Wednesday, May 11, 2016

on having some doubts about the popularity of christians talking about narcissistic personality disorder in the pulpit

At this point it hardly seems worth pointing you, dear reader, to all the links on narcissistic personality disorder or to people discussing how prevalent it is in church leadership.  Narcissism seems prevalent in the United States across the board.  Given our generations of working to attain and maintain self-esteem this is hardly a surprise if it turns out that we're narcissists.

But it hardly seems worth discussing in a way ... because why would telling someone they are a narcissist cure them of that? 

And at another level, as I was noting over at Phoenix Preacher this week, I've started to get this feeling that if in the 1980s and early 1990s the Christians in America pop culture fad was recovered memories then the new fad is seeing narcissism in leadership.  Now just because NPD almost got cut from DSM 5 doesn't mean it doesn't exist, and by contrast we can say that recovered or repressed memory therapy got debunked decades ago.  If some pastor told you that something you didn't remember ever happening prior to his telling you it happened explains why you are the way you are now then that pastor is out to lunch and trafficking in a pop psychological fad that got discredited decades ago.  The other Clinton was in office during the time when that set of ideas was debunked. 

If we wanted to be even more pointed, we could say that recovered memory treatment could be described as a form of divination that's been discredited from within the academy as of a generation ago that some Christians still may find useful.  Back in 2008 when he was talking fr hours about spiritual warfare Mark Driscoll made reference to ideas that fit pretty easily into the repressed/recovered memory tropes.  That Driscoll has not publicly repudiated using such methods in pastoral counseling will be something to keep in mind if he gets momentum with this Phoenix thing.

Speaking of whom, it has been VERY popular to describe that guy in diagnostic terms.  It's something I generally prefer to avoid.  One of the problems with pop psychological diagnoses is that they tend to invoke the incurability of the condition.  This is especially and explicitly the case with narcissism when it gets trotted out.  Narcissists may be able to be managed but they can't be cured.  Depending on how you read the Psalms David was one of the greatest narcissists in the entire Bible.  Anyone who prays through the Psalms as if they were personal, individual prayers for the self would be a narcissist, too.  Super-Calvinists who regard the psalmody as corporate worship that doesn't necessarily always apply to YOU might be another story .... .

But joking aside, there's this other thing, this sense that in the age of the internet outrage is the cheapest emotion we have and that in the internet realm of socialization there could be some room ... maybe too much room for an ethos that could be summed up a bit crudely as "they who smelt it dealt it."  A slightly more dignified way of putting it would be to invoke terms like "displacement" or "transference".

But here I would mention that there was this observation by Alastair Roberts a few years ago at his blog about how blissfully unconcerned the biblical authors seemed to be about illuminating the inner emotional lives of the people they discuss.  We're not given a whole lot of insight into the emotional/psychological state of a person mentioned in a biblical narrative.  What did the person say?  What did  the person do?  What were the consequences?  Particularly as this blog tends to have some kind of reputation as a "watchblog" this has been well worth keeping in mind--if the scriptures seemed strangely unconcerned with declaring to us the motives of this or that significant figure then maybe we can discuss the actions and words of people without jumping the gun as to presumed motives.  IF authors who we Christians regard as inspired by the Holy Spirit held back from psychoanalyzing their subjects (setting aside the obvious point that psychoanalysis in its modern form didn't exist yet and that the allegorical approach of medievalists could approximate it only roughly)

There are plenty of ways to make constructive criticisms of a celebrity Christian without deigning to diagnose them.  Sure, I could have said Mark Driscoll displays misogyny like everyone else did ... but the old axiom from writing classes is that you show don't tell.  So if there was a way to "show" you through publishing "Pussified Nation" what driscoll said in character; or if there was a way to bring back "Using Your Penis" to show you what he wrote, then some things could be learned through direct observation. 

Showing the first edition of Real Marriage back to back with Dan Allender's The Wounded Heart made a case without having to be too blunt about it.

The thing about a diagnosis in our era is that once you're diagnosed that's a verdict, in a way--it closes off the potential for future changes of heart because the heart is declared to be known.  Even if it seems remote that Mark Driscoll's going to actually repent of the things he's said and done I don't see that it requires any of us to declare it as if there's no unforeseen event.  A lot of people never imagined Driscoll would quit Mars Hill for instance.  It didn't seem possible that it even "could" happen in 2006 but a lot can change in a decade.

I've been blasted over the years here and there for not denouncing Driscoll in the same vitriolic terms others have.  I think he's proven himself to be a piece of work but I don't think there's any bnefit in trying to declare what his psychological state may be or ascribing to him a personality disorder.  Partly that's because I know I don't have the skills and knowledge base from which to make such a declaration on the one hand and, on the other, we live in an era in which once a diagnosis is arrived at it can in some sense be a rationale.  In a culture where the "culture of victimhood" is said to be rampant giving someone a diagnosis is giving them something they can weld into their identity in a way that could let them off the hook for explaining their words and actions.  I've been on the receiving end of plenty of aggressive diagnoses over the years.  A few years ago at Wartburg Watch I was told I was gaslighting for doing what I thought was respectfully dissenting from a couple of accounts of events because I was at Mars Hill and knew things had happened a bit differently than reported.  It was bewildering to get told that I was gaslighting for trying to set the record straight as humanly possible, but that can happen in blog commetns sections.  Sometimes you end up being judged the villain for not denouncing someone who's a popular target.  I didn't remember writing anything in 2012 about Mars Hill that suggested to me I was ending over backwards to appease the powers that be at Mars Hill.  But that's how some people saw Wenatchee The Hatchet at the time.

So as someone who's been on the receiving end of some assertive but inaccurate diagnoses it seems the better part of wisdom to not try to divine motives and to let the human heart be as opaque as it so often is.  There's still a great deal that can be written without trying to ascribe motives that may be mysterious even to those doing the speaking and acting. 

1 comment:

chris e said...

Some medical conditions can be attractive precisely because they reduce an ethical issue to a physiological diagnosis thus providing an exculpatory explanation.

Which isn't necessarily saying that those conditions don't exist.