Important Books: The Death of Character

Good things happen when you read.

I read for a living these days, and I cannot tell you how beneficial it is. The effort necessary to extract ourselves from the television is worth everything. When we actually sit down and read books, things happen. More specifically, knowledge happens. And knowledge is an incredible thing. Once you acquire a thirst for knowledge, you cannot go back. The practice of discovering truth about the world hooks you, and you have to read more, and understand more, and grow and change. Good things happen when you read.

Good things will happen when you read James Davison Hunter’s The Death of Character. Hunter is a sociologist from the University of Virginia who first came up with the idea of the “culture wars” in America. He’s an exceptional scholar and thinker and his book on character is masterful. Combining a careful historical perspective with the insightful eye of the sociologist, Hunter chronicles how America has gone from being founded on bedrock virtues to grounding itself in the airy tenets of self-serving psychology. His historical background is very helpful. In several places he compares the classical ethos of the Girl Scouts with the current ethos. The contrast could not be greater. The Girl Scouts, so sweet and innocent in their green vests, are being taught the most heinous principles of psychology and esteem. Hunter uses the Scouts as a grid by which to evaluate the rest of society. He finds that across the board, we have given in to a self-focused, relativist, amoral ethic. You’ll have to read it yourself to find out just how much things have changed in America over the last two centuries.

So there it is: a wholehearted recommendation that you read The Death of Character and approach your world with the expert prescription glasses Hunter gives you. You’ll be so much more able to see the self-focused, amoral psychologizing that dominates America in our day. More than this, you’ll be able to see better how you yourself have imbibed this thinking in your own life. You’ll realize as I have (if a product of the public education system and a fan of popular entertainment) that you are way more psychologically focused than you should be. You’ll realize that you prioritize your feelings and your self-esteem and your own personal happiness far more than you should. You’ll come away a bit disgusted with yourself as you realize that you are not so different from the culture as you thought.

I can think of a number of examples where this idea applies. We have been trained to believe that we deserve happiness. Thus, whenever we’re not happy, we instinctively think that something has gone wrong with our circumstances, that something wrong is being done to us. We don’t think, as anyone 200-300 years ago would have thought, that the problem lies within us, that we simply need to mature and grow and develop character because we are not owed happiness. It has no debt to us. It’s sad to realize for the first time that your own personal ethic is self-serving and feelings-focused. Where we should cry against ourselves, we cry against others and our circumstances. It’s too hard, or our boss is too demanding, or we don’t feel as happy as we would like to, or we aren’t being appreciated for our brilliance, or we’re not being affirmed enough. You know, I’m not sure many of us would have survived 400 years ago in colonial America. We would have been hoeing and tilling and getting sick and, psychological as we are, we would have collapsed in a heap on the hard earth, weeping and whining, and America never would have been colonized. We need a return to a stout, truth-driven, morals-based, psychologically minimal, ethic. We need character. We can find it. God will give it to us. May He change us through the reading of His word, through the rejection of self-serving morality, and through the power of the Spirit as we deny ourselves and take up the cross of Christ.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Important Books: The Death of Character

  1. Dad

    You may rejoice that you are learning not just ‘theology’, but some practical self observations regarding holiness (or, a lack of holiness while possessing a conformity to the world).

    Al

  2. Nietzsche

    Are you being ironical? “Combining a careful historical perspective with the insightful eye of the sociologist…” Is there such a thing as an “insightful sociologist?” Can a sociologist be an exceptional scholar and thinker? Is “a careful historical perspective” a good thing? Oh the questions!

  3. Jed

    I’m a bit confused. It seems to me that you are recommending a type of virtue ethics which stresses the importance of character. However the whole point of developing character in classical virtue ethics (i.e. in Aristotle, Aquinas) is to arrive at personal happiness. For example Aristotle: “Happiness is activity according to virtue.” Hence I don’t understand the dichotomy that is drawn between the desire to seek personal happiness and the development of character. It seems to me that this is a false dilemma. You don’t develop character instead of trying to attain personal happiness; rather, you develop character in order to attain happiness.

    Second, as a Reformed Christian the talk of character development has always made me slightly nervous and has kept me from adopting virtue ethics wholesale. The development of character implies self-discipline (askesis). That is, it is something that we do through our own action and practice to improve ourselves. Now some Christians, like the Eastern Fathers and Ambrose of Milan, have sought to nestle such a view (which stresses human autonomy) within a bed of grace but this has invariably led to synergism (and I know you are a convinced monergist). Augustine offers a powerful critique of such a project and of virtue ethics in general, rejecting virtue ethics for a sort of divine command theory of ethics. I wonder if you could comment at how we can square an ethic that stresses the building of character with Calvinism.

  4. Dad

    Interesting comments – I just don’t have enough character to resist chiming in.

    A couple of thoughts, as I first read this, and then a second time, I was struck by the Biblical truth that 1) people 400 years ago, apart from the grace of God, were as selfish as we are today, perhaps, their culture hemmed them in a little more than our’s does, and 2) while God does give talents, skills and insights to people, we as believers need to be careful regarding calling some one insightful. On what level are we speaking? An educated point of view that still leaves the Bible revelation out or an educated point of view that is built upon the revelation of God? A man writing a book, while leaving the revelation of God out, can go only so far in the direction of being truly insightful.

    As to building character, with a Calvinist context, the Calvinist Peter wrote: ESV 2 Peter 1:4 by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. 5 For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, 6 and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, 7 and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. 8 For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. 10 Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall.

    And Paul writes of ‘character’ in Romans 5, and speaks in a similar way, as Peter, in PHil. 2:12-13.

    Calvinism always holds the individual responsible to his creature, whether that person is a believer or not. The believer is the only one able to tackle the problem of lack of Character in a way that is pleasing to God, and he must do so. To not do so, is to seek peril for our soul.

    I do think Owen’s last several sentences turns in this direction.

    Al

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