March 2002

Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There.  By David Brooks. Simon & Schuster. 284 pages. $14.

Lost in the Cosmos.  By Walker Percy. Picador USA. 262 pages. $14.

Imagine a quiet bank of wildflowers sloping down to a bright Montana stream. A soft breeze lifts off the water, caressing your sun-ripened skin, fluttering the crisp corners of The Horse Whisperer as you read. A trout rises over the surface, hanging for a moment between earth and sky; you relish the sight. And you, far removed from an ailing world, also soar toward jubilant selfhood in the beauty of the cosmos.

But hold the (cell) phone! David Brooks is about to ruin your wilderness experience. Just as you smile toward the big sky and resolve to write a narrative memoir on the epiphanies of Mother Earth, the winsome author of Bobos in Paradise trudges over and with a wink smartly whispers, “These days in Montana nobody can go to a riverbank without coming back with a basket full of metaphors.” Darn. He’s nailed you.

With his hilariously insightful commentary on the ideology of the new establishment, Brooks nailed a lot of people (himself included). What did the author get in return? A bestseller.

Brooks has received extensive praise for his characterization of the way of life of today’s class of bourgeois bohemians — Bobos for short. Given the hip sensitivities of their youth, Bobos see themselves as open-minded and tolerant, sensitive to the marginalized, and supportive of small acts of random artistry. The bourgeois loyalties of their later years mean they believe in self-improvement. They have the class to drive the kids to soccer practice in Serengeti-worthy SUVs, pour $125,000 into remodeling their kitchens, and collect Shaker furniture.

Progress for the Bobo is achieved through building a meaningful identity so that the expansion of the “self” is considered good for society. Brooks says optimistically, “Wherever we educated elites settle, we make life more interesting, diverse, and edifying.”

But when we arrive at his discussion of spiritual life, the skepticism latent in the rest of his analysis rises to the surface. When the Bobo knack for co-opting seeming opposites gets embedded in religion, the result is “flexidoxy.” Crafting one’s faith “starts with flexibility and freedom, with the desire to throw off authority and live autonomously,” but “an impulse toward orthodoxy…a desire to ground spiritual life within tangible reality, ordained rules, and binding connections” can intrude. The attempt to have both proves that individualistic pluralism remains the core value. In the end, Brooks concludes, Bobo spirituality is more a temperament than a creed.

In his “The Organization Kid,” written for The Atlantic Monthly (April 2001), the same author worries about how the next generation of meritocratic elites is coping with this inherited hybrid faith. Organization kids grow up with intense Bobo-fied parents who view child rearing as providing “enrichment” activities. By the time they get to Princeton and Harvard, the young elitists are about to burst with enrichment. Where, Brooks asks, is the moral framework underlying their education? Their parents treat religion like an identity-enriching encounter, not a binding worldview, so it should come as no surprise that “Today’s students do not inherit a concrete and articulated moral system…. They live in a country that has lost, in its frenetic seeking after happiness and success, the language of sin and character-building through combat with sin.” Brooks remains optimistic about the overall quality of these future leaders, but he laments that they have lost their vocabulary for moral meaning.

So why, many Christian critics have wondered, does he not go further? Why not tell these Bobo emperors to drop the flexidoxy charade and put on some legitimate theological clothes! “What I’m trying to do in the book,” he explained in one interview, “is exactly what novelists used to do, which is describe how we live now.” If pushed, could Brooks articulate the deeper moral center than Bobo-culture entails? Hard to say.

Perhaps one of the novelists Brooks has in mind is Walker Percy. In a body of work that began with philosophical essays and led to numerous novels such as The Moviegoer, Percy probed the existential realities of modern man. He undertook the project of describing “how we live now” with a philosophical richness framing his themes and a masterfully prophetic literary voice. Protagonists such as Binx Bolling in The Moviegoer are pained by the malaise, a state of fragmented existence — a dis-ease.

Amidst the existential despair, we have the abiding grace of Percy’s sense of humor. Lost in the Cosmos first appeared in 1983, a time when the humanist fascination with the “self” intensified the stakes in our culture wars. Where Brooks pursues comic sociology, Percy adopted what we might call comic psychology. Lost in the Cosmos, now re-issued, is a rich mockery, an imaginative parody that explores the modern “self.”

Like Brooks, Percy knew more about his readers than they knew about themselves. Readers of Percy with ears to hear were meant to get the message that the self is in crisis — and the malaise of the self is everywhere for Percy understood as resulting from the vacuity of spiritual meaning. Today’s Bobos are fragmented “selves” with diminished souls. They remain unsettled, suffering from dis-ease and in need of someone who can tell them what they have made of themselves.

If for Brooks, spirituality is just one dimension of the whole Bobo disorientation, it is in Percy’s cosmos the meta-narrative void which unhinges everything else. Percy’s writing grows out of biblical language. “I do not conceive it my vocation to preach the Christian faith in a novel,” he once told an interviewer, “but as it happens, my worldview is informed by a certain belief about man’s nature and destiny which cannot fail to be central to any novel I write.” Man is a “wayfarer” in the cosmos; he floats, fallen in an existential malaise. But the condition need not be final. But so it apparently is with the bourgeois bohemians, who drift along in their supposed paradise of contentment and flexidoxy.

- Christopher Yates



Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church.  By Philip Yancey. Random House. 319 pages. $21.95.

This well-known Protestant author operates by the core belief that “every writer has one main theme, a spoor that he or she keeps sniffing around, tracking, following to its source.” In his own case, it is surviving his fundamentalist background and education in the South during the Civil Rights era. For the benefit of his readers, he limits his own horror stories to the beginning, without turning the book into a voyage of self-pity and Christian-bashing. His early years provided little protection from the convulsions of that period, and so Yancey expresses something close to amazement that he was spared his brother’s extended voyage into drugs and mental illness. He also admits that there were authors and role models to guide him through the toughest times.

The balance of this book is devoted to profiles of this “cloud of witnesses.” The warmest chapter is devoted to Paul Brand: physician, humanitarian, and Yancey’s collaborator on other books. Forgive me for living in my “Catholic ghetto,” but I had never heard of this remarkable man or his achievements.

Two essentially secular saints, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., are also included in Yancey’s pantheon of heroes. In the chapter on the man whose staunch nonviolence policy led to India’s separation from the British Empire, Yancey displays his greatest literary self-discipline. While outlining the reasons why Gandhi never became a Christian, Yancey never delivers any random blows against Christianity.

In fact — remarkably rare for a non-Catholic author — Yancey even includes stories of three well-known Catholics: Annie Dillard, Fr. Henri Nouwen, and G.K. Chesterton.

Yancey claims no denomination, calling himself a religious pilgrim. However, he has good taste in religious heroes, and the skill to report their influence on him without sugar-coating painful facts about them, or himself. Read this book for its honesty and scrupulous avoidance of a “poor, poor pitiful me” attitude.

- Gerard Einhaus



Callista: A Tale of the Third Century.  By John Henry Newman. University of Notre Dame. 382 pages. $35.

“It is not by logic that God has decided to save his people.” So said St. Ambrose of Milan, the teacher of St. Augustine. And it is with this same remark that John Henry Newman begins his classic Grammar of Assent. In the Grammar, Newman makes his case for the role of practical, as distinct from theoretical, reason — what he terms the illative sense. In particular, he shows the force and range of practical reason in a believer’s coming to assent to the Christian faith.

Yet the Grammar, with all due respect to its cogency, is a work of philosophy in the language of philosophy. Newman’s life, however, was always larger than his thought, even though his thought turned habitually to the largeness of life and the uniqueness of each person. We find this spirit in his chosen motto: Cor ad cor loquitur (“heart speaks out to heart”).

Now, the first wonderful thing about Newman’s novel Callista (published in 1856) is that its narrative, anticipating the Grammar (published in 1870), breathes the dynamism of the illative sense. But the novel does so in the context of characters come alive rather than through the web of syllogisms set forth.

The second wonderful thing about the novel, whose subtitle prepares us for the world of the third century, is that its themes are strikingly current. Its setting is Roman North Africa, under the persecution of the emperor Decius (249-251). The faith of Christians has faltered; a vision once bright has grown dim. Yet grace still abounds, and a bishop is one of its channels. Early in his story, Newman introduces us to the historical figure of St. Cyprian of Carthage (c. 200-258), a convert become bishop and who himself was to win martyrdom.

Indeed, Newman instructively weaves a long citation from Cyprian into his story and later assigns him a key role in its denouement. The historical Cyprian, as Newman cites him, wrote in part: “A long repose had corrupted the discipline which had come down to us. Everyone was applying himself to the increase of wealth; and, forgetting both the conduct of the faithful under the Apostles, and what ought to be their conduct in every age, with insatiable eagerness for gain devoted himself to the multiplying of possessions. The priests were wanting in religious devotedness, the ministers in entireness of faith; there was no mercy in works, no discipline in manners…. The hearts of the simple were misled…persons in high places were swollen with contemptuousness; poisoned reproaches fell from their mouths, and men were sundered by unabating quarrels.”

Thus did Cyprian read the signs of his times. How, one wonders, might he read the signs of our times?

Of special significance for NOR readers is the role that converts — and “reverts” — play in re-igniting the faith of Cyprian’s people. Of sobering significance for all of us is the account of the return of active, murderous persecution by a tyrannous state and a manipulated citizenry. This unholy union operated under an official tolerance. As an example, the pagan rhetorician Polemo, in the service of Rome, lectures Callista, a Greek convert who refuses to burn incense at the altar of Jupiter, on what purports to be the wisdom of Mother Rome: “All she said to the peoples, all she dared say to them was ‘You bear with me, and I will bear with you.’ Yet this you will not do; you Christians, who have no pretence to any territory, who are not even the smallest of the peoples, who are not even a people at all, you have the fanaticism to denounce all other rites but your own…. Who are you?”

But Callista, although yet unbaptized, stands fast in her faith. She is able to do so, as Newman develops and reveals her character, because she finds herself in love with the person of Jesus, the Son of God. The One whom Greek thinkers could only think of as Mind, she had experienced as the Beloved who had first loved her. In this story of her faith we find an expression of Cardinal Newman’s own “personalist” spirit. He teaches that, yes, the Person is the eternal Word. But the Word speaks to one’s heart and, indeed, within one’s heart.

We are in debt to the University of Notre Dame Press for recently issuing this new facsimile edition of Callista, along with a number of other of Newman’s works that have not been readily available.

- James G. Hanink



Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain.  By Charles R. Cross. Hyperion Books. 379 pages. $24.95.

You might already be thinking, “Now the editors have gone too far. They’re publishing a review of a book with a blasphemous title about a rock star who spent most of his life on drugs and ended it prematurely. What kind of example are they setting for…?” Before continuing your protest, consider this: The book’s value is entirely different from its author’s intentions. Cross is a freelance writer based in the Seattle region where Cobain lived and performed before becoming an international superstar. He devotes much energy chronicling the details of Cobain’s 27 years in adoring admiration, but he misses the forest of that life for the trees.

Very simply, that life was an American horror story. The older child of two parents who probably married too young, Cobain was scarred by their divorce when he was nine years old. Shunted from household to household as a teenager, he quickly gravitated to two of the three forces that shaped his life — music and drugs. The third was the actual cause of his death, suicide. Cross glosses over the constant suicidal signals that Cobain tragically sent over the last decade and a half of his life, signals that those close to him apparently missed.

In its own clumsy way, the book is loaded with scenes of macabre humor, lovingly described by Cross without the slightest irony. My favorite is an incident with Cobain’s future wife: “Kurt and Courtney [Love] met the second time in May 1991 during an L7 concert at the Palladium in Los Angeles. Kurt was backstage drinking cough syrup directly from the bottle…. Courtney opened her purse and displayed her own vial of cough syrup, a more powerful brand. They wrestled to the ground…. The vibe, according to those who witnessed it, was very sexual.” The book’s “vibe” grows increasingly more grim with the increasing severity of Cobain’s heroin habit.

Two conclusions can be safely reached by reading Cross’s book with orthodox Catholic eyes. One is that American culture has promoted a frail group of individuals to “false god” status since the 1960s. The other is that the Church’s “new evangelization” needs to get into high gear fast.

- Gerard Einhaus





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