Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Is Psychology at Odds with Christian Writers' Beliefs?

This week, AC is pleased to share with you a guest post by Carolyn Kaufman. Carolyn’s first book for writers, The Writer’s Guide to Psychology: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment and Human Behavior, is now available on Amazon. You can visit Carolyn’s WGTP website for more information, including a detailed table of contents. Follow her on Facebook, visit her YouTube channel, check out her Psychology Today blog, visit her on the QueryTracker blog, or send her your psychology and writing question at Archetype Writing, her website on psychology for writers.

Is Psychology at Odds with Christian Writers' Beliefs?

As the author of a new book that debunks myths and misconceptions about psychology for writers, I’ve had the privilege of exploring some of the most common inaccuracies with writers on various blogs. These include things like the belief that schizophrenia and multiple personality disorder are the same thing (they’re not) and that modern “electroshock” therapy is barbaric and painful (It’s not – you not only don’t have convulsions as part of the modern treatment, you’re also not awake). Here on AuthorCulture, however, I thought it might be fun to talk a bit about a misconception I occasionally run into but am not always welcome to address.

Here’s the misconception: that psychology and Christianity are fundamentally at odds with one another, and that Christians need to be wary of psychology and the people who are trained therein. In some cases, the concern is so strong that Christian writers are wary of guides to psychology like mine.

Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s never a good idea to accept everyone and everything under a certain umbrella (including “psychology”) carte blanche – we have to look at the fruit a tree bears. (And just as in any other profession, there’s some rotten fruit out there.) But it’s also frustrating to see people and websites that misrepresent what psychology in general is all about. In most cases, the individual who’s arguing against psychology has seized one (typically inaccurate or outdated) facet of the field and then proceeded to claim that all psychology promotes the same thing.

For example, Andrew Wommack argues that psychology says we are all products of our environment, and then claims this is incompatible with Scripture because it exempts us from personal responsibility. In fact, there is no theorist in psychology who says we are purely products of our environments, including the radical behaviorist BF Skinner. Wommack goes on to say that the Bible says our thoughts make us who we are, and that psychology does not agree with this. At which point I have a massive *facepalm* moment, because one of the most influential movements in psychology (cognitive-behavioral theory) is all about how important and influential our thoughts are! “Taking responsibility for our actions is the big difference between true Christianity and psychology,” Womack goes on. “Psychology has influenced our society to such a degree that no one is held accountable for their actions.” But that’s not true, either. Existential and Gestalt psychology in particular argue that we must all be responsible for our choices. Cognitive behaviorists, too, argue that the way we think about things affects our behaviors – and we can choose to think about things rationally and realistically, rather than irrationally. In other words, we can choose truth over untruth.

Some more radical Christians argue that there is no such thing as mental illness, only spiritual illness that God must heal. While there may indeed be a spiritual component to mental illness (and in some cases the illness may be primarily spiritual), every day we learn more about how incredibly biological many mental illnesses are. Schizophrenia, for example, seems to be caused at least in part by an oversensitivity of the brain to a chemical our bodies produce called dopamine. Many of the medications for schizophrenia–those called antipsychotics–reduce the amount of dopamine in the brain and thereby reduce the symptoms of the disorder, often helping the person live a more normal life. Does that mean that medication is the only answer? Absolutely not. Research demonstrates that medication alone almost inevitably leads to relapse. Getting the family involved in treatment, as well as re-teaching the individual how to function in society, are just as crucial as the medication. Dealing with spiritual concerns will also make an enormous difference in whether or not someone continues to improve.

I invite those who are wary of psychology to see it as a tool for understanding, appreciating, and helping people (and characters!). I encourage them to seek out psychology resources that have a strong Biblical basis–for example, try writers like Dr. Henry Cloud, Dr. Frank Minirth, and Dr. Paul Meier. If you’re interested in learning how the biggest psychological theories match up with Scripture, I highly recommend Jones and Butman’s Modern Psychotherapies. I don’t necessarily agree with everything these writers say (just as I don’t agree with everything psychology says), and you may not either. Pray about it if you’re unsure.

In the meantime, it may be a good idea to double-check what you think you know about psychology for your stories. (And since the whole purpose of my Writer’s Guide to Psychology is to debunk myths, I think that’s a great place to start!) Even writers like Ted Dekker, who has a strong Christian background and publishes with a Christian imprint, makes mistakes based on outdated assumptions. In his novel Thr3e, Dekker portrays a psychiatrist as a clueless, money-grubbing jerk, and contrasts him with a spiritual leader who can seemingly do no wrong.

I don’t know why I do it, Doctor, [says the main character, Kevin] but I think the strangest things at the oddest times.

So do all men, Kevin…. [responds the doc] You’re just a man finding his way in a mad world gone madder, madder, madder hatter. We’ll break that down next session if you drop another check in the pay box there. Two hundred this time. My kids need…
Here’s the mistake Dekker made: psychologists and psychiatrists don’t make the kind of money most people assume they do.

Again, there are bad eggs in any profession (personally, I'd be concerned if my therapist started talking about Mad Hatters during my sessions!), but people who want to be rich don’t last as therapists—it’s a tough job, and you can make a lot more money for the same amount of effort in other industries. (To read a detailed explanation of why this is so, check out my discussion on the topic over on Archetype Writing.)

So are psychology and Christianity fundamentally at odds with one another? I don’t think so! In fact, I think that psychology–real psychology, not the stuff of myths and misconceptions—is a way for us to better understand the way God made us. You may also find it to be a helpful tool in your writerly arsenal!

Stay tuned in the next few months for a review of Carolyn’s new book The Writer’s Guide to Psychology: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment and Human Behavior.
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  1. This is a straight-up home run post. I'm not familiar with Carolyn but love her desire to shed light on the myth that psychology and Christianity are fundamentally at odds. (This is how I feel about Science Fiction and Christianity, and no less a writer than C.S. Lewis tackled that schism.)

    Really appreciate finding Carolyn and tracking her down for this guest post. Looking forward to the review of her book.

  2. This is great, and I definitely agree. Psychology is just people studying how people work... and they are finding out more and more how amazing God made us! This is a great article, thanks for sharing!

  3. Just as correctly interpreted science backs up everything God says in His Word, so true psychology will too. Good thoughts here. Thanks for taking the time to share with us here at AuthorCulture!

  4. Interesting debate to consider. I've never had a strong feeling one way or the other on this.

  5. Quote: "Womack goes on to say that the Bible says our thoughts make us who we are, and that psychology does not agree with this. ... 'Psychology has influenced our society to such a degree that no one is held accountable for their actions.' But that’s not true, either. Existential and Gestalt psychology in particular argue that we must all be responsible for our choices. ... In other words, we can choose truth over untruth."

    I find it curious that people like Womack say psychology exempts us from thinking, when the very word means "mind study," the source of thoughts. My experience as a writer has proven that knowledge of how people think and react to certain stimuli is key to creating strong, highly believable characters. I don't listen to those ministers who, though they may be on target on other subjects, spurn psychology over some perceived conflict. To me, it's the same kind of prejudice as secular scientists who believe there's a gap between science and religion. It's just not true.

    ~ VT

  6. Carolyn what a great idea for a topic and book! I do wonder what "Christian Psychologists" think? How do they cope with some of the chiasms that may be articualted from those concepts that don't match the standards in the Bible, like homosexual behaviour, suicide? I was married to a doctor with severe bipolar disorder for 27 years. I do know about dopamine receptors etc. I am a retired nurse turned author to help others with my hindsight as foresight. 'A butterfly landed an eagle' is available from amazon.It is my true story of abuse, betrayal, healing and hope. Elizabeth Laine

  7. Ooh, how frustrating -- I submitted a reply to a bunch of you, but it didn't go through. Unless...maybe they're moderated after the first day? I will hope I didn't just lose the whole thing...

  8. I find that today it's primarily a few biologists and geneticists, rather than psychologists, that are saying that everything we think, do or say is purely genetic in nature, implying that we cannot be held responsible for our misdeeds. It's the media that perpetuates most of these myths and gives us a free pass on our worst sins, labeling them mere "bad choices" (which contradicts the theory that because of genetics, we have no choices). Alison Tibbens

  9. Hm...let me try this again.

    Johne -- I've been thinking about your post since yesterday, and (as a sf/f writer myself), I am on the same page as you! I just found out last week that CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien were in a writing group together called the Inklings. They shared Christian values as well as a love for fantasy!

    I also agree with those who say that they do not see science as being in conflict with the Bible. Even that hotbed of controversy, evolution, indicates that the creatures came along in the order the Bible says they did...

    With regards to Christian psychologists, I think one of the best things they do is live by the spirit of the Word -- regardless of whether they agree or disagree with someone's lifestyle, they appreciate that the person is someone God created and loves. My favorite writing on the topic of the homosexuality controversy is Walter Wink's "Homosexuality and the Bible," which you can read here:

    Alison, I wholeheartedly agree that the media tends to run with misconceptions. Sometimes it's probably intentional, or driven by sensationalism, but a lot of times I think it's not understanding that, for example, if x and y happen together, that does not mean that x CAUSES y (or vice versa). In other words, the researchers sometimes have trouble communicating effectively to laypeople, who must then translate the information themselves, and those translations can leave a lot to be desired.

  10. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts with us, Carolyn! It's wonderful to see a balanced and thought-out approach to what can be a tricky subject. I look forward to reading your new book and reviewing it for AC's readers.

    On another note (with no disrespect intended to Carolyn), I feel it's important to mention to our readers that we here at AC do not endorse the views put forth in Walter Wink's article "Homosexuality and Bible," which we believe presents a number of unbiblical arguments.

  11. The problem I have with the linked article in your comment, Carolyn, is that the writer assumes that people are actually born gay. Nowhere has it ever been proven that people are born gay. The Bible specifically states "So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them." There is no mention of some hybrid creation. Later, as stated in the article, God goes on record condemning homosexuality. If God is truly good and loving, He would not create someone with a certain sexual proclivity and then condemn that proclivity.

    Interestingly enough, articles like this one are the very reason that many Christians take issue with Psychology. When we begin to allow ourselves to twist the scriptures to back up what we think we know, instead of taking what we think we know to the Bible and seeing what it has to say, that is when the troubles start.

  12. When I read your post I thought of the verse below. God provides many ways out of the troubles we find ourselves in. If we look for help, we will find it. Whether we find it in a psychologist, or a psychiatrist, or a pretty sunset, God is just pleased we have found it.

    God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it. (1 Corinthians 10:13)

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  14. I removed my first post b/c I wanted to add just a bit at the end.

    I meant no disrespect, and certainly take no offense at people disagreeing with a resource I like (or with me). The homosexuality argument is a tough one, I think especially for people of faith who go into psychology, because psychology says one thing so strongly (ie research is suggesting that homosexuality has a strong biological component) and the Bible says something different (ie that homosexuality is wrong). I think we could talk about it more, but I kind of feel like that's getting off on a tangent.

    My intent in posting the link was not to offend or upset anyone, so I do hope that that was not the case. My apologies if it was. I meant more to underscore the message that appears at the end of the article, which is simply that Wink (who acknowledges that his case is not airtight) encourages us to treat others without condemnation, regardless of our beliefs. That doesn't mean we keep our mouths shut when we disagree or believe something is wrong, but -- just as you all have with me -- we can disagree graciously, and back ourselves up rather than just getting angry. (Lynette, I can certainly see how articles like the one I linked to would make people question psychology, but I hope they are questioning because a psychologist [me] recommended it, not because of what Wink has written, as Wink is not a psychologist but a minister, and does not purport to be approaching the issue from a professional psychological standpoint in any way. That is to say, Wink's approach to Scripture has nothing to do with psychology. Psychology's typical stance is to cite research.)

    I should say, for the record, that most Christian psychologists are firmly *against* homosexuality for the very reasons you have all listed.

    Leave it to me to get into one of the biggest controversies out there -- in psychology as well!

    In any case, I hope that this all does not undermine my original point, which is that psychology has a lot to offer Christian writers when it comes to understanding personality, motivation, and behavior.

  15. Your original point definitely remains valid and offers all kinds of rich veins for thought and discussion. Utilizing psychological truths in proper fashion, by balancing and refining them against the truth found in Scripture, can only hone us into more aware and useful Christians.

  16. Not to mention, more accurate writers. Nothing screams 'neophyte!' more quickly than easily-researched inaccuracies.