On the Road: Book Reviews by David Rufner


Despite efforts to the contrary, I’m again reading multiple books at the same time. Hello, my name is David, and I have a book problem.


bookreviewsrufnerBut this time it’s working! And by ‘working’ I mean to say that some sort of magic synergy is taking place between two very different authors and two very different books; The Road To Character by David Brooks, and The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey, by Rinker Buck.


Let’s start with the second – The Oregon Trail book. It turns out that with 3 mules, a wagon, gumption, and an underemployed, overweight, and comical brother, one can still ride the Oregon Trail from Missouri to Oregon. Or at least that’s what author Rinker Buck did with the help of his brother Nick back in 2011 – a feat that hadn’t been done since 1904. The result is thoroughly hilarious, and absolutely educational. Whether focusing on their journey, or on the more than 400,000 folks who traveled the trail from the 1830s to the 1860s, one quickly gains a sense of what a phenomenal achievement this was and is.


Through countless obstacles and many struggles they gain more than the destination itself. Each brother grows to admire the metal of the man sitting next to him, as they bump their way down 2,200 miles of cattle guards, rock, gopher holes, and stream crossings. And together they grow to admire the character of all those poor souls who long ago made the same journey under less favorable conditions.


Interestingly, David Brooks travels a very similar road. In The Road To Character, Brooks essentially grieves the lack of character and character-formation in western culture – a culture hyper focused on destinations and accomplishments, but little concerned with the route one takes to get there or how one carries one’s self along the way.


Brooks opens his book by saying, “The central fallacy of modern life is the belief that accomplishments [alone]… can produce deep satisfaction. That’s false… The ultimate joys are moral joys.” Brooks continues: “My general belief is that we’ve accidentally left moral tradition behind… We’re not bad. But we are morally inarticulate” (p15). And, “[One] builds character by winning victories over the weakness in himself” (p13).


If we channeled Brooks’ concern through ‘The Oregon Trail’ computer game many of us played in the 1980’s we’d have to joke that, culturally speaking, humility came down with measles and died 100 miles back. Self-control expired from cholera. And a sense-of-duty to others contracted dysentery, survived it, but later was killed by a bad case of typhoid.


Yet Brooks doesn’t simply bemoan what once was. Rather, he leads us forward on the trail. He speaks on a very human level about sin. He doesn’t deal with it as thoroughly theological concept, but as an honest and gracious lens with which to view both one’s self and one’s neighbor. And as we travel with Brooks we discover character – duty, self-conquest, virtuous struggle, dignity, love, self-examination – in the lives and struggles of those we meet along the way. These folks include St. Augustine, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and author George Eliot.


And what is the result of all their struggles and our own? According to Brooks, it’s something better than the bare accomplishment itself, and certainly better than awards and accolades. It’s both deep character and profound joy. “Each struggle leaves a residue. A person who has gone through these struggles seems more substantial and deep. And by a magic alchemy these victories turn weakness into joy. The stumbler doesn’t aim for joy. Joy is the byproduct experienced by people who are aiming for something else. But [still, joy] comes” (p. 269).


As we approach the season of Joy in Christ Jesus, may you have happy reading, rewarding trails, and deep joy!


Pastor David Rufner, a lecturer at Camp Arcadia in 2014 and in 2016, is pastor at New Hope Lutheran Church in Hudsonville, MI. 

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