Christianity in a Culture of Narcissism

June 25, 2012 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

“Narcissus” by Caravaggio, 1596

“I wanna talk about me, wanna talk about I, wanna talk about number one, oh my me my.”
– Toby Keith, country singer[1]

“I think I’m fascinating.”
– Snooki, Jersey Shore star[2]

“What do you really want out of life?  A bigger, better job?  A hotter sex life?  The lean, mean body you had in college?  All of the above?  Men’s Health can help you get there.”
Men’s Health promotion[3]

As the Roman poet Ovid tells it, Narcissus was quite the heartbreaker.  Narcissus was a handsome young hunter, furiously courted by every young lady who met him.  But Narcissus rejected every advance of every young lady because Narcissus only had eyes for…himself.  The story goes that one day, after an especially rigorous morning of hunting, Narcissus decided to rest for a moment on a verdant pasture next to a quiet pond.  When he went to the pond to get a drink of water, what did he see, but himself!  So enamored was Narcissus by his own appearance, that he eventually died there by that pool, for he was unable to pry himself away from his striking reflection.[4]

Narcissus, of course, serves as the namesake and the caution for the personality disorder we know as narcissism.  I recently read that the American Psychiatric Association is considering removing narcissism from its highly influential Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).  Why?  Because more and more psychologists consider it to be “a manifestation of normal personality.”[5]  Narcissism is now normal.  Or so psychologists say.

One doesn’t need to look very far to see just how “normal” narcissism has become.  From country singers who want to talk about themselves to faux reality TV stars who find themselves to be inexhaustibly interesting to magazines which unabatedly sell narcissism to self-absorbed, even if fitness-conscious, consumers, instances of narcissism are everywhere.  Yet, I would argue that simply because narcissism is prevalent doesn’t necessarily mean it is normal.  “Normal” refers to something which “conforms to a standard or common type.”[6]  But what “standard or common type” norms that which is normal?  In psychology, it is the standard of self.  Whatever behavior, trait, or characteristic is most common among the majority of people is considered normal.  Majority norms psychology.  Hence, the reason narcissism is being considered for removal from the DSM.  Theologically, however, things work differently.  Normal is not defined by human prevalence but by divine revelation.  And theologically, narcissism is most definitely abnormal – and worse, sinful.  As the apostle Paul warns, “But mark this:  There will be terrible times in the last days.  People will be lovers of themselves” (2 Timothy 3:1-2).  According to Paul, to be obsessed with self is a sinful sign of the terrible times.  It’s time, then, to leave narcissism behind for something else – something better.

Over the next few weeks in my blog, I’ll be probing the foundations of narcissism in our society and asking, “How did we get here?  How did narcissism become ‘normal’?”  To this end, I’ll be exploring the historical underpinnings of narcissism philosophically, scientifically, and therapeutically.  All of these disciplines, of course, will be discussed in light of the Bible’s verdict on narcissism theologically.

Ovid says of Narcissus’ narcissism, “Its empty being on thy self relies; Step thou aside, and the frail charmer dies.”[7]  Here is a somber warning that we would do well to take to heart.  Ovid cautions that narcissism finally leads to death.  For in its emphasis on the self, narcissism leaves you only by yourself.  And left by yourself, you will only die.  For you are only mortal.  This is why Jesus invites us to leave behind the deathly hallows of narcissism to find lasting life in Him:  “If anyone would come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me” (Mark 8:34).  Jesus is clear:  He and narcissism do not mix.  Following Him is about losing yourself, not indulging yourself.  For when you lose yourself, you happily wind up getting lost in Jesus Himself – His love, His grace, His mercy, His compassion, His identity, and His everlasting life.  And He is better than you.  In a culture of narcissism, this is what we, as Christians, are called to proclaim.

[1] Toby Keith, “I Wanna Talk About Me” (2001).

[2] Hillary Busis, “Barbara Walters Learns What ‘Smoosh’ Means During Interview With Jersey Shore Cast,” Mediaite (12.10.10).

[3] Email promotion from Men’s Health Magazine (5.31.11).

[4] Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 3.

[5] NPR Staff, “It’s All About Me:  But Is Narcissism A Disorder?” National Public Radio (12.11.10).


[7] Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 3.

Entry filed under: Devotional Thoughts. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , .

It’s All Relative Christianity in a Culture of Narcissism: From Descartes to Kant

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