March 2020 News Perspective Online

Perkins Scholarship Luncheon 2020

David Brooks does a lot of public speaking, and most everywhere he goes he talks up the need for building community, practicing compassion and discovering what he calls “moral joy.”

It is no surprise, then, that he was glad to visit Perkins School of Theology.

“People in places like this, this is their business, and they really know the vineyards I’m trying to enter,” he said.

Brooks – New York Times columnist, best-selling author and regular commentator for the PBS NewsHour and NPR’s “All Things Considered” – gave the address for the 2020 Bolin Family Perkins Scholarship Luncheon, held February 5. The luncheon, named for sponsors Jane Bolin, a member of the Perkins Executive Board, and her husband, Pat, raised funds for the Perkins Student Scholarship Fund.

Brooks also spoke that morning to Perkins’ faculty and students.

The night before, Brooks dined at Café Momentum, a Dallas restaurant that employs at-risk youth, giving them skills, discipline and confidence. The dinner was hosted by Executive Board member Katherine Glaze Lyle and included several scholarship donors.

Whenever he can on road trips, Brooks makes time to visit nonprofits that are finding innovative, effective ways to serve.

“That’s a lot more nourishing than just hearing myself talk,” he said.

Both Perkins audiences seemed eager to hear him, and many brought copies of his latest book, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life (Random House, 2019) to have him sign.

Brooks is known as a conservative-leaning but impossible-to-pigeonhole political commentator who also writes often about culture and values. He’s shared too about the faith journey he’s been on in recent years.

At Perkins, Brooks spoke about growing up Jewish in New York City, but getting exposed to mainline Protestantism through an Episcopal school and summer camp he attended. At the latter, he met counselors who taught him by the way they lived the concept of agape love.

He would go on to the University of Chicago, which he credits with exposing him to great books and ideas that he didn’t fully grasp then but have helped sustain him over the decades. After college came a long climb up the ladder of journalism, with stints as a reporter, critic, editor and foreign correspondent. Fame came gradually through the Times column, the broadcast jobs and the popular books he’s written, including The Road to Character (Random House, 2016), a bestseller.

These days, Brooks’ big theme is that individual success is overrated, and the emphasis on it in American life rather disastrous. It comes, he says, at the expense of community and compassion, and rarely leads to moral joy.

Brooks shared at Perkins that even as his career flourished, he descended into a personal valley several years back, having gone through a divorce and ended up living alone in an apartment, with nothing but Post-it notes and stationery in his kitchen drawers.

He missed his children, and he came to understand that workaholism and neglect of friendships had cost him.

Brooks’ way back eventually included marriage to his former research assistant, Anne Snyder, a committed Christian. The question of whether Brooks has become a Christian has been the subject of long articles in The Washington Post and New Yorker magazine.

Speaking at Perkins, Brooks made clear that he’s no longer an atheist. He quoted Christian authors who are important to him – St. Augustine, Frederick Buechner, Henri Nouwen – but also noted that he sees Jesus through a Jewish lens and in his own gradual move toward Christianity somehow feels more Jewish than ever.

In a brief interview between talks, Brooks elaborated a little.

“I say I feel more Jewish than ever, but I also feel Christian,” he said. “And my Jewish friends say, ‘You can’t be both, so you’re Christian.’ There’s a legitimate argument there.”

Brooks used part of his podium time to decry what he sees as a decades-long trend in the U.S. toward individualistic values, at steep personal and civic costs. He described how his work with the Aspen Institute, where he leads Weave: The Social Fabric Project, gives him a chance to highlight individuals and nonprofits that offer a counter example.

At the luncheon, Brooks touted Church Under the Bridge, a Waco, Texas, ministry to the homeless. That brought a smile to audience member Sean McDonald, a Perkins student who was recently part of a Perkins immersion course in homelessness that focused on the work of Church Under the Bridge.

“It was very cool to see that format for ministry is known beyond Waco,” McDonald said.

As for Perkins, Brooks told the luncheon crowd it’s well positioned to put students on a path to intellectual depth while also modeling the importance of a spiritual life and communitarian values.

He noted that the U.S. is becoming an increasingly multicultural society, making the need for schools like Perkins, with its emphasis on servant leadership, ever greater.

“We’re trying to do something really hard,” Brooks said of making civic life work as diversity accelerates. “It requires institutions like this one.”

Among those listening carefully in the morning session was first-year Perkins student Laura Sandstedt.

She acknowledged afterward that she had never read Brooks’ columns or books.

“But now I will. I was really impressed.”