In the midst of preparing for this major house renovation, for which mental health breaks have come in the form of way too many back-to-back episodes of the T.V. series “Breaking Bad,” and regrettably less writing at this intersection, the latest issue of Christianity Today (June 2015) arrived yesterday. It features an interesting interview with The New York Times columnist David Brooks upon the release of his latest book The Road to Character (Random House).
We Are More Narcissistic Today, Says Brooks
In that interview, Brooks critiques what he terms today’s “Big Me” culture, a culture that, as he sees it, is increasingly narcissistic, self-absorbed and self-promoting. In evidence of this claim, Brooks invokes results from a 2005 Gallup survey that asked graduating high-school seniors the question, “Are you a very important person?” 80 percent answered “yes,” in contrast to only 12 percent in 1950, when the same question was put before graduating seniors then. Additionally, Brooks points to a 30 percent rise in the median narcissism score as further support for his claim.
For Brooks, recent developments in social media technology have only encouraged individual expressions of self-importance (a case in point, the “Like” feature on Facebook and a growing trend in self-branding). I tend to agree with Brooks here, but I also wonder if his larger blanket critique of contemporary American culture is a bit unfair.
“We’ve encouraged generations to think highly of themselves,” he says, linking this broad sociocultural shift to changing intellectual currents in the 1940’s. That is when, Brooks claims, “there were tons of best-selling books, and some movies, arguing that the notion of human sinfulness was outdated, and that we should embrace the idea that we’re really wonderful.”
Talking More About Sin in America—A Cure for “The Big Me”?
The anecdote to this development then? A return to the common denominator that we are sinful human beings, it would seem, and more talk in the public sphere about sin and righteousness. I beg to differ for a number of reasons. One unanswered question here is how we might make that return. And here, while I wholeheartedly embrace this common denominator as true—human beings are clearly a sinful mess and in need of God’s saving grace—I wonder whether we encounter in Brooks a bit of unrealistic nostalgia for a time that will never again be, a time when the institution of the church, for example, exercised far greater moral influence, to the degree that the Christian doctrine of sin was more of a given and the church was widely looked to by greater America as a compass for moral formation. The likelihood of returning to that comfortable era of Christendom is next to none.
Moreover, recent public rhetoric by evangelical Christians in response to issues like gay marriage has already been laced plenty enough with talk of sin and, implicitly, self-righteousness. Brooks steers clear of this reality, at least in this interview. I want to ask him, “How do you think such muscular pronouncements about human sin (embodied, for example, in evangelicals’ rhetoric around Indiana’s religious freedom law and in response to gay marriage) are already working to serve the public good and promote virtue?” I would argue that such declarations about human sin do little to encourage moral character in society at large, and, if anything, serve only to disempower evangelicals of real, authoritative moral influence. (Whether or not such pronouncements are building the character of those who make them is a matter of personal discernment and the working out of faith with “fear and trembling” as the writer of Hebrews calls it.)
And I wonder if, in a society that since its first origins has been about rugged individualism, it is not at least a bit unfair to (at least implicitly) single out my generation and those following it as the embodiment of “The Big Me.” Yes, the defining mark of younger generations, social media, has become a venue for over-indulgent, narcissistic self-expression, so that this blog, it could be argued, encapsulates this very thing; but social media has also brought people together around important causes and solutions and, when used responsibly, has enormous potential for good. Studies of the Millennial generation, moreover, confirm their interest in issues related to social and environmental justice.
We Are All Bigger Me’s in the Kingdom of God
So yes, my brokenness and sinfulness are necessary to apprehending the Good News of God’s immeasurable love for me. But neither would that Good News be complete without the recognition that every person has infinite value in the kingdom of God—indeed, the “least of these,” among whom, on my good days, I count myself. Brooks combs history for examples of humility and self-sacrifice (counterexamples to today’s “Big Me’s”), citing Augustine and Dorothy Day among them. Their contributions changed the world, maybe precisely because they believed in a big God.
But the grace of that faith, paradoxically, was also the thing that made Augustine and Dorothy Day “big people,” enlarging their capacity to love their neighbor in ways that shaped the arc of history. What Augustine and Day apprehended was not just their own deep need for God’s grace, then, but the reality that they and their lives were of inestimable, infinite value to this God. In the context of this great, big God, their lives were bigger than they could ever have dreamed for themselves and to be treated as such. Maybe in a similar vein, Kierkegaard could write in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript that the category of the individual “remains the weight which turns the scale.” Augustine and Dorothy Day turned the scale of history. So can the “Big Me’s” of today, thanks to a great God who remains the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.