The Church In the Age of Narcissism

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The idea of individual rights and liberty has evolved into a defiant “nobody can tell me what to do” attitude. This toxic individualism can be in reaction to abuse, a response to the failures of authority figures or simply a person’s naturally narcissistic disposition.

As a product of American culture, I’ve always believed that people should be free and still believe this. It seems that totalitarian states, while certainly able to build great monuments and copy the innovation of their rivals, do often stifle creativity and limit the potential of individuals. A right to self-determination has enabled many to pursue their passions and helped in bringing about progress in terms of technology and medicine.

However, there does seem to be a point where unchecked individualism begins to be a threat to our collective advancement. And we are now to the point that it is not safe to so much as assume an individual’s gender based on the evidence without potentially triggering a violent, over-the-top and completely abusive backlash.

In this age of narcissism, it does not matter what has been established for centuries. It also doesn’t matter what the consensus is on a given topic or what the various authorities tell us. No, all that matters is how the individual imagines themselves.

Narcissism Enters the Church

In the church, this narcissism is often hidden under a mask of spirituality and sanctimonious blather. Sure, many will claim the Bible as their ultimate authority, yet they will reject anything it says about respect for the elder and submission when it is convenient for them and their own ends.

It is absurd, truly, that people are rejecting the very foundation of the rights that they assume. They tear down structures and institutions without realizing that they are unraveling the very things that have produced and protected the concepts they take for granted. They are dangerous in that they are too dumb to realize that everything they believe currently did not originate within them. Everything, even their ingratitude, and resentment of authority is a product of the times they are in,

They are not free, they are just ignorant of the collective consciousness that nourished and created their grand delusion of independence. Or, worse, they only recognize the negative contributions of the system without ever considering the benefits. They are not so pure or undefiled either, they have their own motivations and are woefully lacking in self-awareness. It is only a lack of humility, an idea that there is nothing to be gained in deferral to an elder or expert, that the individual knows all simply because they have basic reading comprehension and elementary knowledge.

Sadly, the erosion of confidence in the collective, mistrust of authority in general, does not make the individual any more competent than the system that created them. It doesn’t mean that they are themselves better qualified to be arbiters of truth than the hierarchies of flawed individuals that they aim to replace with their papacy of one. But it does destroy our chance for unity, it does make individuals extremely vulnerable to the deceptions of their own ego (“The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.” Jeremiah 17:9 NIV) and boiled down is nothing more than self-worship.

How the West Was Lost

In the West, this ego trip may have started with the Pope asserting his own authority over the church, to unilaterally decide matters for himself without counsel and led to the Great Schism. But eventually, it trickled to ordained men doing the same in protest, relying on their own individual authority and understanding of church tradition to start their own denominations—before their attitude spread to the laity who rejected their authority as well.

The reformers, in their exuberance, eventually denied the very tradition that established the canon of Scripture and yet, through circular reasoning, still clung to the book as being authoritative simply because they believed it to be so. This led to others, more enlightened, who saw the irrationality, went a step further, rejected even the book as written by men and written by men whose authority they could not accept. The cold might be preferable to those lukewarm, at least they can’t use “well, the Spirit led me to [insert whatever]” and must attempt a rational argument instead.

At least the secular scientist is subject to peer review. They can’t simply declare something for themselves or rely on their cohort of like-minded advisors, like king Rehoboam who reject the advice of the elders, ran with that of his unwise cronies, and ended up creating division. A biologist, unlike the windbag pontificator in the men’s Sunday school class, has at least had to earn his credentials and must carefully make a case with evidence or will be treated as a joke by colleagues. Those feeding their own individual tastes from the Biblical smorgasbord, oblivious to their own biases being read into the text, can’t be made accountable.

Unfortunately, science and human rationality have also reached their limits. The intellectual enterprise could never answer questions of why we exist, an accumulation of facts could never fill the void left by religion, most people can’t keep up with the brightest minds in various fields and yet many (on both sides of any issue) speak more boldly than those who have spent years of rigorous study, confident because they read something on the internet. There is a growing mistrust of all authority and structure. Political ideologies push the research and echo chambers have replaced serious discussion.

For example, in climate science, there is plenty of grey area between Greta Thunberg’s emotional alarmism and the actual evidence. Sure, there may be some consensus on a current temperature trend and human contribution, but there is no such thing as settled science. At very least there is no reason to assume that warmer weather is automatically a catastrophe or the cause of all things bad. And there’s definitely some hysteria involved when you have a CNN anchor speculating, on-air, about a possible connection between an asteroid and climate change. Is it any wonder that more are dismissing the whole thing as nonsense?

On the opposite side of the coin are those who use the above, the misuse of science by media sensationalists and political activists, as a reason to dismiss all science. I’m talking, of course, of those (often religious fundamentalists) who deny what is well-known about the general shape of the planet and physics. They use a form of reasoning, they are not wholly irrational individuals and yet seem to be motivated more by their mistrust of all authority and undying trust in themselves. They are much like the far-leftist who refuse to see gender differences as real (while, in contradiction to themselves, claiming that a man with feminine traits is transgendered), they have made their own opinion an article of faith.

Eventually, if things do not change, we may soon not be able to hold civilization together and return to our roots of tribalism. Christendom was the force that once brought Jew and Greek, man and woman—people of vastly different social status—into fellowship with each other through their allegiance to Christ. From the beginning, the church had a definite structure and also ordained leaders to decide the weightier matters. But that order has dissolved, often in reaction to abuses and always to be replaced with increasingly arrogant smaller entities. The current narcissism is only the final step before the total collapse.

How To Break the Trend Towards Narcissistic Chaos

Groups of people, institutions, can certainly fall victim to their own collective confirmation bias. Again, authoritarian regimes that stifle independent thought destroy innovation and limit potential. But the individual, especially the individual who resists all authority, is even more vulnerable to being blinded their own biases.

Yes, certainly authorities do fail, alas even the President of the United States is human and makes mistakes, but that does not mean that individuals are all equally qualified for every role. It is always good to question the experts. Doctors, lawyers, and engineers can miss the obvious, laypeople are not all total idiots because they lack a degree. At the same time, this overreaction to abuses and failures is even more dangerous.

No, the Titanic disaster does not mean engineering is untrustworthy nor does the 737 MAX being certified by the FAA before a couple of deadly crashes make the whole institution a waste. The alternative of everyone being right in their own eyes, being their own expert, will do absolutely nothing to improve the quality of life. The reality is that we are better off with authorities, those who have made a career trying to understand specific issues and can be held accountable. Sure, even the professionals can be wrong, but there are greater consequences that go along with their license.

The church also needs elders and examples. The church should have those ordained and more respected. The idea that spirituality is a free-for-all is utter nonsense, not founded in Scripture nor the church tradition that canonized and established what is Scripture. The person who sees no need for any authority in their lives besides their own understanding or that of their cohort are the dumb beasts condemned by Peter:

This is especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the flesh and despise authority. Bold and arrogant, they are not afraid to heap abuse on celestial beings; yet even angels, although they are stronger and more powerful, do not heap abuse on such beings when bringing judgment on them from the Lord. But these people blaspheme in matters they do not understand. They are like unreasoning animals, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like animals they too will perish. (2 Peter 2:10‭-‬12 NIV)

True Christianity starts with repentance. Repentance comes with an attitude willing to voluntarily sacrifice some self-determination and take advice. It means humility and realizing that the universe does not revolve around your own individual understanding of things nor is truth a matter of your own personal opinion. It isn’t so hard to submit to an elder—even when you do not fully agree on everything—when one realizes their own fallibility and need of a savior.

Sure, hierarchies do fail and especially when they cease to be accountable to the bodies that they represent. A Christian leader always had authority, like Peter or Paul who spoke in a manner that commanded respect, but was never supposed to be a tyrant like Diotrephes. Leaders, like individuals, can be terrible failures and must be disciplined or removed as needed. But to overreact, to pretend everyone is on the same level, is no different than the pride that led to the fall of heaven’s highest-ranking angel. To reject authority besides one’s own is to repeat that same sin.

We need order, we thrive when we are able to specialize and let individuals reach their full potential, and that requires us to acknowledge our own limitations. We need an order that keeps authorities even more accountable than others, that does not give them a free pass as part of a good ol’ boys club, and actually requires that they are more submissive (as an example) than those who they hold charge over. Ultimately a church with no submission to others is a church without love, only self-love, and will offer nothing to those trying to escape the narcissism of our age.

“And who is like me?”

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I’ve heard the good Samaritan story many times before.  I even blogged about it a couple times because of the important message it contains about salvation.  But this weekend I’ve gained some new perspective on this account and wanted to share it.

First some context…

The good Samaritan story is the answer Jesus gave to a legal expert who had asked him how to obtain eternal life.

In Luke’s account we read that Jesus, rather than attempt to explain, answered the legal expert’s question with some other questions:

“What is written in the Law?”

“How do you understand it?”

To that the legalistic man answered by quoting Scripture:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind”

“Love your neighbor as yourself…”

Jesus tells the man that he had answered correctly and further affirms with a statement: “Do this and you will live.”

However, the expert was not satisfied.  Luke tells us that he sought “to justify himself” and inquires further: “And who is my neighbor?

Here’s the twist…

I’ve never realized the full connotation of that question.  The question actually came loaded with more arrogance and elitism than is reflected in our modern reading of the language.  The word “neighbor” was understood to mean a close associate and thus the question asked was more to the effect: “And who is like me?

In other words the expert wanted Jesus to affirm his own understanding of Biblical text that gave him a legal loophole and means to escape the inconvenience of a broader interpretation of the law.  The expert wanted to love only those who added up according to his own religious standard.

Jesus, now having exposed the real intent of the expert’s questions, responds with a story about a traveler who suffered misfortune.  He had been beaten, robbed and was lying by the side of the road.  Two religious elitists approached and then crossed to the other side of the road and passed without making any attempt to help.

Jesus goes on to describe a Samaritan (a tribe who the legal expert would not associate with) who went above and beyond to help the wounded man and then asks the expert: “Which of these three was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

Jesus turned a question “who is like me” into an opportunity to reorient the questioner…

The expert, obviously trying to justify his own selective love, had asked who to love.  But Jesus does not directly answer the expert’s question.  Instead he takes the conversation from a question of who to love to a question of how to love and described a love without preconditions or prejudice.

To love God means to look past differences of race, social status or religion and love like the Samaritan.  It is a message extremely relevant in a time when we are told some lives matter and others not so much.

Following Jesus doesn’t mean sanctimiously calling out those who we deem to be racist, sexist or otherwise bigoted—as a means to wash our own hands of responsibility for those things—and then being on our way feeling smugly justified.

It means laying our own tribal identities at the foot of the cross, loving those different from us as freely as the good Samaritan did, and being a fulfillment of the ideal in Galatians 3:28…

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

From Truck Driver To Truss Designer

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Trucking paid well, but being on the road all week, like a vagabond, was not ideal—especially not for someone who wants to marry and have a family someday.

So, after seven years (going on eight) I had resolved to find another job by the end of the year.  After being off for an extended period of time to rehab a torn ACL I figured that I owed my employer one more year, but after that my plan was to find something else.

However, the whole year had almost passed and nothing opened up.  Finally, after hearing of another driving opportunity and decided that a job change would be sufficient enough, I decided to change companies for what seemed like a better gig and keep on truckin’…

Well, God must be a comedian, almost immediately after signing the papers for the new driving job the right opportunity came along.  My friend, Titus Kuhns, was vacating his position as truss designer and that presented a unique opportunity for me.

But, I had a bit of a quandary…

Was it right to quit a job I had just taken?

The first day on my new trucking job, when things weren’t quite as anticipated, was enough to convince me to make the jump right then.  I sent a text to Titus expressing my interest in the design job and stopped in for a visit at Triple D Truss later that week—I pretty much committed on the spot.

My training would start a few months later in the beginning of April.  My old boss agreed to take me back until then (no point in me learning a new trucking job when I was already an expert at hauling commodities) and so I had my encore in the old blue Pete.

First impressions…

I’ve never worked in an office before, let alone for an Amish business, and didn’t really know what to expect.

Office hours started at 6:30am and, after a thirty-eight mile commute, I was a few minutes early.  So, figuring there was safety in numbers, I waited for Titus to arrive and then followed him in.

The office has a friendly and relaxed atmosphere.  That morning (and every morning since) my coworkers in the office all greet me with a pleasant “good morning, Joel!”  That day, not really knowing the program, I mumbled my reply and followed Titus to his desk upstairs.

John, one of the co-owners, seems to set the tone for the office.  He is upbeat, energetic, generous, and most importantly (for a fledging designer) a reassuring voice.  He sort of bounces up the stairs, often has a broad smile on his face, and hardly has anything bad to say about anyone.

The other part of the partnership, Dan, is a bit more awkward on the surface, but is also every bit as friendly and understanding as John.

Next in line is ever cool and collected Nathaniel, his charisma makes him a great dispatcher and excellent salesman—he possess youthful enthusiasm that is contagious and a curiosity that will likely take him far.

And the newbie of the group (besides yours truly) is Norman, who does some of the random office tasks (with Mary and Linda who work part time) and is only sixteen.

Oh, and did mention that everyone in the office, including the bosses) is ten years younger than me?

Yup, somehow I’m the old guy now, not sure how that happened…

Anyhow, let the training begin!

Titus seemed to be playing game of Tetris, except one that involved designing an endless variety of trusses, while juggling the phone, and doing a multitude of other small tasks—like creating their office forms.  The pile of stuff was overwhelming to my novice eyes and I worried that I wouldn’t be able to keep up.

What would happen when Titus left in a month?

I designed trusses on my first day.  The design software, I learned, is occasionally cantankerous and will crash if you do things out of sequence or in what appeared to be random intervals to a complete rookie.  But my natural aptitudes combine with a good teacher meant that I learned quickly.

The highlight that month—besides wonderful home cooked meals with Titus, his wife Daisy and adorable baby Rowan—was the week of training in Dallas Texas.  Everything was paid, I ran around in my blaze orange Dodge Challenger rental (a free upgrade) and was taught to use the 3D layout software.  I even had time to connect with an old friend, Richard Miller, and ate some of the best BBQ I’ve ever had.

Then it was back to Mill Hall.  Titus was moving to Ohio at the end of the week and would leave me as the solo truss designer.  I had many questions about how the next few weeks would transpire and didn’t entirely share the confidence of my trainer and co-workers.

Time to sink or swim…

My hope was to start Monday with a clear desk.  I was slightly terrified by the layouts leftover from Friday and were now entirely my responsibility.

It my job to ensure that the quotes arrived to the customers and truss prints made it to the shop in a timely manner.  The designers desk is at an important crossroads in the office.  If I don’t get my work done production would grind to halt.

The first couple weeks were stressful, I was swamped, and my neck was sore because I was so tense.  My brother Kyle described my job as “speaking order into chaos” and chaos seemed inevitable in the absence of my concentrated efforts.

Fortunately Titus was only a phone call away and, if things got too out of control, the metal plate vendor (whose software I was using) has designers and engineers on staff to take the overflow.  Still, it was my job to coordinate the effort and keep chaos at bay.

After a few more weeks (and some overtime hours) I was fully in control of my work environment.  It was nice to end the day with a desk clear of work.  I had encountered the full range of what would be required of me and came out with my head still above water.

With each passing week keeping up has gotten easier and easier and more recently I have another problem.

The new problem?

Not being challenged.

Lately I’ve found myself facing a clean desk and blank screen.  This partly the result of things slowing down from the spring rush, but also because I am getting better at knowing where to start and also when a truss is basically as good as it will get and, more importantly, how to avoid the time consuming pitfalls of the software.

“An expert is someone who knows some of the worst mistakes that can be made in his subject, and how to avoid them.” (Werner Heisenberg)

I might not be a truss design expert yet, but I’ve made good progress and have gained plenty of confidence in my abilities.

It is great finally getting paid to do something that I’m especially gifted to do.  I love when I’m described as “the engineer” (my work is backed up by someone certified) and especially enjoy walking through the yard seeing completed projects knowing my part in the process.  

It is even more rewarding when your trusses end up installed in your uncle’s new truck shop.

Being on top of things has afforded me the opportunity to work beside the guys on the truss shop floor, which is fun.  It is also fun being the only non-Amish employee (other than the truck drivers) and especially that I share a last name with three in the office including one of the owners.

Overall the transition from gear jamming to desk jockey has been a smooth one.