David Brooks on the Power of Beauty in a Storm

New York Times commentator David Brooks – icon of the nation’s political middle – made headlines last year for his book The Second Mountain, describing the deepening of his religious faith in the aftermath of a divorce. He gave a related sermon at the National Cathedral in 2017.

Yesterday, the Sunday of Independence weekend, he preached a second and timely sermon at the Cathedral (available in its entirety here), which by my reckoning contains some powerful nuggets of wisdom for these stormy times.

At a moment “when we are going over rocky ground” as a nation, and “the sins and wrongs of our country are fully exposed,” Brooks chose to speak about “beauty in a storm.” As is quickly apparent in the sermon, the emblem for beauty in a storm he most wants to spotlight is Jesus. But he begins by setting some important context for us – the very volatile historical context in which Jesus lived, the storm in which His light shone forth, a time perhaps not entirely unlike our own:

There are many different lenses through which to see Jesus… My background is Jewish, so I see Jesus through a Jerusalem lens. To see him in that lens is to see him embedded in the Jewish world of 2,000 years ago. That world is nothing like the peacefulness of an American church pew. It’s nothing like the quiet domesticity of a modern Bible study. It was a world of strife, combat, and fractious intensity.

The Holy Land, then as now, was a spiritual and a literal battleground… Jews and the Jewish homeland had been oppressed by occupiers for centuries – the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Romans. Certain questions would have been electric in the air: Why are we oppressed? Who amongst our people is betraying us in collaborating? How do we survive as a people under the crushing burden of their power? Everything was fraught, semi-hysterical, and tension filled.

Desperate gangs roamed the land. Minor-league revolutionaries were perpetually rising up. N. T. Wright lists seven separate revolts between the years 26 and 36, about the time of Jesus’s ministry. A few decades after the crucifixion, an Egyptian Jew led a religious band and they marched into Jerusalem and were slaughtered by Roman soldiers. The mass suicide at Masada came a few years after that.

Galilee was a common origin point of these revolts. Galilee was a poor, hardscrabble, tough zone on the fringes. The historian Simon Dubnow was exaggerating but not by much when he wrote, “From Galilee stemmed all the revolutionary movements which so disturbed the Romans.” If you were a Galilean, you were mad, bad, and dangerous to know…

Partisan fighting within the Jewish world was also intense. There was a profusion of cults and factions – the Essenes and the Pharisees. It was a time of great intellectual ferment. Rabbis rose up – Hillel, Tarfon. Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa was a first century healer and miracle worker who lived about 10 miles from Nazareth. He was a man of intense passion and zeal who, like Jesus, cared less about minor religious regulations and more about the purity of the inner life.

I’m trying to describe a world in which everything was loud, everything was pressure packed. Words and hatreds clashed by day and night.

You can see where he’s going here. Within this combustible context, Jesus cut through the noise, Jesus broke through the factions, and brought a world-upending beauty to bear on the problems of his age, and of course, we Christians would say, those of every age. Brooks continues:

When you see Jesus in this context, you see how completely bold and aggressive he was. He lived in a crowded, angry world yet took on all comers. He faced stoning in Nazareth. He offended the rich of Capernaum. John the Baptist was beheaded for leading a ministry and Jesus walked in his footsteps. He entered Jerusalem at a time of power jostling between Roman and Jewish elites. Pontius Pilate’s power was ebbing, the high priests were trying to take advantage.

Jesus walked into a complex network of negotiated and renegotiated power settlements between various factions, and he challenged them all with a stroke. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say he pierced through them and went right to the core. At a moment of elite polarization he was bringing access to the kingdom directly to the poor. He was offering triumph directly to the downtrodden. He fit in with none of these factions and plowed through them all.

When you see Jesus through the Jerusalem lens, the Beatitudes are even more astounding. In the midst of conflict here was another way, another path, a higher serenity. They were an inversion of values. They were beauty in the storm. Romano Guardini put it beautifully: “In the Beatitudes, something of the celestial grandeur breaks through. They are no mere formulas of superior ethics, but tidings of sacred and supreme reality’s entry into the world.”

Jesus was love and beauty in the midst of muck and violence, in the most difficult circumstances imaginable… When you see him in this context, you see that beauty is more powerful when it’s in the middle of a storm. It’s beauty in the storm that is powerful enough to inspire a leap of faith.

It’s that kind of beauty that draws us to faith, that God uses as a microphone to speak hope to the world in its despair. It’s an intrusion, a benevolent assault that will never quite leave us alone to our own devices. Brooks relates this to our own daily experiences of faith:

Faith is weird. Faith doesn’t make any sense. Faith is the hope in something unseen. It takes something truly remarkable, truly counterintuitive, truly beautiful to inspire a leap of faith. Events have got to push somebody so hard that only faith can explain the inexplicable…

So faith itself is not serene. Faith itself is a storm. It is pushing toward the beauty you tasted amid the storms of life. It is making that beauty not an interruption, as Christian Wiman says, but “part of your life.”

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik understood how bumpy faith is, especially in moments like these, in moments of storm. He wrote, “The popular ideology contends that the religious experience is tranquil and neatly ordered, tender and delicate… On the contrary, it is exceptionally complex… It is in a condition of spiritual crisis, of psychic ascent and descent, of contradiction arising from affirmation and negation, self-abnegation and self-appreciation… Religion is not, at the outset, a refuge of grace and mercy for the despondent and desperate, an enchanted stream for crushed spirits, but a raging clamorous torrent of man’s consciousness with all its crises, pangs, and torments.”

What keeps faith alive during storms like now are the awareness of beauty, the essential goodness at the ground of our being. I always love quoting my friend Catherine Cox, who once said that when her daughter was born she realized she “loved her more than evolution required.” And that points to the enchantment of the world. It points to the incredible care we have for each other at the core of our being, the power of love in the world. And we get reminded of that and that essential goodness of transcendent love through those moments of beauty, the moments we glimpse from time to time.

This essential goodness, one might qualify, is not so much of human beings, but of God in human beings – working through us and breaking through us into the world in love. From here, Brooks finally pivots to his Independence Day message, from the personal to our present collective context, offering a message of hope for our nation in this time of great strain and strife:

Our country is in a storm, or maybe an earthquake. I think the earthquake started around five or six years ago. Forces of protest and activism rose up – on the one hand, the populism that led to Donald Trump, there were school shootings, there were young adults facing the reality that their life might be worse off economically than their parents, there were the killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice, the beginnings of the Black Lives Matter movement – an earthquake of all sorts of dimensions had begun.

COVID-19 and the killing of George Floyd hit like hurricanes in the middle of that earthquake. They are not the source of the change we’re enduring, but they have accelerated every trend. And there’s a growing awareness that we are struggling to rise up to this moment.

We had one great task this year – to defeat this disease – and we are failing at it. We have failed to care for the common good and the social whole… People are changing their opinions, they’re facing police brutality, they’re facing the sins endemic so long in our culture. And it’s hard to know where things will [land]…

It’s testing faith. Americans are less patriotic now than at any time in our history. 71 percent of Americans are angry about the country. Only 17 percent of Americans are proud about the state of our country. A lot of people look around at the conditions of this country, how African Americans are treated, how communities are collapsing, how Washington doesn’t work, and none of it makes sense, none of it inspires faith, and in none of it do they feel a part.

And we have to admit that a lot of today’s distrust is earned distrust. People lose faith in each other when people are untrustworthy to each other, institutions fail, people don’t look out for each other, and this is a danger. When congregations lose faith in God, the church collapses. When people lose faith in each other, the nation collapses. If you don’t breathe the spirit of this nation, if you don’t have a fierce sense of belonging to each other, you’re not going to sacrifice for the common good.

Yet I think if we look around we see that beauty is produced by storms as well. There’s beauty even in the storm we’re in…

I’ve been reading Albert Murray of late. He’s an African American writer who in the 1970s published a book called The Omni-Americans. One of his points in that book is that the storm and the struggle of being African American in this country created a culture of beauty and strength that was manifested particularly – in his mind – in the blues. He wrote: “The blues ballad is a good example of what the blues are about. Almost always relating a story of frustration, it could hardly be described as a device for avoiding the unpleasant facts of black life in America… The sense of well-being that always goes with swinging the blues is generated, as anyone familiar with black dancehalls knows, not by obscuring or denying the existence of the ugly dimensions of human nature, circumstances, and conduct, but rather through the full, sharp, and inescapable awareness of them… When the black musician or dancer swings the blues, he or she is making an affirmative and hence exemplary and heroic response to the human condition.”

It is in the storm, directly facing the storm, and making an affirmative response that we see beautiful responses around us.

And so I guess the first message I’d like to leave you with is one familiar to our tradition: Be not afraid. Storms are normal parts of life, storms end, storms are moments of transition when bad things go away and new things are born…

The second thing I’d like to leave you with is that in storms it seems we have two systems of response. We have the normal bodily response, which is fight-or-flight, fear and anger. But another style of response emerges from our souls, from that core piece of ourselves… and this response is an aesthetic response. It’s the one that causes us to hunger for beauty, to be called by beauty, to partake in beauty, to pay attention to compassionate actions, to sacrifice for a neighbor, to keep a neighbor safe.

These actions and these acts of beauty, like the Sermon on the Mount, like the Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, often involve flipping the script, upending values. On one level, these acts of beauty and pure gift and loving care are radically illogical. They are vulnerability in the face of danger. They are gentleness in the midst of bitterness. They are compassion in the midst of strife. But… these are the acts that have the power to open hearts, these are the acts that have a power to shock a revolution in our culture and in our consciousness.

I don’t entirely share Brooks’ confidence in our ability as individuals to choose those more beautiful responses to these difficult circumstances we find ourselves in, but one can hope that perhaps we will with God’s help. And like Brooks I do find great hope in an awareness of those “little sparks of beauty” that keep happening around us in these stormy times – but also in that greatest emblem of beauty, the beauty of God’s unfathomable love for us manifest in Jesus, ever drawing us in, ever at work in the world reconciling us to God and each other. As Brooks says, even in the midst of so much of our ugliness exposed, “God bless our beautiful nation.”

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