Beliefnet
What is a Bobo? As David Brooks defines them in "Bobos in Paradise," Bobos are America's new upper class, the highly educated, prosperous elite who have taken the cultural reins of the country in one hand as they juggle lattes, cell phones, and the latest must-have cooking tool in the other. Combining the moral enlightenment of the '60s counterculture with the achieving sensibility of the traditional establishment, they are at once bohemian and bourgeois--"Bo-bos," in Brooks' coinage. In this excerpt, Brooks outlines what their rise means for American spirituality.

One of the features of Bobo spirituality that leaps out at you is how backward-looking it is. Some groups seek spiritual fulfillment in some future utopia yet to come, but we Bobos don't look to the future for transcendence. We look to the past, to old traditions, rites and rituals. The assumption of so much of what we do, of so many of the movies we see and books we read, is that in our efforts to climb upward, we have left something behind. We have made ourselves so busy that we no longer know and appreciate the essential things. We have become so affluent, we have encrusted our lives with superficialities, we have to look back and rediscover some of the simpler and more natural ways of connecting with the world. Maybe now it is time, the Bobo says, to rediscover old values, to reconnect with patient, rooted and uncluttered realms.

This longing is evident in the way we try to construct our physical environment. Bobos surround themselves with remnants of the small, stable communities that radiate spiritual contentment...the Shaker-inspired tables, rustic pine benches, distressed furniture, archaic farm implements, claw-footed bathtubs, prehistoric crafts, old industrial artifacts, whaling baskets, and on and on--each piece more notably reactionary than the last. Go again inside the educated-class retail chains, Pottery Barn or Crate & Barrel. These and similar stores try to recapture some long-lost world of stability and order.

Restoration Hardware, which is spreading like a home furnishings Starbucks across the nation's upscale malls, caters to its graduate-degreed clientele with old-fashioned ribbed steel flashlights (just like we used to carry in summer camp), hand-forged scissors, old-fashioned kazoos, Moon Pies, classic Boston Ranger pencil sharpeners, compartmentalized school lunch trays, and glass and steel Pyrex beakers just like the ones your doctor used to keep tongue depressors in. These are the nostalgic mementos of the communities we left behind. The small towns that were hollowed out by the shopping malls and the global marketplace. The backwaters we left behind us when we went off to college and to big-city job opportunities.

The spiritual quandary of the educated class was in fact beautifully exemplified in a video the Restoration Hardware people produced for potential investors just before they launched their IPO in 1998. The voice-over accompanying this video explains the theology behind the store: "Lurking in our collective unconscious, among images of Ike, Donna Reed and George Bailey, is the very clear sense that things were better made, that they mattered a little more." Images of the forties and fifties fill the video screen. "What happened? Slowly but surely we became a nation obsessed with production and, of course, consumption." At this point we see images of huge suburban developments and large outlet malls. "This was pretty heady and pretty good. We got so proficient at making things we had unlimited choices and an endless array of goods." The "plastics" scene from "The Graduate" comes along. "The retail environment came to reflect this mentality--more square footage, more, more, more. Then, one day, the generation used to having everything recoiled, and became the generation searching for something."

There you have it. The generation that gave itself "unlimited choices" recoiled and found that it was still "searching for something." In so many ways we seem to want to return to some lost age of (supposed) spiritual coherence and structure. We seem to sense the cost of our newfound freedom is a loss of connection to other people and other communities. We want to re-create those meaningful ligatures. And yet, more often than not, we're not willing to actually go back to the age of limits, which would mean cutting off our options.

As a result, you now see a great spiritual pastiche. You see a mixture of autonomy and community. You see younger Bobos especially becoming active in churches and synagogues, but they are not interested in having some external authority--pope, priest, rabbi--tell them how to lead their lives. Militant secularism is no longer on the march. Now people return to religion, but often they are not content to have just one religion; they dabble in several simultaneously. Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow reports on a 26-year-old disabilities counselor, the daughter of a Methodist minister, who describes herself as a "Methodist Taoist Native American Quaker Russian Orthodox Buddhist Jew."

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