Cultural Narcissism and a Titanic Lesson
by Harry Reeder
In the inky darkness of April 15, 1912, the Titanic, billed as “the ship that even God could not sink,” plunged into the icy waters of the North Atlantic, its hull split in two. Amazingly, the lost consisted of men from every imaginable station and season of life, including some who were multibillionaires. The lifeboats were overwhelmingly populated by women and children from every sphere of society. These phenomena became irresistible subjects of analysis in the media and even in the academy during the ensuing days.
The critically acclaimed and highly publicized movie Titanic (1997) attempted to re-create this historical event. The film, billed as a technological and cinematic success, was a factual failure, inaccurately portraying the narrative of that fateful night. The revisionist script attempted to present the disaster as an example of “class warfare.” A tawdry, adulterous love story between a woman of society and a lower-class immigrant was invented for the movie. There was also 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 filmmakers 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, self-sacrifice became a prevailing virtue during a crisis moment, and the powerful chose death that the powerless might receive life.
The analysis in the following days persistently asked the obvious question: “Why?” The answer, almost universally acknowledged — even by the agnostic and secularist — was the undeniable influence of Christianity. The Christian virtue of self-sacrifice for the well-being of others and the biblical imperative for men to lay down their lives for women and children were chosen instead of selfpreservation. These virtues triumphed in the context of real life-and-death choices on the Titanic.
Could the same permeating virtues be propagated in today’s culture, which is marked by self-absorption, self-gratification, and self-exaltation? Scripture and history say 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 sea 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) long ago abandoned the gospel call “not [to] be conformed to this world but [to] be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom. 12:1–2). 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 ministerial 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, has in many cases become irrelevant and disconnected by accommodating itself to the demanded cultural narcissism. Today’s church, instead of speaking the true gospel message in terms the culture understands, has been seduced and intimidated into modifying the gospel message according to what the culture approves. Thus, we insist on the supremacy of personal musical genre preferences in worship. Our children exist to achieve academic and athletic honors in order 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 andgather 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 or pep talks, coaching us to worldly success or, even more astonishing, redefining the love of Christ in terms that preclude His displeasure with the impenitent self-centeredness in our lives. Our pursuit of personal happiness and gratif ication has superseded God’s call to be holy and magnify His glory. The first question of our new catechism is now, “What is the chief end of God?” The 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 to die to ourselves and our sins have rendered believers and the church thermometers of the culture instead of thermostats within the culture.
There is a titanic lesson to be learned from the Titanic. During a moment of crisis, a virtue that is alien to fallen humanity permeated the collective culture on the Titanic. Sacrifice prevailed instead of 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” (Phil. 1:21).
Christ’s church proclaims a gospel message that is vibrantly clear and non-negotiable: Come to Christ, the One who denied Himself, laid aside the riches of glory, and humbled Himself for death on a cross in order that we might be rescued and given life eternal. This Christ, who freely receives you by faith and repentance, calls you to follow Him and to die to self that others might be rescued through you. What an extraordinary and amazing act of God’s love for us. Yet, it was not done first to exalt us, but to humble us and to kill us so that we might exalt the One who will exalt us at the right time. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).
The narcissism of the world can be suppressed and even transformed, but it must first be confronted in us as we, who are saved by grace, say no to the world’s deceitful call of self-worship and yes to Christ’s liberating call of self-denial. This is a liberation that will allow us to make much of Christ, who did much to save us.