Bobos in Paradise? Or somewhere else?

Posted by on May 30, 2011

An important aspect of thoughtful faith and faithful thinking in our world is knowing and understanding the way others think. The men of Issachar were said to have had “understanding of the times” (see I Chron. 12:32) and we should follow suit. If we’re going to communicate our faith to others we should interpret cultural trends and artifacts to see what people believe, where their affections lie, and in what “gods” they trust.

David Brooks, an entertaining and insightful writer and social critic offers penetrating (and, at times, painful) interpretations of “the new upper class” in his 2000 book Bobos in Paradise. Bobos, a term he coined, comes from Bourgeois and Bohemians. The most influential class now has adopted the materialistic success of the Bourgeoisie and the artistic, aesthetic sensitivity of the Bohemians. They’ve got the money of the old time conservatives and the rebelliousness of the old time liberals.

Brooks’ understanding of how this has influenced politics helps make sense of the last few decades in ways I have not heard from anyone else. But I’ll save the political dimensions of this book for a future blog.

Instead, I want to focus on Brooks’ chapter on the Bobos’ spirituality. Unlike the pure secularists of the 60s, this group wants spirituality (in the individualistic sense) and structure (in the traditional sense). They want “flexidoxy.” They return to church or synagogue for the traditional experience even if they reject some (most? all?) of the dogma. They want “flexibility on the one hand and the longing for rigor and orthodoxy on the other” (224). Brooks keenly observes “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” (242).

But here’s the kicker: these Bobos are still not satisfied. The religion they’ve constructed, designed to fit with their insistence upon individualistic pluralism, hasn’t brought the peace they longed for.

Consider this disturbing paragraph, remembering that Brooks seems to include himself in this description:

“Maybe in the end the problem with this attempt to reconcile freedom with commitment, virtue with affluence, autonomy with community is not that it leads to some catastrophic crack-up or some picturesque slide into immorality and decadence, but rather that it leads to too many compromises and spiritual fudges. Maybe people who try to have endless choices end up with semi-commitments and semi-freedoms. Maybe they end up leading a life that is moderate but flat. Their souls being colored with shades of gray, they find nothing heroic, nothing inspiring, nothing that brings their lives to a point. Some days I look around and I think we have been able to achieve these reconciliations only by making ourselves more superficial, by simply ignoring the deeper thoughts and highest ideals that would torture us if we actually stopped to measure ourselves according to them. Sometimes I think we are too easy on ourselves” (246-7).

We would do well to inquire about evangelistic strategies to reach the Bobos around us…and discipleship efforts to confront the Bobo within us.

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