In this second article on the significance of personality disorders for your and my work as preachers, let us concentrate on what Erich Fromm describes as “the packaged personality.”
He speaks of this particular orientation to life as “the marketing orientation.” In this orientation to life “success depends largely upon how well a person sells himself on the market, how well he gets his personality across, how nice a package he is: whether he is cheerful, sound, aggressive, reliable, ambitious…. The premise … is emptiness, the lack of any specific quality which should not be subject to change” (Erich Fromm, Man For Himself, 1947, 69-78).
In the same era in which Fromm wrote, T. S. Eliot composed the poem, The Hollow Men: “We are the hollow men, We are the stuffed men,…. Headpieces filled with straw. Alas! Our dried voices when we whisper together are quiet and meaningless …” (The Complete Poems and Plays, 1952, 56). A bit later David Reisman, in his book The Lonely Crowd, spoke of the “packaged personality” as the outer-directed person as contrasted with the person with internal principles and secure personal identity as an “inner-directed” person.
The technical psychological literature aptly describes this way of life as the “histrionic personality.” The word histrionic comes from the Latin word histrio, which means “an actor.”
This is a vast improvement on the older word for this way of life — “hysterical” — a derivative from the Greek word hystera meaning “womb.” This implies that only women follow this way of life. Far from it!
Men equally participate in this “showy” lifestyle. Either a man or a woman can be a star-performing, over-dramatic, scene-stealing actor or actress. Several characteristics identify the histrionic, “packaged” personality:
– Overly concerned with physical attractiveness
– Constantly seeking the “limelight”
– Seeks and demands reassurance, approval, praise
– Exaggerates emotions — excessive ardor, uncontrolled sobbing, temper tantrums, extremes in laughter
– Uncomfortable in situations where he or she is not the center of attention
– Rapidly changing and shallow emotions
– Impatient and no tolerance for frustration
– Given to wearing flashy clothing
– Sexually seductive on the one hand and superficially sexual in longer term relationships
The Preacher and the “Packaged” Personality
The more we as preachers understand the packaged personality, the more uncomfortable we tend to get. The preaching situation itself is a “center stage,” an actor’s paradise!
The first thing we must discern is the subtle but powerful difference between authentic, genuine drama and superficial, shallow histrionics. If we think we stand in this respect, let us take heed lest we fall.
The Gospel of the crucified, buried, and resurrected Lord Jesus Christ depicts no seeming suffering, but is the real horror, darkness and deliverance of the human spirit. To be “showy,” shallow, sentimental, or demanding of immediate gratification of our preacherly wishes makes us “peddlers of the Gospel” — a packaged article with our own selves as the main part of the sale.
Each time one speaks of this histrionic possibility in the preacher, it is easy to point the finger at other preachers. Yet we have a beam and bolt situation; we must examine the beam in our own eye before we point to the bolt in our colleagues’ eyes.
In recent months we have been inundated by public extravaganzas of television preachers in bizarre exhibitions of histrionic behavior. One is not as tempted to outdo them as tempted to drop out of sight until the soap operas are history.
Yet that is not an option in reality. We just have to endure it and hopefully never forget the admonitions to a better way that the exposures provide for us.
The Worship Service and the Packaged Personality
The worship occasions of the fellowship of the church are prime opportunities for others as well as the preacher to indulge the traits of the packaged personality. In the last twenty-five years, a revolution in worship has occurred. The influence of gospel jazz and gospel rock music have introduced extravagant movement of the body into music.
The contemporary church musicians are not immune to this influence and may consider it a matter of conscience to insist on turning worship into an entertainment extravaganza. Hymn books with classical hymns are either done in extravagant arrangements or dispensed with altogether.
Many of these musicians are highly disciplined interpreters of the Christian faith. However, extensively mingled among these are seductive “packages” of persons “selling” themselves for crowd approval. You, the decision-maker as to the tone and content of the whole worship program that surrounds your preaching, are called upon to “discern the spirits” of your fellow participants in the worship.
When you make the hard decisions and veto extravagant, seductive “productions,” do not be surprised if a large sector of your congregation is offended. They want this kind of worship. If you do not provide it, they will go to the church across town where it is the major drawing card.
They are “the market” to whom the packaged personality is “marketing” their wares! At first glance, a topic such as that of this article would not be expected to raise the issue of the nature of the constituency of your church, but it has!
The impact of religious “shows” on television has brought entertainment a la Nielsen ratings to the congregation. The tragic revelations of the excesses of the leaders of three of the major “shows” have served to cause congregations to “sift and sort.” As Martin Marty says: “This is likely to be the moment when the pastor down the block, the congregation at the corner, the long-disdained or neglected denomination, will have a chance to show that they’ve never been “about” what the broadcasters and entrepreneurs were doing.
“These are days of sifting and sorting. Those who survive might well be those whose moral lights have recently been obscured by the glare of television spotlights. This could be a finer hour than they have enjoyed since the television towers overshadowed the steeple of old First Church. Let the steeple bells ring once again” (Martin Marty, “Televangelism and Neighborhood Churches: The Gulf Widens,” The Christian Science Monitor, April 6, 1987, p. 20).
Homiletical Empathy for the Packaged Personality
Background understanding of the development of the packaged personality provides remarkable empathy for the preparation and delivery of sermons that deal with the deep terror that grips the packaged person’s being. The personal history of this person makes the behavior understandable and offers spiritual wisdom for enabling them to understand themselves and to feel that you understand them without “singling” them out. Their inner plight bespeaks the universal human condition of us all. Note the following issues.
1. The pushing of “parental show and tell” compulsions. In today’s fever for the spotlight, parents with the best of intention and the worst of common sense will put their children on display in front of audiences whether the child is emotionally and physically ready for it or not. The parent bestows or withholds their approval in terms of the child’s performance.
This withholding is subtle. As Theodore Millon says, “The parents of future histrionic persons rarely punish their children, they distribute rewards only for what they approve and admire, but they often fail to bestow these rewards even when the child behaves well” (Theodore Millon, Personality Disorders, John Wiley, 1981, p. 152).
With this as background, you or I could develop a topical sermon on “The Right to Solitude.” We could home in on the oppressiveness of the crowd that does away with solitude. Illustrations of this abound in the gospel stories of Jesus’ ministry, in the works of Thomas Merton, and Ardrey’s work The Territorial Imperative. A thorough study of David Elkind’s The Hurried Child (which you can get from a college or university library) would provide much specific data on the encouragement of the parent to demonstrate their prowess in their own work rather than to use the child as a reflection of their own self-gratification.
A Jewish rabbi once translated the proverb for me: “Train up a child in his or her own particular way, and when he or she is old they will be themselves.” The fear, the terror of the packaged personality is that if they reveal their true selves they will be rejected. So they wear a mask!
A further note may be added about the administrative oversight of the pastor in the matter of parents’ “pushing” their children into the limelight. When you see this happening in church music events, drama events, etc., you can use your quiet influence to discourage it. A sermon provides the ethical background for your administrative influence.
2. The “pillar to post” syndrome of the upbringing of children fractures the continuity of relationship necessary for the less dramatic and more serene personality in the child. It breeds histrionic behavior.
The child that is handed from one set of caretakers to another soon learns to survive by “putting on a show” of what he or she thinks the ever-changing set of caretakers want. They perform and sell themselves to uncles and aunts, much older siblings, grandparents, new husbands and/or wives of their parents, foster parents, etc. Histrionic behavior becomes a way of survival.
In your study you hear the accounts of the flux of changes in the parenting situation. Youth groups, Bible study groups, choir groups, etc., when observed by you from this angle of vision, are very revealing of the effects on growing children.
In response to these quiet observations what kind of sermon can be crafted to speak to this condition? Immediately, the profoundly human hunger for security and continuity of relationship emerges. The packaged personality lives with the fear of being abandoned, the threat of separation felt more keenly than other people. If they don’t “sell” themselves to you, your church, the general public, you will leave them.
A sermon that addresses these deep concerns can be based on Romans 8:35-39 or Ephesians 2:11-22. Illustrative material from this article can be used, especially the material in this section, to create empathy for the inner fears of these persons. The biographical or autobiographical eulogy of the person in a given character’s or your own life who was “always there” and gave continuity to life could be illustrative material. The testimony of people whom you know — to whom the church itself became a dependable, steadfast, and “always there” home away from home — could be recited.
The nature of the Kingdom of God as the foundation whose “anchor holds” eternally would bring the riches of the Gospel to bear upon this need. Here you come just as you are and need not appear otherwise. Your “image” is not of concern here. Only your basic worthfulness in the love of Christ is needed. You do not have to “sell” yourself. You have already been bought with a price. What a price! Christ died for you!
3. Verbal, physical, or sexual abuse of persons — both men and women — as children often is behind the histrionic behavior. The excessively dramatic behavior, the confusing sexual signals, and the feverish attempt to be accepted become a “character armor” that keeps people at a distance emotionally.
They are threatened and confused by people moving too emotionally close to them. They need to keep their “audience” at a distance while at the same time keeping their attention and praise. Their memories of abuse when they were young lies as an accessible memory overlaid with anxiety about a secret that is kept. An empty, inner core of loneliness is the result.
As preachers, you and I have enough social support from the popular literature and media to make this matter a specific topic of sermons. Matthew 18:1-9 and Ephesians 6:4 are solid biblical texts for an ethical sermon on the turning of the hearts of the fathers to their children (see Luke 1:17).
You might say, “But these things do not happen among Christians.” It would be better to say, “I am not aware that these things happen among Christians.” Paul found incest among the Corinthians. For forty-five years of counseling, I have found far too many instances of incest among Christians in their family lives. In fact, loud protestations of piety tend to accompany it!
These are some of the homiletical challenges of dealing with the deepest needs of the packaged or histrionic personality through the medium of preaching. We as preachers can join them in the pilgrimage of faith and pray with them the Socratic prayer: “O Lord, give me beauty in the inner person, and may the outward person and the inward person be the same!”

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