Cultural Narcissism and a Titanic Lesson

In the inky black darkness of April 14, 1912, The Titanic, billed as “the ship that even God could not sink” breeched its stern perpendicular and slid into the icy waters of the North Atlantic. Amazingly, the lost consisted of men from every imaginable station and season of life including multi-billionaires. Yet, astonishingly, the inadequate number of life boats were overwhelmingly populated by women and children from every sphere of society. This astounding phenomenon became an irresistible subject of analysis in the media and even in the academy during the ensuing days.

Critically acclaimed and highly publicized, “The Titanic” attempted to recreate this historical event. The film, billed as a technological and cinema graphic success, was a factual failure having inaccurately compromised the narrative of that fateful night. The revisionist script attempted to present the disaster as an example of “class warfare.” To do so, a tawdry, adulterous, fictional love story between a woman of society and a lower class immigrant was invented, along with a fictional portrayal of the cultural elite oppressing the lower classes in the bowels of the ship enabling them (as the privileged) to escape in the precious few lifeboats.

Actually, the film-makers missed a great opportunity. On that floating microcosm of opulence, consumerism and elitism an amazing event transpired. Men of power and prestige sacrificed their lives for women and children of the lower class, many of whom were indentured servants, day laborers and domestic workers. On this flotilla of self-absorption, during a crisis moment, self-sacrifice became a prevailing virtue and the powerful chose death that the powerless might be given life.

The analysis in the following days persistently asked the obvious question: “Why?” The answer, almost universally acknowledged (by even the agnostic and secularist), was the undeniable penetrating influence of Christianity. The Christian virtues of self-sacrifice for the well-being of others and the Biblical imperative for men to lay down their lives for women and children was chosen instead of self-preservation. These virtues triumphed in the context of real life and death choices on the Titanic.

So the question emerges. Could the same permeating virtues be propagated in today’s culture which is drowning in a sea of narcissism, marked by self-absorption, self-gratification and self-exaltation? Scripture and history would tell us “yes.” Yet Scripture and history also say that such Gospel-driven transformation will not happen in this world until it has taken hold in Christ’s church.

The contemporary culture flounders in a swamp of narcissism, yet the contemporary church is likewise floundering in the exaltation of self and the supremacy of personal idolatry. Many churches (and therefore their members) have long ago abandoned the Gospel call, “…do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind….” The result is the church no longer shapes the world because it is being shaped by the world. Today’s church cannot suppress, much less transform the disastrous effects of narcissism in the culture because narcissism is unsuppressed and flourishing within its own ministry borders. The evidences of self-absorption within the church are undeniable and on the verge of going viral.

The contemporary church, in an effort to be relevant and connected through the necessary practice of contextualization, has in many cases capitulated by accommodation to the demanded cultural narcissism. Today’s church, instead of speaking the Gospel message in terms the culture understands, has been seduced and intimidated into modifying the Gospel message to the terms the culture approves. Evidences include our insistence on the supremacy of personal musical genre preferences in worship. Our children exist to provide a bumper sticker publicizing their academic and athletic achievements to promote our parental pride. Marriage partners, instead of being the subjects of our sacrificial love, have become objects to be used then discarded. Our careers are instruments for conspicuous consumerism instead of opportunities to create wealth and gather resources for the needy. Our local churches are viewed as religious “specialty shops” for life’s challenges. Gospel preaching has been perverted into self-esteem therapy talks or pep-talks, coaching us to worldly success or, even more astonishingly, redefining the love of Christ in terms that preclude His displeasure with the unrepented self-centered sins in our lives. Our pursuit of personal happiness and gratification has superseded God’s call to holiness and His glory. The first question of our new catechism is now, “What is the chief end of God?” Answer: “To love me and make me happy.” Our conformity to the world and our loss of the clear Gospel call to follow Christ and die to ourselves and our sins has rendered believers and the church as thermometers of the culture instead of thermostats within the culture.

There is a Titanic lesson from the Titanic ship. At a moment of crisis, an alien virtue of self-denial permeated the collective culture on the Titanic and transformed its notorious narcissism, because the Gospel call to self-denial had previously penetrated and transformed the lives of believers throughout society. A watching world had been affected as they observed Christ-followers, imperfectly yet intentionally embrace the Gospel blessing, “for to me to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

Christ’s Church proclaims a Gospel message which is vibrantly clear and non-negotiable. Come to Christ, who denied Himself and laid aside the riches of Glory, to humble Himself for death on a cross that we might be rescued and given life eternal. This Christ, who freely receives you by faith and repentance also, calls you to follow Him and die to self that others might be rescued through you. What an extraordinary and amazing act of God’s love for me. Yet, it was not done to first exalt me but to humble me and kill me so that I might exalt Him who will exalt me at the right time. “Nevertheless, it is not I who live but Christ who lives in me and the life I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God who loves me and gave Himself for me.”

The narcissism of the Titanic and the world can be suppressed and even transformed but first, it must be confronted in me as I, saved by grace, say “no” to the world’s deceitful call of self-worship and “yes” to Christ’s liberating call of self-denial. A liberation which will allow me to make much of Christ who did much to save me and then promises me, “If I be lifted up I will draw all men to myself.”

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