Bobos ‘r US

Bobos ‘r US January 10, 2001

Every Saturday, journalist David Brooks and his family can choose between three services at their synagogue in Washington, D.C.

Rabbis lead a mainstream, almost Protestant, rite in the sanctuary. Then there is an informal “Havurah (fellowship)” service led by lay people, including a 45-minute talk-back session. The erudite leaders often pause to explain why the Torah’s more judgmental and dogmatic passages don’t mean what they seem to mean.

Finally, throngs of young adults pack the wonderfully named “Traditional Egalitarian” service, which features longer Torah readings, a rigorous approach to liturgy and what Brooks called a “somewhat therapeutic” seminar blending spirituality and daily life.

“It can get pretty New Age-y,” said Brooks, at his Weekly Standard office. “It’s as if you’re in an Orthodox shul and then Oprah Winfrey comes on.”

It was a rabbi in Montana who gave Brooks the perfect word — “Flexidoxy” — to describe this faith. This is what happens when Americans try to baptize their souls in freedom and tradition, radical individualism and orthodoxy, all at the same time. One scholar found a Methodist pastor’s daughter who calls herself a “Methodist Taoist Native American Quaker Russian Orthodox Buddhist Jew.”

It doesn’t make any sense, but it looks good and feels right. And that’s the key to the hearts of the intellectuals, artists, politicians and entrepreneurs who came to power after the 1960s. When it comes to the culture wars, they are lovers, not fighters.

Brooks calls them “Bobos,” which is shorthand for “bourgeois bohemians.” Their yin-yang worldview — part ’60s idealism, part ’80s work ethic — now dominates academia and politics, Hollywood and, recently, Wall Street. But the Bobos, said Brooks, struggle when they try to fly solo through life’s major transition times, such as marriage, birth and death.

“Can you have freedom as well as roots? Can you still worship God even if you take it upon yourself to decide that many of the Bible’s teachings are wrong?”, he asks, in his rollicking book “Bobos in Paradise.”

“Can you establish ritual and order in your life if you are driven by an inner imperative to experiment constantly with new things? … The Bobos are trying to build a house of obligation on a foundation of choice.”

The book’s spirituality chapter ends with a glimpse of “Bobo Heaven,” in which a sophisticated Angel of Death leaves a materialistic superwoman to spend eternity in her perfect Montana summer house, with National Public Radio on every channel. Is this heaven or hell?

Brooks stressed that millions of Americans are sincerely struggling to live better lives, while simultaneously refusing to accept traditional religious creeds and dogmas. They have been taught, after all, that they must call their own shots, write their own creeds. He quips: “You’ve got to think outside the box. … You’ve got to be on the edge. You’ve got to be outside the box that’s on the edge.”

For Bobos and their followers, said Brooks, the idea of “one, universal truth is not even something that they have consciously rejected. This concept is not a part of their world. They have never even really considered the idea that one religion might be true and all the others false, or even that there is one true way to approach the moral universe, and all the others are false.”

But Bobos do not consider themselves moral relativists. They do make judgments. They even have creeds, said Brooks, but they are built on concerns about aesthetics, health, safety, science, self-esteem and, especially, achievement. This approach to life may even include an appreciation for “spirituality” and religious rituals. Bobos are willing to buy and consume many high-quality religious products and services.

“They have very concrete ways of faking a morality, especially when it comes to the rules that go with achievement,” said Brooks. “You do whatever is best for your career and your long-term interests. … So when it comes to religion, they want to be very positive and upbeat. It’s all about encouragement and grace. They avoid the bad parts, which means the judgmental parts.”

The bottom line: Does your congregation have what it takes? Can it afford to be Bobo-friendly?

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