stranger and sojourner and outcast all the more powerful. In his chapter on friendship (Rule 3), he encourages readers to be friends with people who help you grow and don’t drag you down into their bad or destructive or low-class behavior. But I’m sure glad Christ, who is our model of action, didn’t think or act this way. The power of the Gospel comes when Jesus tells the parable of the wedding banquet and all the outcast and dysfunctional people are invited into the same meal that Christ hosts. Christ comes to be with sinners like me. He cared very little to associate with the personally beneficial.
In Peterson’s rules, one still finds apt descriptions that are compatible with a Christian understanding of the world. At the very least, his rules are good for lost young adults in our modern age. Rules like “tell the truth” and “listen to others” are good things to promote. He frequently references the intentional nature of human beings, an idea which has early roots in Augustine. As such, he recognizes that everyone worships, and everyone has a god. Peterson says, “What you aim at is what you see.” He then challenges readers to aim higher; unfortunately, he fails in that he doesn’t aim high enough. Augustine says we ought to aim for love of God and love of neighbor in God. For Peterson, the highest good at which he aims is the autonomous individual. The center of life is you.
In an age of polarization, where a young person has the choice of being a socialist liberal or an alt-right conservative, Peterson’s middle way is a compelling option. He encourages himself and others to “Stitch it (a torn nation) back together with words of truth,” as he concludes at the end of the book. This advice is not everything in our age, but it’s at least something good. When Augustine converted from paganism to Manichaeism, Ambrose, then bishop of Milan, celebrated. It wasn’t Christianity, but it was better than the alternative. In the same way, 12 Rules for Life can be seen as a type of pre-evangelism. It’s not right, but there are some ways that it is helpful. It won’t take you the full way to Christ, but it is better than the well-documented aimlessness present in the next generation of young men. ■