The Greek myth of Narcissus tells of an extraordinarily handsome young man who was a mighty hunter. One day he chanced to see his image in a quiet pool of water and he was enraptured and fascinated by what he saw. Not realizing it was just his reflection, he fell in love with the person he saw and could not pull himself away from the pool. Eventually he wasted away and died.
When living in Los Angeles a friend told me of a well-known Hollywood actor who, though approaching age 70, was obsessed with maintaining a tight physique and rock-hard, six-pack abs. This man had a rule that if any household servant (and he had many) or chauffeur made eye contact with him, that person was immediately terminated. I’m not sure if this is the classic narcissistic personality, but there seem to be strong elements of self worship here. Narcissism is tolerated among the famous, rich, and powerful, and there seems to be nothing to limit it.
There is no question but that the narcissistic impulse within us has grown and become strong in modern society. The great prophet and harbinger of postmodernity, Michel Foucault, told us that the greatest virtue was “care of self.” Here is a paragraph from an article I wrote about this some years ago:
The ultimate virtue for Foucault is “care of self.” Evil, then would seem to be anything that hindered one’s “care of self,” or the personal neglect of such. Foucault sees this as standing in opposition to Christianity on the one hand, but ultimately in harmony with Christianity. That is, “…in Christianity salvation is attained through the renunciation of self.” But the bottom line of Christianity, “… achieving one’s salvation is also a way of caring for oneself.”This is a strange twist. Foucault sees that the desire to be “saved” is an act of “care of self,” and therefore in line with his understanding of human virtue. The “self-denial” part of the Christianity is just noise, I guess. If we deconstruct the Christian message to understand the motives behind it, we will find selfishness. I don’t think Foucault got this right, but the preoccupation with self certainly has a comfortable home in our church today.The twenty-first century church exists in this narcissistic culture. We live in a land that celebrates self-gratifying materialism, and with social media such as Facebook and Twitter that can feed narcissism. How do we preach a lifestyle of self-denial, of dying to self, of living to serve Christ and others? Do we risk alienating potential church members if we stand against narcissism? Is it OK to have church leaders who display narcissistic personalities? Should our worship songs be focused on self, our needs, rather than God? Paul wrote:I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.That perspective, it would seem to me, is a cure for narcissism.Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College