David Brooks, Harvey Weinstein, and Original Sin

I always like David Brooks, even when I have to disagree—or quibble. Not that he should care what an obscure redheaded conservative Christian blogger thinks… Except that I think he pays attention to religion in a way no other opinion columnist at the New York Times does, aside of course from Ross Douthat.

Brooks’ recent column about the origins of sexual predation among men looked like it was going to be helpful and insightful, as usual, but then it took the turn from helpful description to moral prescription. Or, rather, amoral prescription:

There hasn’t been enough research into what goes on in the minds of harassers, but the studies we do have suggest a few things.

Brooks is not unwilling to preach morals; most of his prescriptions in the piece are not for additional scientific study but for cultural and moral retrieval. He unabashedly uses words from the moral domain in the piece:

Harassment is not just sex and it’s not just power; it’s a wicked mixture of the two.

I’ve got no necessary objection to bringing the findings of empirical science into a discussion of sexual predation. We are fearfully and wonderfully made as “psychosomatic unities” (Anthony Hoekema), and brain scans very likely do have something to tell us about the Weinsteins of the world—and ourselves.

My complaint is that the turn to empiricism feels so natural, even obligatory, in our culture. An appeal to “original sin” in the New York Times would feel jarring. At they key moment when such an appeal would have made the most sense, Brooks switches domains and looks to science.

I find science ultimately unhelpful, or rather unhelpful as an ultimate explanation for human behavior. I’m with C.S. Lewis, speaking of the Germans in WWII:

What was the sense in saying the enemy were in the wrong unless Right is a real thing which the Nazis at bottom knew as well as we did and ought to have practised? If they had had no notion of what we mean by right, then, though we might still have had to fight them, we could no more have blamed them for that than for the colour of their hair. (Mere Christianity, 5)

So I’m pleasantly surprised that our culture had so much moral dudgeon left in it for Harvey Weinstein’s sexual choices, and I feel like Brooks’ appeal to science was an odd digression given the overall American response to Weinstein. The tone of that response was, thankfully, inconsistent with the atheistic materialism that is supposed to be binding and ruling us all. People weren’t pitying Weinstein because of the cards nature dealt him, the cells that the immutable laws of cause and effect placed in his brain, the instincts he inherited via the process of evolution; no, they were blaming him—morally—and not accepting his excuses.

“I came of age in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different,” he said. “That was the culture then.” And no one replied, “We celebrate your culture but ask you to practice it only in foreign countries where it is accepted.”

As the righteous drumbeat against Weinstein continues—and I’m so glad it is doing so (I got a notification on my phone five seconds ago from the Times saying that New York City police are investigating one particular allegation)—people are forgetting all the deterministic science talk and going for the moral jugular. They are implying that right is a real thing which Weinstein at bottom knew as well as they did and ought to have practiced.

They are, in other words—and I don’t think I’m taking this too far—expressing an implicit belief in original sin—or at least in sin simpliciter.

I’m going to try to use this worship of the unknown god with my non-Christian friends on the bus. Why do they blame any product of evolution for doing what evolution tells it to do, unless there is a level of reality behind and beneath biology? Why do they reject Weinstein’s appeal to the cultural mores of his younger years?

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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