Character has been on my mind a lot lately.
As a father of two teenage sons in the final stretch of my parenting journey, I wonder how I’m doing instilling my boys with character. Am I creating conversations that teach them what’s important in life?
And as the president of a Christian ministry, I wonder how the Christian community is doing in communicating the need for character to a culture that operates largely without it.
To answer those questions, I sat down with David Brooks in Washington, D.C., for a conversation we aired a couple of days ago on our radio broadcast.
You may be familiar with David. He currently writes a column for The New York Times and is a frequent guest on national news programs such as PBS Newshour and Sunday morning political shows like Meet the Press. He’s also taught a course at Yale University and is a leading intellectual in our culture.
David does most of his thinking, writing, and commentating within the secular media – analyzing the ever-changing global political landscape and the impact it all has on the culture. But David has been taking a hard look at Christianity, studying Scripture, and it’s clear to me that he’s been influenced by some great Christian writers.
I felt like he could offer a unique perspective for how we Christians can strengthen our own character as well as be more effective in sharing the message of hope found in Christ’s grace and forgiveness to the culture.
David has spent several years looking into the topic of character and writing about it, and I think there are some really important things we can learn from his study.
Our nation is facing a crisis of character. We reward ego, not depth of character. David cites a study from 1950 where high school students were asked, “Are you a very important person?” Twelve percent said yes. A similar question was asked of high school students in the 1990s. This time, 80 percent said, “Yes, I’m a very important person.”
David’s interpretation of that cultural shift is that we’ve told a generation of kids how wonderful they are, and they’ve believed us.
Sensing our worth is one thing, but when we believe we’re intrinsically wonderful, by definition we don’t have a sense of our own sinfulness and brokenness, and we aren’t in a position to build character. Why would we? We’ve apparently developed all we need already.
Thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought (Romans 12:3) also prevents us from getting to the deeper aspirations God has wired into us. If we don’t feel we’re achieving meaning in life or connect with something of eternal significance, then we’ll feel emptiness.
That God-given sense of transcendence is inherently connected to character and virtue. David clarifies the distinction between what he calls “résumé virtues” and “eulogy virtues.”
Résumé virtues are the traits we bring to our job or profession. They’re what make us a skilled teacher, nurse, or bus driver. Eulogy virtues are the things people say about us after we’ve passed away – character traits like honesty, a sense of caring and great love, and faithfulness.
We all know eulogy virtues are more important. And, yet, our culture emphasizes résumé virtues. We emphasize how to build a good career, but, by and large, we do little to help people learn how to build a strong inner life. And as a whole, our culture doesn’t much see the value of disciplining ourselves to obtain good character or to seek God for it.
How do we turn that trend around?
I think our broadcasts with David Brooks will shed light on the value of cultivating character traits like integrity, honesty, and humility – and how putting them into practice can impact the culture. I encourage you to tune in online or via our free, downloadable mobile phone app to hear David’s thoughtful insights.