Monday, November 19, 2007

A Pandemic of Narcissism?

I have just been reading an essay titled "The Pandemic of Narcissism" by Paul Toscano from his book The Sanctity of Dissent. It was originally a speech he made at the annual Honors Program Banquet at BYU in 1979. He makes an interesting point that narcissism breeds sentimentality in an effort to avoid genuine love and emotion.

The issue of sentimentality in the church has fascinated me for quite some time. How does one recognize it? Is one's sentimentality another one's true emotion? What's so bad about being sentimental anyhow? In Toscano's essay he makes some well made points. I usually don't like to make long quotations, but I thought it would be important for discussion.

"Another narcissistic symptom in Mormonism is sentimentality. As G.K. Chesterton observed seventy years ago, when truth quits the field, sentimentality, not error, takes over. Sentimentality was defined by Hugh Nibley as a 'tenacious clinging to pleasantries.' It is a state of mental torpor characterized by a craving for meaningless but pleasant stories and sayings. It is a craving for emotional experiences without regard to their source, their truth, or their value. The best example I can give of this is a short movie marketed by BYU called "The Sacrifice." The storyline is this: A little boy is hit by a train while walking over a trestle to be with his father, the switchman. The conflict in the story comes when the father must decide whether to let go of the switch and save his little son at the cost of the passenger train or whether to sacrifice his son and save the train. He decides to save the train. At the end of the movie, a caption overlays the closing scene, proclaiming, 'And God so loved . . . ' Obviously, the film is intended as an atonement analogy. Although well-intentioned (and sentimentality is well-intentioned), it succeeds only in being maudlin. It tugs as the heart-strings but does not edify the spirit. Why? Because the analogy is false. Jesus in not a mindless or disobedient child who wandered onto the train trestle of the universe to be accidentally flattened by a blind, indifferent cosmos. God the Father was not a powerless technocrat caught in the press of circumstances beyond his control. The relationship between them was not that of an infant son and a youthful father. The emotions the movie calls forth are nothing like the emotions the real participants felt, as reported by those who knew them best. It is false from top to bottom. Its net effect is to take our attention off truth and fix it upon our own emotions. It seeks only to induce a pleasant sense of spiritual euphoria - the kind of feeling we get when we hear about poor people being helped in far away places, but not like the feeling we get when we actually go to far away places to help the poor. The movie does nothing to further anyone's understanding of the nature of the Father and the Son, or of the Atonement, or of the love of God, or of anything that is spiritually significant."

His analysis of the movie seems solid. Reminds me of other popular stories used to explain the Atonement, primarily the parable of the bicycle by Stephen Robinson. I never really like that story, and never recounted it to anyone. But for a time in the early to mid-90s, that story spread like wildfire across church pulpits. Does that story hold up? or is that also sentimental hogwash?

I think the trap one can face in recognizing narcissistic sentimentality is that you could be viewed as a cynic, who likes to tear down people's beliefs. So where does one go from here? If sentimentality serves one's own emotions, at the avoidance of true spiritual understanding and sacrifice, how do we go about changing it, without offending the person we may be trying to reach? I guess the best answer is to change ourselves, since of course we can't change anyone else. (To think that we can change someone else would be narcissistic.)

What do you all think? Is there a pandemic of narcissism in the church? Has sentimentality overtaken doctrine and genuine charity? Can the tide be reversed?

From: This Mormon Life