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 In most cases, the individual who’s arguing against psychology has seized one (typically inaccurate or outdated) facet of the field and then proceeded to claim that all psychology promotes the same thing.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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