Narcissus's Camera

I’ve now written “Are Conservative Churches Getting Radical?” and “The Dangers of ‘Radical Faith’ (and What They Teach Us.”  I hope tomorrow to publish more positive suggestions on what radical discipleship might look like, especially in community (and in conversation with David Platt’s Radical Together), but presently I want to explain something in greater detail.

My concern, in the second part, was not that we might get carried away and make, you know, actual sacrifices in the course of following Christ.  By all means, let’s get carried away!  If we are following Christ genuinely, this will issue forth in profound exterior and interior sacrifices.  My concern was that foregrounding “radical,” or emphasizing the quest to be “radical,” can lead us in the wrong directions.  “Radical” is neither the goal nor the criterion.  The person who seeks first the kingdom of God has little or no concern with being “radical,” but she will be perceived as radical by a world that truly cannot comprehend putting the kingdom of God first.

A part of the problem here is that “radical,” at least in its current usage, is a comparative term.  You are radical in comparison to what is normal.  You are radical when you are deemed extraordinary and extreme.  So the language of radicality can implicitly set up a dynamic in which we are comparing and approving of ourselves in relation to others, where the focus is on being dramatically different instead of being Christlike.

I had an opportunity last week to sit down with Richard Foster and get his thoughts on a wide variety of topics.  Since I was planning on writing this series, I mentioned my concern that some people (including myself) might pursue radical Christian living for the benefit of what I’ll call Narcissus’ Camera.  What I mean is this: we sometimes find ourselves going about our lives and seeing the world through our own eyes, but simultaneously observing our from the outside as it might be perceived or told by someone else.  So here I am feeding the homeless on Skid Row, but even while I’m working with the homeless I’m also observing myself, and approving of myself, working with the homeless.  A part of me is conscious of others and their needs, and a part of me is watching myself on video and admiring how I look.  I’m watching myself through a camera that hovers somewhere over my shoulder, and ultimately I’m hoping that others will, someday and somehow, see the instant replay.

I’m taking a bit of a risk here and assuming I’m not alone in this.  Perhaps I’m a uniquely narcissistic individual.  I do not take that possibility lightly.  But while I’m convinced that most people are better than I am in this respect (I know that I am highly prideful), I’m also convinced that my troubles are not unique to me (I am not uniquely prideful).  Foster seemed to think this is common, even “the Achilles’ Heel” of the striving for radicality.  He spoke of a time in his own life when he felt the praise of others, and the amount of fame he had achieved, were puffing him up.  Called “to let go of my need to be known or to be important,” he withdrew from writing and public speaking in search of “interior crucifixion” (he actually thought he would never return to writing) until he felt a year-and-a-half later that he had learned his lesson.

(Of course, the possibilities here are endless; Narcissus’ Camera can follow us into solitude, and we can gain satisfaction at the thought of playing the video for friends in later years.  Sometimes it’s the most prideful people (like myself) who learn how to conceal their pride best, but I give Foster the benefit of the doubt.)

Foster also spoke of Mother Teresa, who did not set out to be radical but to follow Jesus and serve Jesus in the least of these.  She disappeared from history for decades, and God eventually raised her up.  She had no desire to be known; in fact, it seems she would have preferred anonymity.  But, Foster said, “There are ten thousand Mother Teresas we’ve never heard of, men and women who continue to be obscure and do their work in secret — and that’s okay with them.  If you’re truly radical, you’re not concerned that anybody sees you.”

This is just a word of caution.  It should not dampen the zeal of a young person who wants to give her all for the kingdom of God.  It should direct it.  It should tell us something about Christian discipleship, its trajectory and its goal.  It’s not a bad thing, in my view, to be conscious of the ultimate Observer and to seek to do what would please Him, as long as this flows from gratitude and not a spiritual performance mentality.  And mixed motives are rarely a good reason to refrain from doing something good, but I do think we should be conscious of how our motives grow mixed when we let Narcissus’ Camera follow us along on our good-deed missions.

Narcissus’ Camera is a perilous piece of equipment.  It may take a lifetime to destroy it.  Or we may never in this life fully destroy it.  As we pursue Christ and a life that is faithful to him (since we cannot cease doing the deeds that are right until we can do them only for the right reasons), we should pray and examine ourselves, discipline our thoughts and seek accountability and community, understanding and wisdom, in the hope that we can disassemble the camera piece by piece.

The question I want to address tomorrow is this.  I believe that the church in America is absolutely in need of challenging and reform in order to address the idols of materialism, consumerism and comfort.  What exactly is the reform that the American church requires?  How exactly should that reform be framed?  What are the right terms and categories to explain it?

I think our discussion so far of “radical” Christian discipleship contains some clues.  If you haven’t already done so, especially since I typically write short series such as this one, please connect with me via Facebook, Twitter or subscribe by email or RSS, in order to follow along.  And I’m sincerely interested to hear your thoughts on the above questions.

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  • moon

    I don’t have much in regards to your questions, but this overall piece hits home. I can say that you are not alone the struggle with narcissism. It haunts me, as i am aware of so many mixed motivations behind any drive to be ‘radical’ speak out in church or really do anything good. Then i get humbled for the pride i have in longing for that purity of motivation. Pride’s fun that way.

    I have been learning that, while i need to be honest about my mixed motivation and seek repentance from them, i cannot let them stop me from doing what i know is right. It’s been a challenge.

    Thank you for discussing this, and thank you for the blog in general. I just found it, and it is already high on my reading list.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I think you see it rightly. Pride is such a subtle and insidious thing, and I find that I’m more aware of my sinful motivations the longer I pursue the life of Christ. My pastor has a great analogy for why this happens; it would take too long to share it right now, but I’ll do it soon.

      Thanks for reading 🙂


  • Rod Schaubroeck

    Timothy, thanks for the great new concept (for me) of Narcissa’s Camera. It reminds me of the numerous conversations I have had with seeker friends who claim my motivation for being a Christian is simply self-serving. I have always wrestled with the idea that John Piper presents in “Desiring God (Musings of a Christian Hedonist)” that says that we SHOULD be seeking our own good by following God’s Word. Yes, we obey and do good because we love Jesus, and we obey because we want to do right, but we also obey and do good because this will ultimately redound to our own good. Piper’s premise is that this isn’t a bad thing and God even expects it. Our motivations will always be mixed and to a degree, self-serving, but I don’t think that necessarily diminishes the value of the “good” that we do. That is, to come back to Narcissa’s Camera, is it absolutely necessary to “turn off” the camera or deconstruct it? I’m not sure it is. But I would be interested to hear your wisdom on the matter.

    • J.L. Schafer

      I used to not worry about my motives for the reasons Rod has cited: I thought: “My motivations will always be mixed. The heart is deceitful; who can know it? It’s better to just DO good things and not get too introspective. And, after all, if I just stop thinking about myslef do what is right, won’t that lead to inner transformation and a purification?”
      The answer, in short, is no. To be a Christ-follower is not just to do the right things. One must do them in the right way, for the right reasons. God cares far more about the quality of our relationship with him than he does about the small things we do for him. The good works brought forth in the Christian life must be works of the Spirit, not works of the flesh. This is not a small matter; it lies at the heart of the gospel. A great explanation of this is found in Francis Schaeffer’s classic book True Spirituality. If we ignore this, the “good” things we do in the flesh can actually cause us to drift farther and farther away from Christ. The effects are not always immediately obvious, but the accummulate over time until we lose the ability to relate to God in an honest manner. I say this based on personal experience.

      • J.L. Schafer

        And sorry for all the typos in my comment above. I’m typing on an unfamiliar keyboard and haven’t finished my coffee yet. God bless.

  • I once sat through a church service where one very holy “radical Christian” priest told us to serve the poor by working at the homeless shelter etc etc.

    The problem? It was in a Native American area, and I knew those listening included grandmothers raising their grandchildren on a small pension because the parents were addicted to drugs, and it included many who opened their homes to their “homeless” relatives.

    Sometimes “feeding the hungry” means cooking for one’s family, and “giving drink to the thirsty” means getting out of bed at 1 am to give your 4 year old a drink of water. Sheltering the homeless might mean helping your daughter cope with her unexpected pregnancy.

    I have no problem with the “social gospel” per se, but those who emphasize this often ignore that most of us serve Christ in our own families…and believe me, it’s easier to work a couple hours with the “homeless” than it is to care for one’s family…

    as for Mother Teresa: once when she was visiting an American city for a Eucharistic conference, a taxi driver asked her what he could do to help.

    Her answer: be kind and smile at your wife…

  • John Flaherty

    Hmm. When you say the American Church has need for renewal, do you refer to a particular denomination of Christian faith? Or do you refer more generally to a group of human organizations whose primary apparent reason for existing appears to be to spread the Word of God by whatever means they deem appropriate?

    If the former, you can always work at provoking the membership to encourage their clergy and fellow faithful to be more vigorous in living their faith fully.
    If the latter, well, really, the same advice applies, though obviously implementing the advice will be much more tough to track.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      John, I’m referring more generally to the American churches across Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox lines. Certainly there are individual churches and even groups of churches who are pursuing discipleship and the kingdom of God with the kind of selflessness that Christ urges. And I don’t think conservative churches are worse on this score; in fact, I think they’re better. But I do believe that the culture of extreme materialism, consumerism and self-indulgence has infected the American church and made it complacent, as a generalization.