Sunday, 18 December 2016

Are megachurch preachers narcissistic?

Spoiler alert: A megachurch preacher is no more narcissistic than the many people I have come to know in my life (myself included). And when it comes to narcissism, the general observation is that it is one of degree. 

In other words, the desire to feel special is a universal sentiment, and it is not necessarily always a bad thing. Find me a man who is at constant enmity with himself and he will likely turn out to be a very unhealthy individual who may just find the continuation of life unbearable or the cessation of life irresistible.

The inescapable reality about narcissism is that we are all guilty of it to some extent. And not surprisingly, in certain circumstances, it can even be healthy. Some call it positive illusions where we tell ourselves that we are smarter, faster, stronger, wiser, funnier, tougher, and even prettier than our neighbor or the general population at large. A little self-promotion is quite unavoidable (although for the religious, it takes forever to admit it).

Sportsmen do it all the time (that is, self-promotion) before a competition to gain that mental edge. Politicians do it to psyche themselves up just before a speech. Students often overrate themselves in intelligence, character and looks just to feel special, restore self-esteem, or give them a pat on the back. You can call it self-affirmation, self-assertion or self-assurance, but the semantics do not change the fact that a little touch of ego can firm up our resolve, lift our hope, and embolden our spirit. 

Dr. Craig Malkin, a clinical psychologist and lecturer for Harvard Medical School wrote this in his book Rethinking Narcissism: “We need our grandiosity at times to feel happy and healthy. And a growing body of recent research concludes that a little narcissism, in adolescence, helps the young survive the Sturm und Drang (German for “Storm and Stress”) of youth; moderate teenage narcissists are less anxious and depressed and have far better relationships than their low and high narcissist peers. Likewise, corporate leaders with moderate narcissism are rated by their employees as far more effective than those with too little or too much. And my own research with my colleagues is pointing in the same direction: only people who never feel special or feel special all the time pose a threat to themselves and the world. The difference between narcissists and the rest of us is one of degree, not kind.”

So, if you view it on a spectrum with one extreme representing “psychopathic narcissism” and the other extreme representing “suicidal self-negation”, I trust the majority of us hovers safely around the middle goldilocks zone of a healthy promotion of self. Seen in this light, narcissism only becomes a problem of character when one moves to the extreme.

In a recent interview, Amos Yee - sporting a new haircut - declared to the world that he is a changed teen. He attributed feminism to his gentler change of writing style and approach to confronting controversial issues. But whether he is serious or sincere about it, I guess only time will time.

My point here is that this is the same individual who will readily tell you that he has made a huge difference in the pursuit of free speech in Singapore. He unabashedly said that he has transitioned from “entertainer” to “a full-fledged activist.” He calls himself a “public figure” who wields enduring influence with 50,000 followers on social media. In his own eyes, it is more likely than not that he sees himself as a star, a trailblazer, a revolution of one. In certain quarters, Amos may just fit the image of someone who is quite full of himself.

Then comes Joseph Schooling. He is our first Olympic gold medalist. He beat three other world best, including Phelps, to come up tops in the recent Rio Olympics. His story is all over the papers. Books have been written about him. Parliamentarians recently gave him a standing ovation. And he will go down in local history as the sportsman of all time.

Yet, all these accolades, rewards and recognition did little to change him. He is still as self-effacing as before. Unlike flies to light, he does not gravitate towards the limelight. His achievement came out of many years of quiet determination and unfaltering focus. He attributed his success to his devoted parents who have always believed in him. He gave credit to others especially his coach and even his domestic maid for 19 years. 

It is undeniable that Schooling is a down-to-earth guy and putting him on the spectrum, you can say that he has a reasonably healthy view of himself – mostly due to his upbringing. He would therefore flourish safely in the middle of it. As for Amos, well, on the same spectrum, my view is that he is somewhere biased towards the extreme.

So this brings me to why I wrote this post.

Recently, Kong Hee posted a video on his Facebook about his trip to Cipinang, Jakarta. His video showed him being offered the presidential treatment on his way to the Church in Jakarta with police escorts in the front and back. He said that he was grateful for the hospitality shown and wanted to express his appreciation to the organizer in his Facebook post.

His post and many others exclusively showing how he is making waves in the churches all over Asia led me to ponder on the title of this post, that is, Are megachurch preachers narcissistic?

Incidentally, in a recent article written by the vice-chairman of the medical board of IMH, Dr Chong Siow Ann, the title reads: "Is Trump a narcissist?" The consensus is unanimous here. Harvard professor Howard Gardner called him "remarkably narcissistic" Clinical psychologist Ben Michealis believed that Trump suffered from a "textbook narcissistic personality disorder." Yet another commentary in the august British Medical Journal reads: "It is obvious that Trump is sexist and racist. He is vile in his nastiness, undiplomatic and offensive; a true dog's dinner of a president candidate, if you really hated your dog. But none of this means he has a psychiatric condition. It just means that he's a horrible man." 

Now, while Trump fits the bill, unofficially at least, is it then obvious here with the megachurch preachers? In other words, what can one say about Kenneth Copeland who once encouraged believers to "speak an eighty-two-foot yacht into existence? Or Creflo Dollar seeking donation of $65m for a private jet? Or Robert Tilton's admission that he "had to undergo plastic surgery to remove the bags from under his eyes"? These are people who does not just cause a splash in the publicity world. They practically command a media tsunamis with their presence, stage antics and extravagant lifestyle.

So, going back to Kong Hee, it should be noted that, after his conviction and appeal, Kong Hee has neither moderated his visibility in social media nor stayed out of the media limelight. If you want to find out what he is doing, the impact he is making, the thousands of believers who adore him on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis, it is just a click away on his Facebook.

He doesn’t appear to be someone who avoids the public attention. He is undeniably a celebrity evangelist who makes God known by making himself known too. At times, the public perception is that the adulation or recognition is shared between himself and God. At other times, and again in terms of public perception, he runs the risk of putting himself, the messenger, ahead of the message - intention aside.

At this juncture, the haunting words of a former megachurch pastor (and grandson of Billy Graham) who resigned from the ministry because of two affairs which ended his marriage are highly instructive: "...The shift from locating my identity in the message of the Gospel to locating my identity in my success as a messenger of the Gospel was slow and subtle...My confidence was severely misplaced: Confidence in status, reputation, power and position, the way I spoke, the praise I received, financial security and success." (Tullian Tchividjian).

Now, let me be clear, I am as guilty as Kong Hee when it comes to dealing with the struggles of self. It is a touchy subject where pride, ego, overconfidence and the hidden desires for self-significance has always been the root cause of many good men’s fall. The Bible is replete with examples of how power, wealth and fame have wrecked havoc in the lives of great men of God.

If the Bible is seen in the perspective of self, it can readily be surmised as such: God created self in His image; self enjoyed creation; self joined another as one; self was tempted; self fell; self killed another; self was destroyed in a flood save for the ark; self populated the earth once more; self grew into tribes; self clamored for a human government; self strayed from God; self took on other idols; self rebelled; self was taken to the Cross; self was crucified; self was redeemed; self was transformed; self was lost but now found; self is subjected to the Spirit of God.

Yet in all this, we still struggle with self, with greed, with lust, with pride, with envy, with domination, and with grandiose. It is a timeless struggle of varying degree of intractability. In fact, the history of the Bible is the history of our tumultuous relationship with self and how we endeavor by His Spirit to subject it to the redemptive power of the Cross (notwithstanding that we have been justified by faith). The struggles are nevertheless still ongoing, and for some, dauntingly monumental.

Kong Hee is therefore no different here except that he, like many other megachurch preachers, is constantly placed on a pedestal that is not only highly visible and highly adored, but is, by the nature of his calling, also highly susceptible to the relentless promotion of self. By this, I mean that every time Kong Hee makes a statement, performs a deed or even scratches an itch, he has the ears, endorsements and thumbs-up of thousands. At most times, he can’t help but feel special all the time. 

(Mind you, one does an alleged humble spirit and a contrite heart no favors by exacting a certain deliberateness to expose oneself to the glare of public and media attention. I sincerely believe that humility is not just the absence of pride or arrogance. It is also the absence of self-contrived opportunities that offer pride an environment to flourish and possibly take over - even unknowingly).

That is why I pondered on that question about megachurch preachers. Are they more prone to the siren call of the self for recognition, power, control, earthly praises and adoration? Will they one day at the height of their successes see themselves as not only highly favored and specially elected by God, but also invariably indispensable to the ministry? Are they thus more susceptible to get carried away, be deluded with power, be intoxicated by the constant attention, be led astray by inching unknowingly towards the other extreme of the narcissism spectrum?

Alas, this has happened to all great men who stand out in a crowd. King David fell when he was perched on a tower overlooking a certain showering event. King Solomon rode high on wisdom and entered into questionable marital unions that for a time led him away from God. And we have King Saul who was filled with murderous intent right till his death. He died an impenitent man.

Indeed, with great power comes great responsibility, and with great responsibility comes great accountability, and with great accountability comes great susceptibility. If Narcissus was cursed by the goddess of vengeance, Nemesis, to a deathly plunge into the depths of his own unattainable image reflected in the waters, then isn’t the curse of mankind the image of self that is reflected in the depth of his soul which constantly calls to him to do her carnal biddings?

This is the essence of Paul’s struggles which he readily admitted to in Romans 7 at the time when he was beholden to the flesh: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do…For I have desire to do what is good but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep doing.” Well, at the risk of oversimplifying, this is essentially Narcissism-101 and no man (or woman) is exempted.

Aristotle once asked this question: “Who should the good man love more? – Himself, or others?” And he answered: “The good man is particularly selfish.” I guess when John the Baptist said, “He must become greater and greater, but I must become less and less,” he was not calling for complete self-abnegation, but the constant subjection of self to the disciplines of the Spirit. In other words, in the context of the narcissism spectrum I referred to earlier, I believe John the Baptist would have placed the self in the healthy middle where we neither lose our self (in excessive self condemnation) nor allow the self to dominate wholly and mindlessly.

And this brings me to the risk that megachurch preachers face when they are constantly in the limelight, elevated to a place of prominence, showered with superlatives from devout fans, and god forbid, deluded into believing in their own invulnerability when they are surfing on the crest of their own popularity. What is disconcerting is when the members are prepared to overlook their leader’s transgressions or flaws by justifying them as a small moral price to pay in return for successes in numbers, growth and wealth, and thereby conveniently using it as an endorsement of the “rightness” of their support (the end is therefore made right by whatever the means).

In Kong Hee’s case, if the legal saga is anything to go by, Judge See’s words should give ample warning to other megachurch leaders of what a culture of secrecy and blind allegiance, and “a mindset of presumptuousness or boldness” can do to a leadership that believe they can do all that is expedient in the short term, with whatever dubious means possible, to achieve a project goal at all costs, and at the expense of full accountability, disclosure and integrity (that is, the misleading album sales). 

Again, for the church, the issue here is not that Kong Hee has done no wrong (that is, leadership wise - putting aside the criminal conviction, appeal and all). His members would readily admit that Kong Hee has erred. The issue here is ironically how the members are prepared to overlook all that by convincing themselves that he is only human, and leaders like him are expected (even allowed) to make mistakes. This collective mindset effectively absolves all such leaders of the need to be transparent, accountable and even repentant.

So, going back full circle, Are megachurch preachers narcissistic? Well, I guess it all depends. Since no men is exempted, the risk is always lurking not too far away. I am sure preachers like Joseph Prince, Benny Hinn, Joel Osteen, T.D. Jakes and the late Jerry Falwell have their fair share of struggles over the years. Each of them has their strength and flaws as with all human leadership.

The safeguard here is for the members to check their leaders, to hold them accountable, to remind them of their responsibility to the church, to assist, serve and respect them no doubt, but never at the expense of turning a blind eye, and to stand up for what is right, even at times when they have to stand alone. 

On this, I follow my Savior's lead. In living, he set the example. In dying, he lived the example. And in rising, he calls us to follow His example. It is an example that he was prepared to stand alone at Calvary so as to reign victorious in our hearts. Cheerz.       

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