True Friend, Tough Critic

Michael Metzger

Oscar Wilde said a true friend always says unpleasant things. David Brooks is a true friend of the Christian faith. He’s also one of its toughest critics. He recently shared a few of his insights into our shortcomings. They are worth considering.

Brooks spoke in September at The Gathering, a network of givers who are Christians. They meet regularly to consider opportunities for philanthropy. They also gather to challenge one another, which is why Brooks was a great selection. A friend of the faith, his topic was how to be religious in the public square. He speaks from experience.

David is part of a conservative Jewish tradition. He works at The New York Times, which he says “is a bit like being the chief rabbi in Mecca. There’s not a lot of company there some days.” He’s also a friend of the Christian faith. “I went to the University of Chicago, which we called the Wheaton of the Southside. The best line about Chicago: it’s a Baptist school where atheist professors teach Jewish students St. Thomas Aquinas.”

In addition to writing a regular column, Brooks has a book coming out on humility and teaches at Yale. He describes students as having “an unconscious boredom… not really attached to a moral purpose that gives life worth.” In what he calls “this secular world”, people “don’t have categories, they don’t have vocabularies, but they know the gap” (see my column last week). Brooks asked whether Christians are building ramps to help these folks or erecting walls. He sees a bit of both. The following are selected quotes from Brooks’ address where he names a few of the walls.


Now I spend a lot of time in the Christian world, and I am going to try to describe things I have observed, both walls and ramps. The first part, I‘m going to try and describe some walls that I think the Christian culture has erected for the secular culture. This part is going to be a little harsh. I want you to know I am for you and I love you.

The first wall is the wall of withdrawal. Many of my Christian friends perceive a growing difference between the secular world and the Christian world, the difference between Jay-Z and Hillsong and the Jesus culture. The difference between Quentin Tarantino and Eugene Peterson, Richard Dawkins and Henri Nouwen, Columbia College and Calvin College. With that comes a defensiveness and a withdrawal, a fear, and a withdrawal into sub-culture. I have friends who live in a sub-culture, work in a sub-culture, socialize in the sub-culture. If you live in a broader society that is governed by the spiritual longing that doesn’t know how to express itself, is withdrawing into your own separate sub-culture really the right thing to do?

I think that’s being governed by fear and not love.

The second wall is the wall of condescension. A lot of the walls come from a unique psychology which I have observed which is a weird mixture of – this is going to sound a little rude – in the Christian culture a mixture of wanton intellectual inferiority complex combined with a spiritual superiority complex. It’s people wanting to help. But it’s a form of closed-mindedness. It’s off-putting.

The third wall is the wall of bad listening. In my experience, I have had an amazing diversity of quality of listening among my friends who are in the Christian community. Some are amazing. Ask great questions. Allow each individual experience to express itself and be known. But I have certainly known others who have come to each conversation armed with a set of maxims, teaching and applying off-the-shelf truths and maxims without learning the uniqueness of each situation. Emerson said that souls are not saved in bundles and yet sometimes there is great haste to apply these ready-made maxims regardless of circumstances.

The final wall is this wall of intellectual insecurity. I teach at Yale. We are not nice to each other. We brutally attack each other. But out of that comes a hardened appreciation of truth. And sometimes we are brutal to each other because we are brutal in pursuit of the truth and we take our ideas very seriously and we’re sometimes willing to hurt each other because the ideas are so serious. Sometimes we veer on the side of just nastiness. Sometimes in my experience in Bible Study, the desire to be nice, the desire to be affirming, softens all discussion. So the jewel of truth is not hardened. Vague words and ethereal words are tolerated because nobody wants to be too offensive.


The jewel of truth is not hardened. Numerous surveys indicate the faith is flaccid in much of the Christian community. It might be an unpleasant thing to hear, but that’s part of what it means to be a true friend like David Brooks.

btw, if you want to read the entire transcript, go to:

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike


The Morning Mike Check

Don't miss out on the latest podcast episode! Be sure to subscribe in your favorite podcast platform to stay up to date on the latest from Clapham Institute.


  1. Apathy is a form of sloth, and therefore one of the 7 deadly sins. The Church seems increasingly guilty of it. We are both ignorant and apathetic. We don’t know and we don’t care. “So, because you are lukewarm–neither hot nor cold–I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” Revelation 3:16

  2. The root starts with ourselves. From the personal temple to the public temple. What is the order of service in our own temple ? Do we only rely on external observations ?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *