Self-Absorbed in Worship? (Boice)

 We’ve all heard the contemporary praise song that says “I will” more than a few times.   Phrases like “I will celebrate,” “I will sing to God,” “I will praise God,” are sung and repeated many times in the same song.   Here are James Montgomery Boice’s comments on such a song:

The chorus seems to be praising God – it claims to be praising him – but that is the one thing it does not actually do.  As [Marva] Dawn points out, ‘The verbs say ‘I will,’ but in this song I don’t, because although God is mentioned as the recipient of my praise and signing, the song never says a single thing about or to God.

What is the song about then? If we look at it carefully, the answer is clear.  With all the repeats, ‘I’ is the subject twenty-eight times.  Not God, but ‘I’ myself,  And not even myself along with other members of the covenant community, just ‘I’.  ‘With that kind of focus,’ says Dawn, ‘we might suppose that all the “hallelujahs” are praising how good I am…at celebrating and singing.’  What is this but narcissism, an absorption with ourselves which is only a pitiful, sad characteristic of our culture?  If we are self-absorbed in our worship services, as we seem to be, it can only mean that we are worldly in our worship, and not spiritual as we ignorantly suppose.

The praise songs of the Psalter do not fall into this trap, which is one reason why they are such good models for our worship and why they should be used in worship more often than they are.  Think of just the last five psalms, as an example.  They are a kind of praise climax to the Psalter, showing us what it means to praise God….

J. M. Boice, Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace, p. 181.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI


Hollywood, Narcissism, and Sex

Christians [should] disagree with the sexual ethic that Hollywood teaches, whether implicitly or explicitly.  This un-Christian, unnatural, privatized, and anti-social view of sex is, as Jennifer Morse argues well, narcissistic  (all about self).  In reality, sex is a public thing – meaning it affects more than just a single, solitary person.  It affects society.  Here’s how Morse describes it:

“For the entertainment industry, all sex is a private good.  Anything I choose to do or not do is acceptable.  My sex life is all about me and my desires and has nothing to do with community of any kind.”

“But Hollywood presents us with two, seemingly contradictory positions.  On the one hand, many stars seem to delight in taunting the public: ‘My sex life is private business; how dare you utter a word of criticism.’  On the other hand, this same group of people readily make their sexual activity public.  In addition to the fictionalized sex produced for movies and television, many entertainment figures share the details of their love lives to the public – every marriage and divorce, every affair and rumor.  As the stars age, and their biological clocks start ticking, we are treated to every facet of their pursuit of a baby, whether conceived naturally or artificially.  Yet when some members of the public object either to the content of the films or the tasteless self-display of the stars’ private lives, the entertainment world pretends to be shocked.”

“This apparent contradiction can be resolved with one word: narcissism.  Privacy in the sense that ‘this is my private business’ is really an implicit claim that I am entitled to do whatever I want without having to answer to anyone.  People express this position by saying, ‘Your rules don’t apply to me.  I am entitled to adapt the rules to my personal needs and desires.’  A cynical observer might offer a less charitable interpretation: these people are really saying ‘I am entitled to make up the rules as I go along.’

‘At the same time, the lack of discretion that seems to be the opposite of privacy allows a person to expose himself (literally and figuratively) to an anonymous public: ‘Look at me! Pay attention to me!’  Pathological narcissism, the worship or idealization of self, is the thread common to both of Hollywood’s interpretations of privacy (pp 120-121). ”

Morse goes on to basically say it is no wonder why many of these same celebrities have miserable lives.  Since they have “displayed their sexuality as a commodity, they have diminished and dehumanized themselves” and true intimacy and relationship are thus impossible.   Hollywood’s sexual contradiction – that sex is private but then displaying sex openly – results in wrecked lives.  And so it goes in society.  Sex is not just a private thing!

To read more of Morse’s excellent observations and critiques of America’s messed up sexual ethic, see Smart Sex: Finding Life-Long Love in a Hook-Up World (Dallas: Spence Publishing Company, 2005).

shane lems

On Not Raising Narcissistic Children

Last week I mentioned a helpful book for parents on how to “unspoil” their children (HERE).  Along those same lines I found some helpful parenting advice in Keith Campbell and Jean Twenge’s The Narcissism Epidemic.  This is not a Christian resource for parenting, but it should be read alongside Christian parenting books and the biblical principles for parenting.  Here are some (edited) steps that Campbell and Twenge give to help “temper narcissistic impulses” in our children:

1) Say no, and mean it.  There’s nothing wrong with saying no to your child.  If you say no and your child whines and screams and then you give in, you’ve just taught your child that whining and screaming is effective.

2) Don’t give your child too much power.  Five-year-olds should not be picking out the family car, their bed, or even their own clothes all the time.  …Yes, preschoolers love having a say in what they wear, and giving them some power prevents too many morning battles.  They key is ‘some’ power.  …Most young children can’t yet make good decisions if they are given too much say.  Instead, it works best to give the child limited choices.  Be sparing with how often you ask a young child, ‘Do you want…?’  Instead, say, ‘Were going to the park.’

3) Carefully consider the messages you are sending to your children about competition and winning.  Yet, it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, but teaching winning at all costs is not going to work out well in the long run.  Cheaters are usually caught eventually, and even if they aren’t, they shortchange themselves by not learning material or doing something on their own.

4) Think twice before you buy your kid something that announces how great he is.  A shirt that says, ‘Spoiled Rotten’ is cute until the kid does something bratty – which, let’s face it, is going to be about three minutes for most kids.  Unless you’re Prince William or Harry, don’t dress your daughter in an outfit claiming she is a ‘Princess.’  She’s not.  Get over it.  Similarly, putting a bib on your child’s neck that announces, ‘I’m the boss’ is likely to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Sure, kids change our lives, but there’s no need to announce that they now run the household (p. 86-89.

Sometimes parents may lament how “rough” they had it growing up or how “disciplinary” their parents were.  They are resolved to be easier on their kids than their parents were to them (to the extent that they can be “best friends” with their own kids).  This kind of thinking sometimes leads parents to say “yes” too much, buy their kids too many things, and let their kids get away with things kids should never get away with.  Add this type of parenting to the narcissistic culture in which we live and before you know it, our children are budding narcissists.  Thankfully, these trends can be reversed (and avoided) by firm and loving Christian parenting.  (To be continued…) shane lems hammond, wi

Seven Obstacles of Spiritual Maturity

 I’ve been making my way through this outstanding book: Love God with All Your Mind by J. P. Moreland (Colorado Springs, NavPress, 1997).  Among other things, I appreciated Moreland’s discussion of the “seven traits of the empty self” that are so prevalent in many Westerners today.  And these seven traits, Moreland argues, undermine and stand in the way of spiritual growth and maturity.  In other words, if we as Christians want to grow in Christian maturity, we’ll have to fight obstacles like these.  This post is a bit longer than usual, but I  urge you to take a moment to read these seven – they are very astute observations.

1) The empty self is inordinately individualistic.  …The empty self-populating American culture is a self-contained individual who defines his or her own life goals, values, and interests as though he or she were a human atom, isolated from others with little need or responsibility to live for the concerns of a broader community.  Self-contained individuals do their own thing and seek to create meaning by looking within their own selves.

2) The empty self is infantile.  It is widely recognized that adolescent personality traits are staying with people longer today than in earlier generations, sometimes manifesting themselves into the early thirties.  Created by a culture filled with pop psychology, schools and media that usurp parental authority, and television ads that seem to treat everyone like a teenager, the infantile part of the empty self needs instant gratification, comfort, and soothing. …Boredom is the greatest evil, amusement the greatest good.

3) The empty self is narcissistic.  Narcissism is an inordinate and exclusive sense of self-infatuation in which the individual is preoccupied with his or her own self-interest and personal fulfillment.  The narcissist evaluates the local church, the right books to read, and the other religious practices worthy of his or her time on the basis of how they will further his or her own agenda.  God becomes another tool in a narcissistic bag of tricks….

4) The empty self is passive.  The couch potato is the role model for the empty self, and without question, modern Americans are becoming increasingly passive in their approach to life.  We let other people do our living and thinking for us.  From watching television to listening to sermons, our primary agenda is to be amused and entertained.  Such an individual increasingly becomes a shriveled self with less and less ability to be proactive and take control of life.

5) The empty self is sensate (preoccupied with sensations).  As Christopher Lasch has observed, ‘Modern life is…thoroughly mediated by electronic images.’  Lasch goes on to point out that today, we make decisions and even judge what is and is not real on the basis of sense images.  If it’s on TV, it’s real.  Advertisements sell us things based on images, not on thoughtful content about a product.  The widespread emergence of the sensate self has caused us to be shallow, small-souled people.

6) The empty self has lost the art of developing an interior life.  …The self used to be defined in terms of internal traits of virtue and morality, and the successful person, the person of honor and reputation, was the person with deep character. [Today], however, the self has come to be defined in terms of external factors – the ability to project a pleasurable, powerful personality and the possession of consumer goods – and the quest for celebrity status, image, pleasure, and power has become the preoccupation of a self so defined.

7) The empty self is hurried and busy.  …The empty self is a hurried, busy self gorged with activities and noise. …A frenzied pace of life emerges to keep the pain and emptiness suppressed.  One must jump from one activity to another and not be exposed to quite for very long or the emptiness will become apparent.  Such a lifestyle creates a deep sense of fatigue in which passivity takes over.

Moreland is exactly right.  These are some brilliant observations about the “empty selves” of our culture.  He wrote these observations 15 years ago – these traits seem to be more pronounced today.  These are indeed the things which stand in the way of growing in Christian maturity – these are the things that stand in the way of the renewing of the mind, the taking up of our cross, denying ourselves, and fighting the good fight of faith on the narrow road to the Celestial city.  Get this book (Love God with All Your Mind), reflect on these seven traits (Moreland says more about them), and fight against them in your own life.

shane lems

sunnyside, wa

The Juvenilization of American Christianity

Product DetailsThe title of this book made me get it and read it: The Juvenilization of American Christianity by Thomas Bergler (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012).  It reminded me of a time I was at a Christian thrift shop and a 50+ year old woman was singing along to the CCM music playing in the store (the Christian version of Miley Cyrus or Green Day, though I forget which).  What is the juvenilization of American Christianity?  “Juvenilization is the process by which the religious beliefs, practices, and developmental characteristics of adolescents become accepted as appropriate for Christians of all ages.  It begins with the praiseworthy goal of adapting the faith to the young.  But it sometimes ends badly, with both youth and adults embracing immature versions of the faith” (p. 4).

Bergler makes an important and accurate observation here.  His critique of youth ministry (starting way back in the 30’s and 40’s) is that it sometimes “pandered to the consumerism, self-centeredness, and even outright immaturity of American believers.  For good or ill, American Christianity would never be the same” (p. 4).  This book is basically a history of American youth ministry, which is less than 100 years old.  Bergler discusses youth ministry from the 40’s to the 60’s, and shows how many of the philosophies of youth ministry back then are now part of the DNA of many churches and denominations.  For those of you who have read some of Marsden’s work on 20th century American Christianity, you’ll see some parallels.  Around 80% of the book is devoted to the history of youth ministry, which, I admit, wasn’t overly interesting to me since it was very detailed.

At the same time, it was fascinating to learn how youth ministry in the past is now embedded in the fabric of many American churches.  I also thought it was telling to see how earlier youth ministry was aimed at patriotism and morals rather than doctrine and how it relates to the Christian life.  Finally, Bergler made a connection that I should have made before: youth ministry in the past was largely about entertaining youth.  Therefore it isn’t an accident that many churches today want to entertain the masses in a similar way to youth ministry of old: by baptizing secular culture to make it Christian.

To be sure, Bergler notes some positive aspects of youth ministry and some of the good youth ministries have done.  From my perspective, I’m thankful when I see young people with a strong desire to serve the Lord.  It’s refreshing!  Yet, as Bergler shows, there are harmful aspects of much youth ministry.  The last few pages of the book are probably the best, as Bergler brings his critiques together and then shows a way forward in youth ministry done biblically and toward Christian maturity.  Here’s one example from the last pages.

“So juvenilization has made the process of finding, maintaining, and submitting to religious truth more problematic.  And the faith that Americans choose is increasingly the faith of ‘moralistic, therapeutic deism.’  To put it simply, they continue to believe what they learned in adolescence.  And more and more often, they hear the same messages as adults.  God, faith, and the church all exist to help me with my problems.  Religious institutions are bad; only my ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ matters.  In other words, large numbers of Americans of all ages not only accept a Christianized version of adolescent narcissism, they often celebrate it as authentic spirituality” (p. 224).

Obviously I recommend this to those of you who work with youth.  Please get this book to help you avoid these juvenilization dangers.  I’d also recommend it for pastors and elders who have talked in-depth about ministering to youth.  Though the church I pastor doesn’t have a youth group, the book was still helpful to me because I do preach to youth and teach them Catechism and Bible lessons.   The Juvenilization of American Christianity isn’t a manual for how to lead youth forward to maturity in the Christian faith, but it does show some common pitfalls to avoid.  I’m confident it will help youth ministry in many ways.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

People as Commodities

Following Christ in a Consumer Society: The Spirituality of  Cultural Resistance, John F. Kavanaugh, 157075666X If you’re looking for a fascinating study on how consumerism, capitalism, and Madison avenue have contributed to the watering down of Christianity, you’ll have to get Following Christ in a Consumer Society by John Kavanaugh.  I like the subtitle of the book: “The Spirituality of Cultural Resistance.”  While I disagree with parts of his Catholic ecclesiology and anthropology, Kavanaugh has some powerful insights in this book that are certainly worth investigating.  Here’s a helpful section I appreciated.

“It should not come as a surprise that a follower of Jesus might find himself or herself to be an outsider in a culture dominated by the commodity.  It should be no shame to feel different, even to feel a bit disjointed and out-of-place, in a civilization that divinizes the thing [i.e. smartphones, money, bodies, TVs, etc.].”

“A Christian’s values, if they have not been fully acculturated, are bound to be different.  If we do not feel different, even embarrassingly different, something is wrong.  Madison Avenue-land, television, …radio, advertising, will trigger constant reminders of our almost displaced existence.  We will feel like strangers.  The facts that life is cheapened, that retaliation and competition are conceived as ultimates, that familial consent and commitment seem alien, that armament and defense are so universally accepted, that fidelity in marriage seems strange – are thus not so dumbfounding as they might first appear.”

“I have heard Christian couples ask quizzically if they were the ‘weird’ ones, so little does anything in this culture seem to agree with their deepest beliefs.  They should not be distraught.  They have merely come into contact with their faith as a lived, historical option.  They have discovered that atheistic communism is not the greatest or only threat to their belief.  It is lived atheism – whether capitalistic or communistic – which assaults their faith.  And they have finally discovered the closeness of the danger – not in some different land, but in their own culture and its idolatrous belief system” (p. 128-9).

Following Christ in a Consumer Society is an outstanding book that I highly recommend.  It is a great discussion of how people have been depersonalized and commodified.  It wisely notes how consumerism and marketing ‘evangelize’ people and change they way they live and think.  It talks about idols, sex, money, and violence.  You’ve got to get this book if you want help navigating through the culture in which we live.  Alternatively, you’ve got to get this book if you want to dig deeper in the “Christ and Culture” debate.  Kavanaugh’s book will go well with other similar ones like Idols for Destruction, Habits of the High-Tech Heart, The Narcissism Epidemic, Still Bored in a Culture of Entertainment, and Perfecting Ourselves to Death.

shane lems

sunnyside, wa

It’s All About Me (Because I’m Special!)

Top Ten Books for TeensThis is a good book that describes the selfishness, vanity, pride, arrogance, depression, cynicism, apathy, and attitude of many young Americans today: Generation Me by Jean Twenge.  The subtitle of the book explains it a bit more: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – and More Miserable Than Ever Before.  If this topic sounds familiar to our blog readers, it’s because I blogged about Twenge’s other book, The Narcissism Epidemic roughly one year ago.  Though there is some overlap between these two books, in my opinion they don’t overlap too much.

In Generation Me, Twenge basically charts her studies of Americans born in the 70-90s (the group she calls “Generation Me”).  Her findings show a drastic change in the last 50 years (or so) among American youth.  For example, many in Generation Me care more about self-expression and self-esteem than societal rules, customs, and norms.  In the words of one young lady, “I couldn’t care less how I am viewed by society.  I live my life according to the morals, views, and standards that I create” (p. 20).

Another thing Twenge mentions is how the Boomer generation did/does all it can to increase the self-esteem of Generation Me.  Many young adults today have been told all their lives that they are special; or in the words of an old Whitney Houston song, “learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.”  Schools teach self-esteem and self-love.  One kids’ book from 1991 is called, The Loveables in the Kingdom of Self-Esteem.  Of course the church follows suit with the irreverent moralisms of Veggie Tales and Max Lucado’s 1997 book, You Are Special.  Both in the secular and religious realm, the “gospel” has been this: you are special!

Hand in hand with self-love or “specialness” comes the thought that everyone has entitlements to about anything they want.  Twenge notes how many within Generation Me think they will have (and deserve!) a high paying job that they love, a beautiful spouse, an outstanding house, and tons of Facebook followers.  Gen Me grew up with everyone telling them that they are sp special that they can have anything they want and be anyone they want.  When they don’t get these things, their specialness bubble is burst.  This is why depression is widespread; it is also why many in Generation Me are apathetic and cynical.  One person was so apathetic and cynical the only reason (he said) he didn’t commit suicide was to see if the next few weeks would suck in a different way than the ones before.  Generation Me is the generation that grew up saying, “yeah right,” and “whatever.”   Twenge devotes an entire chapter on depression, anxiety, and loneliness.

Again, thinking about the church, I think it would be a fascinating study to see the long-term effects of the “Christian” version of self-esteem messages (Veggie Tales, Max Lucado, and other self-esteem preachers and songs).  Or what about worship services that cater to the self (usually the youthful self)?  What are the effects of constantly singing “I want” or “I just wanna” praise and worship songs?

Twenge even ties this into the political realm.  A large percentage of GenMe doesn’t vote or care because, as one cynic once said, “it doesn’t matter who you vote for, the government still gets in.”  Or another youth put it this way: “There’s a greater chance of dying in a plane crash than having my one vote actually matter.”

Here’s one “religious” paragraph that stuck out:

“The message (of entitlement/self-esteem) comes across even in somewhat unlikely sources.  In a 2004 episode of 7th Heaven, one of the few relatively conservative, G-rated shows on television, 21-year-old Lucy gives a sermon to the young women in the congregation.  ‘God wants us to know and love ourselves,’ she says.  ‘He also wants us to know our purpose, our passion.  …So I ask you…’What have you dreamt about doing? …What you are waiting for is already inside of you.  God has equipped us with everything we need to live full and rich lives.  It is our responsibility to make that life happen – to make our dreams happen'” (p. 85).

I recommend this book with a few things to note: 1) it is a book on sociology, so it isn’t the most exciting book you’ll ever read, 2) it is R-rated – Twenge’s reports aren’t toned down, especially in the chapter on the sexual attitude of Gen Me, and 3) read it and think about how Twenge’s studies relate to the church and the Christian life.  The author isn’t a Christian and this isn’t a Christian book.  However, for those of you who are serious Christians who wrestle with Christianity and culture (how the latter affects the former), this book will certainly be thought-provoking.

Jean Twenge, Generation Me (New York: Free Press, 2006).

shane lems