David Brooks on the Beauty of Jesus in the Raging Storm

“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.”

Ben Self / 7.9.20

Political and cultural commentator David Brooks is a long-running Mockingbird favorite, and has shown up on the blog several times in the past few years due in part to his 2019 book The Second Mountain (about the deepening of his religious faith) and a related sermon he gave at the National Cathedral in 2017. Well, he preached his second sermon at the Cathedral this past Independence weekend, and by my reckoning, it contains some more 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:

[The world of Jesus] 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 … 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 …

Partisan fighting within the Jewish world was also intense. There was a profusion of cults and factions—the Essenes and the Pharisees … 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, 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 …

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 … 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 counter-intuitive, truly beautiful to inspire a leap of faith …

What keeps faith alive during storms like now is the awareness of beauty, of 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 [the power of love] and that essential goodness of transcendent love through those moments of beauty.

This essential goodness is God at work in human beings, when the transcendent becomes immanent–often in spite of ourselves, moving in 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. He explains that even in this moment when our “country is in a storm, or maybe an earthquake … of all sorts of dimensions,” and even though it may seem that we as a nation are “struggling to rise up” to meet it and failing to “care for the common good and the social whole,” there is great hope in those glimpses of Christ-like beauty that break through around us, that cut through the noise. In fact, just as in the time of Jesus, it’s those “beautiful responses” in the midst of the storm—“directly facing” it—that shine clearest. He ends with this message of hope for our nation:

[I]n 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 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 the power to shock a revolution in our culture and in our consciousness.

I love the idea that we can “partake in beauty” as a response to beauty we receive and perceive. Isn’t that how love often works? We love because He loved us first. Like Brooks, I find great hope in an awareness of those “little sparks of beauty” happening around us during these stormy times. But most of all, I take hope in the Source of beauty, of God’s unfathomable love for us manifest in Jesus, ever drawing us in, ever reconciling us to Him and each other. It is with this Source in mind that, even in this time when so much of our ugliness lies exposed, I joyfully share Brooks’ prayer: “God bless our beautiful nation.”