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David Brooks: Prophet of Cultural Gloom and Doom

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) June 23, 2018: The self-styled conservative columnist David Brooks has published a thought-provoking piece titled "The Fourth Great Awakening" in the New York Times (dated June 21, 2018).

I do not like the title. Brooks says, "You might say that America's Fourth Great Spiritual Awakening has come in the form of this mythic revival [that he delineates in his piece]."

In American cultural history, the First Great Awakening (c.1730-1755), the Second Great Awakening (c.1790-1840), and the Third Great Awakening (c.1855-1900) involved American Protestant spiritual revivals. Wikipedia has entries about each of them. But Brooks' alleged Fourth Great Awakening presumably includes not only American Protestants but also all other Americans.

However, Wikipedia also has an entry about the so-called Fourth Great Awakening (c.1960-1980), but the entry reports that this characterization of a certain religious trend in the time period circa 1960-1980 is not widely accepted. Nevertheless, as we consider Brooks' piece, we should consider what exactly is the baseline for his claim that parable-based religion has receded from the public square.

Brooks says, "As parable-based religion has receded from the public square, heroic myth, and the competitive virtues it celebrates, has rushed in to fill the space."

Now, the historical Jesus is famous for his parables. But the biblical story of his life and death in the four canonical gospels is a hero story. We need hero stories.

I guess that all variations of orthodox Christianity would qualify as examples of parable-based religion. At least as far as I know, no sizable variation of Christianity excludes the parables attributed to Jesus in the four canonical gospels.

Moreover, in the 2016 presidential election, many white non-college-educated Protestants and Catholics voted for Trump. In plain English, their parable-based religion did not recede from the public square of voting in the presidential election. Their votes gave Trump his victory in the electoral college. (Brooks is a Trump critic.)

Or does Brooks perhaps mean that parable-based religion has receded in terms of church attendance and participation in organized religion in the United States? But if this what he means by saying that religion has receded from the public square, why doesn't he just spell this out?

Or does Brooks perhaps mean that parable-based religion has receded from the public square in which people, including pundits like Brooks, exchange views -- in the court of public opinion? Arguably there are more self-described critics of religion in the public square today than there have been in Brooks' lifetime.

However, if Brooks is referring to the public square in which critics of religion and its defenders express their competing views, we should note that college-educated people tend to be over-represented in those public debates -- and white non-college-educated Protestants and Catholics who voted from Trump tend to be under-represented in that version of the public square.

Now, in the following order, Brooks sets up and closely works with the following contrasts: (1) Athens v. Jerusalem; (2) competitive virtues v. cooperative virtues; (3) myth v. parable; (4) heroic characters (including superheroes) v. ordinary human characters; (5) our hunger to do something heroic v. our deep hunger to be in close relationship.

I get it that Brooks wants to call our attention to the problem he sees, and I realize that he can say only so much in one column. But his closely reasoned use of sharp contrasts needs to be closely examined.

Basically, Brooks' sharp contrasts articulate various dimension of only one basic contrast. For all practical purposes, Brooks' basic contrast involves the contrast of agency v. communion that the University of Chicago professor of psychology David Bakan works with in his seminal book The Duality of Human Existence: An Essay on Psychology and Religion (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1966). (Brooks is a graduate of the University of Chicago, and he currently serves on its board of trustees.)

Vicki S. Helgeson in psychology at Carnegie Mellon University works with Bakan's contrast of agency v. communion in her own research, which she sums up in her massive textbook The Psychology of Gender, 5th ed. (Pearson/ Prentice Hall, 2016).

Now, Brooks explicitly says that Achilles "stands for the competitive virtues." Fine, but warrior-king Achilles fights alongside other Greek warriors. Surely warriors fighting together manifest some kind of cooperative virtues. As to Brooks' contrast of our hunger for the heroic v. our deep hunger for close relationship, Achilles is portrayed as complaining to his goddess-mother and being advised by her, and he is portrayed as being close to his warrior friend Patroclus -- whose death Achilles mourns.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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