Thursday, May 19, 2011

Awana and A-Two-a: How Narcissism Pervades Contemporary Culture & What to Do About It

Earlier today I had the chance to visit the home office of Awana, a program designed to introduce children to the Bible. I let some people know I was going, and they went gaga--people who have experienced Awana are crazy fans of it.

Awana ("Approved Workmen Are Not Ashamed," drawing from 2 Timothy 2:15) is a Chicago original. The model for Awana's Bible-based youth outreach was developed in the early 1940s by Lance Latham and Art Rorheim for the North Side Gospel Center. Today the program is run in over twenty thousand churches spread throughout over a hundred countries. And they do it all out of their corporate offices in lovely suburban Streamwood, Illinois. I went to a Christmas party at their corporate office once; it's very nice.

I was there today to talk about issues related to my book Deliver Us from Me-Ville. How do we explain the apparent rise in narcissistic tendencies in contemporary culture? How do these trends relate to more fundamental spiritual conditions that we can identify? And if a culture of narcissism is in some ways an outcome of a spiritual state, how do we contend with it and help people (and ourselves) recover from it?

This was the stuff we talked about. The book is its own thing, but I thought folks might appreciate some supplemental material, so I made a handout available. I post it here for the convenience of folks who listened to the podcast, and for those of you who might be interested in such things.

• “In data from 37,000 college students, narcissistic personality traits rose just as fast as obesity from the 1980s to the present.”

• “By 2006, 1 out of 4 college students agreed with the majority of the items on a standard measure of narcissistic traits.” (The Narcissism Epidemic, p. 2)
o Grandiosity and exaggerated self-importance
o Fantasies of, and obsession with, personal exceptionalism
o A deep sense of personal uniqueness and “special class”
o A desire to be admired and/or feared. (Michael Scott of the Office: “Would I rather be feared or be loved? Both. I want people to be afraid of how much they love me.”)
o A sense of entitlement
o Manipulative and exploitative
o Devoid of empathy
o Aggressively envious and paranoid
o Arrogant, magical thinking and behavior, and prone to rage when frustrated

• Two types of narcissism: the “cool” and the “vulnerable.” The vulnerable form can lead to, among other things, eating disorders and other self-destructive behaviors.

• Such behaviors also manifest in people who are victims of a narcissistic culture, with its impact on body image and perfectionism, and so on. (Note: I’m not a psychologist, and self-injury and other self-destructive behaviors require clinical assessment and care.)

• The authors of The Narcissism Epidemic identify “five key causes of the rising narcissism in American culture”: a focus on self-admiration; child-centered parenting; celebrity glorification; an exhibitionist Internet; and easy credit.

• Contemporary cultural narcissism is more tornado than virus; it’s a force with its own momentum in technology, educational models, national identity, etc. People suffer from cultural narcissism, but we also suffer through it.

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