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Evangelicalism's narcissism epidemic

Researchers believe that today's 20-somethings are not only the most narcissistic generation in American history but are also drowning in an American culture that feeds their narcissism. In The Narcissism Epidemic, psychology professors Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell explain that American individualism has denigrated into an obsession with "me, me, me," adding that "Americans love to love themselves."

The authors go on to define a narcissist as someone who has an "overinflated view of his own abilities," and is simply "overconfident" and sees himself as fundamentally superior, special, entitled, and unique. Narcissists want to feel important even when they are not. Moreover, they often use other people in a "grand game of deception," the authors note, adding, "If you do this well-convincing yourself and everyone else that you are as terrific as you think you are-you can be a winner in the game of self-admiration."

As I read through the book I began to wonder if some aspects of evangelical culture actually spiritualize narcissism in the following ways:

By having parenting priorities that coddle children and deceive them into thinking they are unique and special and, by extension, placing unrealistic and unbiblical performance expectations on them to be basically perfect, sinless, athletic, academically successful, and accomplished in order to live a fairy-tale life of comfort and ease. To make matters worse, some place expectations on young people to do "awesome things for God someday," "change the world," "make a difference," etc. "Move to the inner city or go into missions so you can do something substantial with your life," we tell them. "And don't get married too early. Marriage and kids could mess up all the cool things you can do for God." But the Apostle Paul seems to suggest that Christians "aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands" (1 Thessalonians 4:11). Maybe one of the most radical things your child will do in this life is stay married and raise kids who love God. By buying into business marketing strategies that feed narcissistic temptations for local congregations to be unique and special by crafting vision and missions statements that go beyond biblical teachings like "loving God and loving neighbor" (Matthew 22:36-40). Isn't love big enough to be a "big hairy audacious goal"? What could be more profound, revolutionary, and directional than love? Perhaps love is not radical, sexy, or glamorous enough in an age of narcissism. By accepting the idea that you need to be important and have your name recognized in your community and the nation. In other words, be a part of an influencer church with one of those influential, famous book-writing pastors who speak at conferences. A church on the move! Twenge and Campbell have an entire chapter that describes the narcissist craving for attention that challenges me to question what I am reading when I see posts on Facebook or tweets on Twitter about what unique and awesome thing a church is doing abroad or domestically. I wonder if God is impressed with influential churches? "Hey look at how awesome we are; God sure is working!" But isn't your church "da bomb" if it's working to love God and love your neighbor? What else would you want in a church to do and to be? And, by the way, your little local congregation is not going to "redeem your city." Changing cities is the Holy Spirit's job (Acts 2).

I hate to sound overly simplistic, but I am beginning to wonder if we undermine the mystery of the Christian life by adding extra tasks, missions, and principles that are not in the Bible and burn people out in the process, making Christianity a burden. Maybe the way to live radically in a culture that craves attention is to live in such a way that points people to mystery of the Trinity and not to our institutions or ourselves.

Anthony Bradley Anthony is associate professor of religious studies at The King's College in New York and a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.


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