2016-06-30
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."

Not everyone has spooned so many helpings from the spiritual buffet table. But even in more traditional circles, when one sees people return to religious participation, one often gets the sense that it is the participation they go for as much as the religion. The New York Times Magazine recently ran a special issue on religion that included the astute headline "Religion Makes a Comeback (Belief to Follow)." Francis Fukuyama nicely captured the ethos of Bobo religiosity in his 1999 book, "The Great Disruption":

"Instead of community arising as a byproduct of rigid belief, people will return to religious belief because of their desire for community. In other words, people will return to religious tradition not necessarily because they accept the truth of revelation, but because the absence of community and the transience of social ties in the secular world makes them hungry for ritual and cultural tradition. They will help the poor or their neighbors not because doctrine tells them they must, but rather because they want to serve their communities and find that faith-based organizations are the most effective ways of doing so. They will repeat ancient prayers and reenact age-old rituals not because they believe they were handed down by God, but rather because they want their children to have proper values, and because they want to enjoy the comfort of ritual and the sense of shared experience it brings. In a sense they will not be taking religion seriously on its own terms. Religion becomes a source of ritual in a society that has been stripped bare of ceremony, and thus a reasonable extension of the natural desire for social relatedness with which all human beings are born."

This is not to say Bobo congregants are not rigorous. Often they adhere to dietary restrictions and the like with extraordinary rigor. But somehow it is rigor without submission. Whereas earlier believers felt that, paradoxically, freedom was achieved through a total submission to God's will, blind obedience of that sort is just not in the Bobo mental repertoire.

Among Jews, for example, there is a growing movement of young modern Orthodox who know Hebrew, study the Torah, and observe kosher laws. They are rigorous observers, but they also pick and choose, discarding those ancient rules that don't accord with their modern sensibilities--most any rule that restricts the role of women, for example. Furthermore, they pull back from biblical teachings whenever those teachings clash with pluralism--with any teaching that implies that Judaism is the one true faith and that other faiths are inferior or in error....

Organized religion, once dismissed as hopelessly archaic or as a crutch for the weak-minded, now carries with it a certain prestige. Bobos tend to feel a little surge of moral satisfaction if they can drop their church or synagogue attendance into a dinner party conversation. It shows they are not just self-absorbed narcissists but members of a moral community.

And yet the religious discourse has changed. Now sectarian disputes, which took up so much energy for earlier theologians, are considered a bit silly. "I'm not, of course, an expert on religion," writes Vaclav Havel in Civilization magazine, "but it seems to me that the major faiths have much more in common than they are willing to admit. They share a basic point of departure--that this world and our existence are not freaks of chance, but rather part of a mysterious, yet integral, act whose sources, direction and purpose are difficult for us to perceive in their entirety. And they share a large complex of moral imperatives that this mysterious act implies. In my view, whatever differences these religions might have are not as important as these fundamental similarities."

In other words, the religious impulse is a flexible thing that can take many different forms in different cultures. What's important and good is the essential religious impulse, not the particular strictures of any one particular sect or denomination. So it doesn't hurt to shop around, experiment with a few religions before committing yourself, or maybe even flow between different denominations, depending on your needs and preferences at the moment. Choice reconciled with commitment.



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