Pursuing God, the Cure for Narcissism

By LeRoy Lawson

The Pastor: A Memoir
Eugene H. Peterson
New York: HarperCollins E-books

The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement
Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell
New York: Free Press, 2009

13 Things that Don’t Make Sense: The Most Baffling Scientific Mysteries of Our Time
Michael Brooks
New York: Vintage Books, 2009

Eugene Peterson was feeding his fellow Christians long before he published The Message, his paraphrase of the Bible in contemporary English, but that amazing tour de force raised our gratitude even higher. His insights into church and ministry have refreshed many a weary minister, especially.

Now comes The Pastor, a retrospective summing up a lifetime of ministry, 29 years of it with Christ Our King, the
Baltimore-area church he planted. On these pages he shares how a man who intended never to be a pastor ended up among America’s most influential ones.

It wasn’t easy, his calling. “The North American culture does not offer congenial conditions in which to live vocationally as a pastor. Men and women who are pastors in America today find that they have entered into a way of life that is in ruins.”

That’s especially true when a would-be church leader like Peterson refuses to take himself too seriously. And here is a pastor who identifies with novelist Anne Tyler’s Saint Maybe (Peterson thinks Pastor Maybe sounds about right) because “that would serve both as a disclaimer to expertise (that if we could just copy the right model, we would have it down) and a ready reminder of the unavoidable ambiguity involved in this vocation.”

He is adamant on the pastor’s individuality: “No copying. No trying to be successful. The ways in which the vocation of pastor is conceived, develops, and comes to birth is unique to each pastor.”

The secret to pastoral success isn’t to be found by attending a bunch of leadership conferences but by living with integrity before people and humility before God. The church should not seek numbers or power, but see itself as “a minority people working from the margins.” Such a body “has the best chance of being a community capable of penetrating the noncommunity, the mob, the depersonalized, function-defined crowd that is the sociological norm of America.”

In doing so, pastor and church must denounce “the American stereotype of church” which believes “salvation is God’s business. It is what God does. And then he turns it over to us. Church is our business. It is what we do. God, having given himself to us in Jesus, now retires to the sidelines and we take over. Occasionally we call a time-out to consult with God. But basically, we are the action.”

In other words, Peterson wants pastors to remember that the church is at heart “a God-formed community—not fear-formed, not success-motivated, not needs-meeting.”

For those who have been in on the founding of a new congregation, The Pastor brings back delicious memories—and the other kind as well. The rewards of church planting are enormous; the frustrations with the “mess,” though, are sometimes overwhelming. Peterson’s acceptance of both is reflected by a student who, after attending one of his seminars, wrote:

When I get a congregation, I want to be a patient pastor. I want to have eyes to see and ears to hear what God is doing and saying in their lives. I don’t want to judge them in terms of what I think they should be doing. . . . The pastor is the one person in the community who is free to take men and women seriously just as they are, appreciate them just as they are, give them the dignity that derives from being the “image of God,” a God-created being who has eternal worth without having to prove usefulness or be good for anything. . . . I don’t want to be so impatient with the mess that I am not around to see the miracle being formed.

A huge challenge, don’t you think?

And of course the English teacher who writes this column appreciates Peterson’s words on words: “Godtalk—depersonalized, nonrelational, unlistening language—kills. In the land of the living it is blasphemous, whether spoken from pulpits or across the breakfast table. Pastors and their congregations can’t be too careful in the way we use language, this sacred language, this word-of-God language.”



The Me Disease

What a contrast! At the same time I was admiring Peterson’s pastoral humility, I was trudging through Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell’s The Narcissism Epidemic. The differences between gospel-based values and American cultural mores could not be made clearer. The Pastor is all about service, preferring others to oneself, doing without so that others may have, loving people and loving God. Narcissism is all about loving and serving Me. Period. If the authors are to be believed—and they have the statistical data to bolster their argument—narcissism is taking control of America.

A friend recently characterized his newly resigned senior minister, who left his work in shambles, in a word: “He’s a narcissist. It’s that simple.” It’s about numbers, prestige, power, and applause. He likes being a pastor for what it does for him. He’s not alone; it takes strong faith and genuine meekness not to aspire to be the star of the show, even of God’s show.

You may have read Christopher Lasch’s 1979 best seller The Culture of Narcissism, an early study of the phenomenon, which was disturbing enough. This book moves beyond disturbing. The authors believe our country is caught in the grip of an epidemic akin to AIDS. That disease doesn’t immediately disable or kill, as SARS did; instead, its lethal nature is hidden for a long, glamorous time. Given sufficient time, though, its deadliness manifests itself in crashed careers, destroyed homes, a bankrupt economy (personal and national), and a failure to care about others—hardness of heart, the Bible calls it. Twenge and Campbell’s research shows that one in 10 American twentysomethings suffers from narcissistic personality disorder. That’s serious.

The condition is exacerbated by popular entertainment. TV reality shows, American Idol and its ilk, Facebook, and MySpace are a few of the media anesthetizing our consciences and promoting every kind of me-firstness. If you aren’t satisfied with the attention you’re getting, you can even hire your own fake paparazzi. Why not? It’s all about you.

But where have Wall Street greed and Botox and “I’m entitled” thinking led us? The disheartening answers are everywhere. In such a culture, what is to be said for things like modesty and gratitude and genuine friendships and simple living that we used to consider virtues?

A lot.

It’s time for another of Eugene Peterson’s calls to be God’s people living a Spirit-infused, Christ-first life.


The Mysteries Around Us

Not that Christians have the edge on humility. Another good antidote for narcissism is Michael Brook’s 13 Things that Don’t Make Sense. If this author is to be believed, an awful lot of what we think we know we really don’t know. What science does make clear is that it (the universe, the way things function, life itself) isn’t all about us. About other things we can’t be so sure.

For example, here are a few questions scientists, centuries after Copernicus and Newton, still can’t answer:

• Why does the expansion of the universe seem to be speeding up?

• Everybody knows placebos can’t work. So why do they (at least sometimes)?

• Do we or do we not have free will? Whatever your answer, can you prove it?

• Some scientists believe that 96 percent of the universe is missing. Where did it go?

• Why do we die?

There are more, but these are enough to give you the idea.

Brooks, former senior features editor for New Science, moves with facility among such disciplines as physics, chemistry, astronomy, medicine, and psychology, checking out the anomalies that continue to baffle today’s best thinkers.

What is refreshing is the admission—often missing in religious readers—that there are very few pat answers, that “the things that don’t make sense are, in some ways, the only things that matter.”

Not much room for narcissism here.


LeRoy Lawson is international consultant with Christian Missionary Fellowship International and professor of Christian ministries at Emmanuel Christian Seminary in Johnson City, Tennessee. He also serves as a Christian Standard contributing editor and member of Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee. His column appears at least monthly.

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