Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Narcissism Goes to Church

Reformed speaker and writer Dr. Monte Wilson takes a critical look at the current state of worship in evangelical churches in an essay entitled "Narcissism Goes to Church: Encountering Evangelical Worship." A friend brought the essay to my attention, and while reading it, I couldn't help but be struck by ways in which the problems Wilson identifies cannot be confined to evangelical circles alone; indeed, we can find much of this stuff creeping its way into The Episcopal Church.

Here, for example, is how Dr. Wilson describes what's happened to the opening of many evangelical services:

"Good Morning!" bellows the greeter, Mr. Rapport. "Why don't we stand and greet one another?" While every-one nervously pretends to happily welcome those around him with body language that says, "I can't believe he made us do this," Mr. Rapport will walk up and down the aisle shaking hands with the members, kissing babies and, in essence, acting as if he were running for office. (Maybe he is.)

What is this? It is the evidence of the modern proof of God's presence: Warmth and Fuzziness. The service must have the correct ambiance. People must feel wanted, even needed--or they will go elsewhere. Not long ago, the normal service would begin with Bible reading and prayer, declaring the congregation's allegiance and submission to Christ. Today, our allegiance is to user-friendliness.

Perhaps in The Episcopal Church we have our own parallels to this sort of thing. Maybe during the announcements, the priest sets a super casual tone by cracking jokes and going out of his/her way to convey the message, "Yes, I'm a priest decked out in these vestments, but I'm really just like you, and I'm your buddy." (I'm guilty of having done that!) Or maybe, instead of maintaining an ethos of reverence before the service begins, everybody is so garrulous that they have to speak louder and louder in order to be heard over the Prelude. A tone is set that's more akin to attending a Rotary Club meeting or a cocktail party than entering into the presence of the Holy.

Then there's Dr. Wilson's description of the preacher:

It is now time for The Reverend Doctor Raconteur. First, he will tell a story. Now this yarn need not have anything to do with the message, but it must assure everyone that he is a) glad they are there; b) capable of wowing them; c) a real master of the pulpit; and d) just plain folk, like all of them. If he fails to accomplish one of these objectives, he is in trouble. If he fails in two, his job is in jeopardy.

It doesn't matter how well educated in theology the minister is because he will rarely deal in theology: the real need is psychology and entertainment. The man must move the audience. He must make them feel loved, needed, wanted, appreciated, cared for and special--reeeeal special--all in one message. Content is secondary, if it is relevant at all. What matters is that the minister is personable and able to make every individual present feel like he is talking just to him.

It is not just the people's ego being stroked here, but the minister's as well. He moves, he cries, he laughs and he woos. The spotlight is his. He is on center stage and loving it. Men revere him, women adore him and children laugh at his jokes: all stand in awe of his skills. What a life! Except, that is, when there is no response from the people. He stands at the back door and receives only the most mundane of compliments. No one is saved. No one spoke to him of his brilliant performance. No one fell down at the altar. Nothing visible, nothing audible, nothing happened, period. And what of his ego, now? It is dashed. He is a failure. No one appreciates him. No one knows his toil, his anguish--his insecurity and the ravenous hunger of his ego for approbation.

Don't some of us in Episcopal Holy Orders fall into this trap, too? Don't we sometimes go for telling "feel good" stories that connect with the biblical readings at best tangentially, talking about ourselves and our own experiences as though our own subjective histories are surer guides to God's truth than Holy Scripture? (I've done that before, too.)

I don't mean to suggest that it's never appropriate for clergy to share their experiences and their stories from the pulpit, especially when that serves the purpose of illuminating the truth of the Gospel. But talking about ourselves in the pulpit can be dangerous. It's so easy to simply use scripture as a way to buttress my own preferences and experience, and to use the pulpit as a means for therapeutic catharsis and for emotionally manipulating the congregation ("How can they not like me after what I just shared with them this morning?").

Dr. Wilson also offers his diagnosis that modern American Christianity

... is filled with the spirit of narcissism. We are in love with ourselves and evaluate churches, ministers and truth-claims based upon how they make us feel about ourselves. If the church makes me feel wanted, it is a good church. If the minister makes me feel good about myself, he is a terrific guy. If the proffered truth supports my self-esteem, it is, thereby, verified.

Whence does this error spring? What is its source? One source is the belief that salvation is solely due to an experience of conversion, rather than to what happened on the Cross of Christ. Most Christians today define their salvation exclusively in terms of what happened to them subjectively, having no notion whatsoever of the objective basis for their salvation. This in turn focuses all of their attention on anxiously caring for that experience.

I suggest that another source is the common modern presupposition that experience is the foundation for belief. This cannot be so, however, because experiences do not happen in vacuums. People experience something or someone. The question, then, becomes, "What or Who has been experienced?" The "What" or "Who" must be interpreted. And simply because the Who or What was encountered in a religious setting does not mean that the encounter was sent by God.

One of the attractions for basing beliefs and theologies on experience is that it gives various religious groups a common starting point for ecumenical dialogue: "We have all experienced Jesus (or Truth or the transcendent God), have we not?" But this begs the question: who is going to verify exactly Who was experienced and by what standard shall they make their evaluations? How shall we ascertain if we have experienced God or Truth--or have only been experiencing ourselves?

To those who say that experience is The Standard for evaluating truth, goodness, beauty, etc., Luther had an interesting question. On Good Friday, when the disciples stood before the Cross, where was God? Was he not absent? For years they had experienced him on a daily basis; now he was demonstrably absent. Jesus himself cries out that God had forsaken him. Now, what do we believe? Well, as Luther pointed out, we had better believe the theology of the Bible.

When we allow experience or feelings to guide our faith we will end up in a ditch. Our feelings will tell us that God is absent while, all the time, he was right there "present in a hidden manner." What we need, then, is a theology with which to interpret our experiences.

I hear an allegiance to Almighty Experience voiced quite often in The Episcopal Church. It's become the fourth leg of the so-called "three-legged stool," and a touchstone for truth that can trump the witness of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. How do I know this is right or true? I just feel so deeply that it is. And who is anyone else to question or invalidate my feelings?

Dr. Wilson sums up the "mantra" of modern evangelicalism as follows:

I feel, therefore, I am.

I do not feel God; therefore, something or someone is wrong.

I feel God; therefore, whatever is being said and done must be The Truth.

I feel good; therefore, I am good.

I feel needy and my needs are demands on your abilities and possessions.

I've rarely attended evangelical worship services, but all of this sure sounds familiar.

Read it all.


Joe Rawls said...

The final mantra is definitely part of the Anglican landscape, regardless of differences in churchmanship.

The Underground Pewster said...

Interesting points.

Those of us in the pews tend to attend a church where we feel most comfortable in worship style and preaching style. Is this not narcissistic also?

Aren't disciples helped most by the teacher who can get them to study and to do their homework?

Dave+ said...

The Methodists claim the Wesleyan Quadrilateral of Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. Often this is seen as a square of equal size.

One of our problems as TEC is the three-legged stool model, or now a four-legged chair. Are all the legs equal? I cannot find anything until recent history to indicate that this is so.

Bryan Owen said...

Underground Pewster, personally speaking, I think the answer to your first question depends on what one means by "comfortable." As to the second question, there's a big difference between "the teacher who can get them to study and to do their homework" and someone whose primary purpose is to make us feel good. My best teachers were often precisely the ones who pushed me the hardest and who sometimes made my life more difficult. Their class was not often a "feel good" experience.

Dave+, you're right to point out the problem(s) with the three-legged stool model. Some speak, instead, of a tricycle, with scripture as the big wheel and with tradition and reason as the small wheels. I'm not sure that settles anything either. The issue is what do we mean when we use words like "reason" and "experience." Oftentimes, I think we use "reason" to mean an autonomous faculty, something that stands apart from tradition and scripture and which is capable of passing judgment on them in some more or less "objective" way. And "experience" is a very slippery term, depending on how it's used. Wilson seems to be suggesting that the term often collapses into "what I find pleasurable" vs. "what I find painful or difficult."

Part of my concern in all of this is the infallibility of feelings. No one else can contradict or invalidate my subjective experience of how I feel about X. That's just how I feel about it. So if how I feel about X is also the grounding for why I believe that X is "true" or "virtuous" and thus should be commended as such to others, then my belief is insulated from external criticism (from scripture, tradition, other people). Thus insulated by virtue of its grounding in the infallibility of my feelings, there is no possibility that my belief about X could be in error. It becomes a self-authenticating truth.

Drew Collins said...

Fun fact: The Rev'd Dr. Wilson is a priest of the Diocese of the Southeast of the Reformed Episcopal Church.

Bryan Owen said...

Interesting note, Drew. However, I'll bet that, as a Reformed Christian, Dr. Wilson would probably not refer to himself as a "priest."

Drew Collins said...

Oh I don't know -- I'm also a Reformed Christian (both in outlook and affiliation [REC/ACNA]) and have no problem with the word.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this interesting commentary. Although I have not read the book, I might add a few comments from my own experience if I may: I was in a relationship with a narcissist and am quite sure I am currently working for on in an Episcopal Church. I fear its more confusing than all of that: in the end the narcissist never really cares what you think of him/her. What I generally hear from the pulpit is also a general "Look at how entertaining I am" "Look at how wonderful a church we are (i.e. I have made you into"). Oftentimes, narcissists are drawn to and preach semi-Pelgianism for a Gospel of "pull yourself up by your bootstraps and try harder" is quite convenient. The way I would describe my parish where I work is similar to the children of a famous doctor who is revered in the community, yet it's Saturday and his kids haven't had breakfast or had a bath and it's 3 in the afternoon as the dad is out raising funds for some other charity or other..... In the end, my experience is that I have never been more flattered, nor made to feel more like crap than by a narcissist