Narcissus's Camera

Narcissus's Camera July 21, 2011

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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