In doing some recent electrical work I was reminded that there is a big difference between knowing that you have a short in your lines, and figuring out what circuit is the issue. Until you find that damaged circuit the house is still in danger. I recently read Dr. Anthony Bradley’s article on what he called an Evangelical Narcissism Epidemic, and while his article is good at pointing out that we have a short in our lines, he fails to figure out which circuit is the problem. I land somewhere in the middle of the spectrum for young evangelicals in America, the group which Dr. Bradley is focused on, and I’d like to interact with Dr. Bradley’s thoughts from this perspective.
Dr. Bradley is right about narcissism being an epidemic, but I’d suggest that it is an epidemic, not just in the Evangelical Church, but in America. Narcissism is the physiological drug of choice for most Americans. Isn’t seeing yourself as above average as American as Baseball and Apple pie? Every generation since World War One has had some reason why it is better than the last.
Dr. Bradley is also right in his criticism that some churches get too wrapped up in marketing themselves as unique. It is a burden to have overly-specific mission statements, and doing such things sometimes suggests that following the Greatest Commandment is not enough. Though, to be honest, I think churches (especially those with younger leaders) understand this is a dying strategy, because the church shopping crowd is a shrinking target.
Dr. Bradley, is also right about pointing out that there are certain generational problems, associated with being a young Christian in America, that need to be examined and addressed.
My main problem with Dr. Bradley’s article isn’t his diagnosis, or even his focus on young people, but with his generalizations and the perceived outcome of a narcissism epidemic.
Dr. Bradley’s articles seemed to suggest that telling people to do something significant with their lives feeds into their narcissism. He writes,
“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.”
Do some people over burden other Christians? Yes. Are there some parents who try to over burden their children? Absolutely, but how is this is any different than the legalism that Peter, Paul and James addressed in Acts chapter 15? There will always be people who try to put burdens on others that are impossible to carry. Sometimes it will lead to narcissism and other times it will lead to other sins. Since the fall people have wrestled with unhealthy views of who they are, and how other people see them. We deceive ourselves because “the heart is deceitful above all things,” and it has been for a long time.
When Dr. Bradley specifically focuses in on the topic of marriage he says, “We tell them to not get married.” But I wonder to whom is he referring? Church leaders? Fellow Christians? A general Christian ethos? I’m puzzled by this statement because more of the young Christians I know feel far more pressure from fellow Christians to get married than they do from American popular culture. For everyone one reference I hear, at church, to the virtue of singleness, I hear a dozen on the benefits of marriage. If anything, the church has more of a problem with telling people that they are less valuable until they get married.
I also must ask does this Evangelical narcissism lead to genuine burn out? I ask this because I believe that narcissism is more concerned with comfort, than it is with working too much. I know more people who struggle with being exceptional, and think that if things don’t come easy then they are not worth doing. They assume the fault lies in the task and not the person, so what happens is that when things are difficult, people give up. I know lots of young Christians, and I’ve seen demonic attack, old school “back sliding”, and a whole host of spiritual issues, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a young Christian truly burnout.
Also Dr. Bradley seems to suggest that young evangelicals, spend a lot of time convincing themselves, “that [they] are as terrific as [they] think [they] are”, but I would argue that every Gospel movement tears down such thinking. People are told they are terrific, but they know better, and the Christian faith creates a space where people are free to express their failures, knowing that it is not how great they are that makes them valuable. In the Gospel we can admit hidden shame. I think the challenge for many Christians comes in the tension between the humility of the Gospel and the narcissism of our age.
I think Dr. Bradley’s experience, first with High School students, then seminarians, and now undergrads, has probably skewed his survey group, toward the young side. It might be fair to argue that Christian educational systems are far more guilty of what Dr. Bradley is concerned with, than the church in general.
Let’s face it: everyone, not just Christians hit about age 25 and realize they will not be professional athletes, or famous musicians, or the President of the United State. The current culture probably exploits our sense of lost dreams far more frequently than they leverage our actual desires for greatness. Most people in their 20’s and 30’s realize they are not special, so instead they live vicariously through the select few that truly are special. Most people don’t try to sing, they watch American Idol; they don’t get involved in local politics, they just flame people on Facebook; they don’t continuing playing sports into their 30s, they get into fantasy leagues.
Most 20 to 40 year olds need to hear someone say, “ok, you’re not awesome, you’re not the best, but there is more to living than watching reality Tv, there is more to life than just getting by, there is a life of meaning (not of fame) offered in the Gospel, where we can all live as we were designed to live.” Now I’m sure Dr. Bradley would agree with me here, but it’s important to remember that calling people to live by grace, without teaching that they are his, “workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works,” ends up falling short of being the whole picture of the Christian faith. It falls short, and it makes malnourished Christians.
I agree that our culture makes much ado about nothing, and that sometimes the church can fall into the same trap, but I think the far greater danger is seeing a generation of Christians who have no distinguishing marks which set them apart from the world around them. I would argue that for every narcissistic young evangelical that Dr. Bradley could find seeking become a rock star, I would find another, hiding his/her light under a bushel, all the while quoting Assisi. Spiritual lethargy, and not over-exertion, is the biggest danger for young Christians (even for this author.)We have to remember that Paul’s “quiet living” was inspired by the same Spirit that moved in Jesus as he spoke of the radical nature of discipleship, the two streams of thought live side by side in the Christian faith.
We must balance both the radical nature of our faith, while at the same time realizing that it is an altogether different kind of “radical”. One can live a radical life without living a narcissistic one, because the Christian life should be focused on God’s glory not ours. God is still at work, and this should energize us, and we should want to join him as he works. But we should also have the humility to say to God “not my will but your will be done.”
Radical, and quiet living is the proper response to the Christian message.Image by Esparta