Why Church Matters in an Age of Narcissism

That was the title of the doctorate class I took this past week in Chicago. It was a good week of studying different books and meeting with their respective authors on what they were thinking about religion in our narcissistic, fear driven, lonely, world today.

Everyone came to the class with their own hang ups and biases, myself included, on hipsters, corporate size churches, atheists, Joel Olsteen, orthodoxy, polity, boundaries, ego and helping. After a six-hour drive home last night and feeling more guilt than is humanly possible for being away from my children and church, I come away with more questions than answers.

There was one day in particular that really got me worked up. We were talking religious maturity and the comment was made how “small-minded” it is when people say after a tragedy, “by the grace of God, I’m o.k.” The opinion was that when people make God into their own, personal, genie who wills good things or bad things, that that is damaging to oneself, religion,and society as a whole. I partly agreed with them.

For example, I remember a story about a woman who told me she found a set of dishes on eBay and she told me, “it was such a God Thing that I found those dishes!” I wanted to gag. “Lady, the Creator of the Universe is not your personal shopper.”

On the other hand, I became very defensive when the comment was made that people who say after a tragedy, “thank God” are some how immature Christians. I flew out of my seat in rage and defense. Having personally experienced tornado damage, communities being lost after storms and flooding. Having had a child in a serious accident and thinking how lucky she was that she had not suffered greater injury. I understand that primal, frontal lobe feeling of fear, and that immediate response of “Thank you, God.” I also understand that when we say “thank you God” many people, not all, but many are also feeling incredible empathy for those whose loss was greater than their own. I have always been moved by the acts of compassion that come from tragedy. I was stunned by the cynicism in the class.

Yes, I know you can’t stay in that theology forever. I am a big fan of Bonhoeffer and I readily preach on his comments on cheap grace. I know we all need to get beyond our own personal, Jesus. However, when you are scared as hell and you realize you are alive, by all means Thank God. Prayers of gratitude, can then move into prayers of lament for those who experienced loss. We should never make trite comments like “God had a plan,” or that it “is in God’s hands,” or “God did this to punish us” or other glib remarks that some how makes God, Zeus. We do say as William Sloan Coffin said when his son died. That God was the first to grieve.

Religious leaders need to stop thinking they have an “in” with God because they have gone deeper with issues of life and death. At the end of the day we are all human, with a measure of faith. Some days it’s just a teaspoon. Whatever gift of faith we have received, let us be very careful of judging another person’s faith for the measure they have received. If our faith compels us to thank God, for the love of God, thank God!


  1. Great reflection Shelly. Holding the tension is really important and I appreciate you sharing your personal experiences. What a wonderful expression of faith to say plainly and passionately “thank you God” in the storms of life. The challenge of course is to not devolve God into a wish grant-er like “thank God we won the game” or “thank God I made that green light.” That, I believe, is the challenge of faith in the reality of narcissism. Thanks for the post. Looks like I have a new blog to keep up with.

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