Evangelical Narcissism

Ted Haggard
Writing on the subject of the whole Ted Haggard mess, Doug Wilson observes:

The second sign of trouble (evident long before the recent revelations) was the prevalent evangelical marketing of narcissism and celebrity as though it were a reasonable approximation of humility and ministerial service. What’s wrong with this picture? I remember, many years ago, long before the Jimmy Swaggart meltdown, talking to my wife about his record albums in a Christian bookstore. Album after album showed a close-up photo of his face, and nothing was more apparent than that something was seriously disordered about the whole operation. But that disorder was something that the evangelical market was more than willing to support and praise with their dollars. After it happens, the response among Christians was “how could this happen?” Are you serious? The real question should have been “how could it not?” Contemporary evangelicalism is nothing more than institutionalized narcissicism, and if the tree is rotten, it will continue to produce this kind of fruit.

Contemporary evangelicalism as ‘institutionalized narcissism’ is perhaps as good a description of the current state of affairs as any. It is something that I have drawn attention to in the past. For example,

Salvation opens us up to the Other. Only a Trinitarian and ecclesial understanding of salvation can do justice to this. The salvation paradigm of many within evangelicalism is akin to the romantic love paradigm of our society. It has little to say about the manner in which the Church is brought into a Trinitarian fellowship of love, focusing more upon the individual’s relationship with a god who is considered in largely Unitarian terms. You end up having two polarized parties and a love that closes in on itself.

Evangelicalism has little to say about our meeting of God in the commonality of our love for others. The Church as the community of the Spirit is that which frees to enjoy a non-narcissistic relationship with God. Evangelicalism’s failure to really recognize all of this has led, I believe, to its increasing self-obsession and introspectionism. Worship has become about self-stimulation rather than self-gift. There is also a tendency to project a domesticated god created in our own image, a god who reinforces our sense of self and never challenges us by His Otherness. When we worship such a god we are really worshipping ourselves. It should not surprise us that many contemporary worship songs focus more upon our act of worship than upon the object of our worship. The worship wars that rage through evangelicalism are not unrelated to this.

The collective narcissism of much modern evangelicalism (expressed in countless different ways) is perhaps, more than anything else, the thing that makes me want to get as far away from such forms of evangelicalism as I can. The soul of evangelicalism is afflicted by a disordered desire that will destroy it.

This disordered desire has innumerable manifestations. It can be seen in the way in which so many evangelical ministries operate without a regard to the rest of the Church, and particularly to the non-evangelical parts of the Church. It can be seen in the lack of interest in Church history. It can be seen in the insistence on singing modern hymns and choruses that conform to our personal tastes in music. In can be seen in the way that many evangelical churches are populated by clones.

It can also be seen in evangelicalism’s twisted aesthetics. It should be recognized that disordered desire will lead to a disordered aesthetic. It is not an accident that the narcissism and disordered desire of homosexuality is often expressed in a disordered aesthetic (camp, kitsch, self-glorification, etc.). Narcissistic aesthetics can take many different forms. They can consist in a purely ironic posture towards reality, in a playfulness that has no desire for costly engagement in reality, in the production and obsession with art that seeks nothing more than self-expression, in sentimentalism and sickly nostalgia (which almost invariably involves a narcissistic projection onto the past, rather than a genuine reckoning with the alterity of the past), among other things. Narcissistic aesthetics are the aesthetics of decadence and stem from a failure to engage properly with otherness, and from a weakening of faith.

Our aesthetic sensibilities are not morally neutral; they are as depraved and as needful of redemption as any other aspect of our human make-up. The scandal of the evangelical mind is well-known; it is high time that the scandals of the evangelical imagination and of evangelical aesthetics received equal notoriety.

The problem of evangelical narcissism is so huge that I am surprised that it has such a low profile.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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9 Responses to Evangelical Narcissism

  1. Jim says:

    Yes, Yes, a thousand times yes!

  2. Byron says:

    Wow – very insightful and the link to ‘camp’ was fascinating. I did wonder about one thing:
    The collective narcissism of much modern evangelicalism (expressed in countless different ways) is perhaps, more than anything else, the thing that makes me want to get as far away from such forms of evangelicalism as I can. The soul of evangelicalism is afflicted by a disordered desire that will destroy it.
    How should we respond to disordered love in others? Flee it lest it mess with our own? Or continue to attend to it, speak with it, pray for it that the incongruities between the other’s disorder and my own disorder highlight to both of us the ‘unnaturalness’ of the loves we profess and force us both to consider again how our loves ought to be arranged? Just a thought.

  3. Jim says:

    In the words of Jude- “don’t allow yourselves even to be touched by their sinful garments”.

  4. Al says:

    Byron,

    A lot depends on the particularities of the situation in which you find yourself. We will never be able to escape disordered love entirely in this life, so we are going to have to learn to live and deal with it in some way or other.

    There are a number of things to be alert to here. We should be aware of the mimetic character of desire. Desire does not arise spontaneously in the human heart, but our desires are patterned after the desires of others who we consciously or unconsciously treat as models. If we are always around people with distorted desires we should not be surprised if our desires become distorted to. We need to be well aware of the weaknesses and treachery of our own hearts. We might remain in such situations with a desire to help others and end up succumbing to the distorted desires ourselves.

    This is the reason why I want to keep a safe distance from the form of evangelicalism that I mention in this post. I have seen enough of the problem in myself to believe that I would be unsafe in such an environment. This does not mean that we cease to engage with such people, pray for them or be concerned for them. We just need to be exceedingly careful in how we do deal with them. We are dealing with a highly contagious disease of desire here and we really need to know exactly what we are doing before we start to breathe the air that carries it.

    The Jude verse that Jim quotes is helpful here. In seeking to rescue people in certain situations we must act with ‘fear’, recognizing the dangerous forces that we are dealing with. We must manifest extreme caution lest we find ourselves affected by the problem that afflicts them. A careless or reckless attitude could easily lead to disaster.

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  6. Pingback: Excellent Post on Evangelical Narcissism from alastair.adversaria « One Thing I Know

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