Wednesday, September 18, 2019

A great irony of church history

Jesus is the model servant leader. Even though he knew his power, he gave it up. He washed the feet of his disciples.
 ...the third temptation of Jesus was...  the temptation of power. “I will give you all the kingdoms of the world in their splendor,” the demon said to Jesus. ....
One of the greatest ironies of the history of Christianity is that its leaders constantly gave in to the temptation of power—political power, military power, economic power, or moral and spiritual power—even though they continued to speak in the name of Jesus, who did not cling to his divine power but emptied himself and became as we are [Philippians 2:5-11]. 
The temptation to consider power an apt instrument for the proclamation of the Gospel is the greatest of all. We keep hearing from others, as well as saying to ourselves, that having power—provided it is used in the service of God and your fellow human beings—is a good thing. With this rationalization, crusades took place; inquisitions were organized; Indians were enslaved; positions of great influence were desired; episcopal palaces, splendid cathedrals, and opulent seminaries were built; and much moral manipulation of conscience was engaged in. Every time we see a major crisis in the history of the Church such as the Great Schism of the eleventh century, the Reformation of the sixteenth century, or the immense secularization of the twentieth century, we always see that a major cause of rupture is the power exercised by those who claim to be followers of the poor and powerless Jesus.
         What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to won life than to love life. Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” We ask, “Can we sit at your right hand and your left hand in your Kingdom?” (Matthew 20:21). Ever since the snake said, “The day you eat of this tree your eyes will be open and you will be like gods, knowing good from evil” (Genesis 3:5), we have been tempted to replace love with power. Jesus lived that temptation in the most agonizing way from the desert to the cross. 
The long painful history of the Church is the history of people ever and again tempted to choose power over love, control over the cross, being a leader over being led. Those who resisted this temptation to the end and thereby give us hope are the true saints. One thing is clear to me: the temptation of power is greatest when intimacy is a threat. Much Christian leadership is exercised by people who do not know how to develop healthy, intimate relationships and have opted for power and control instead. Many Christian empire-builders have been people unable to give and receive love. 
Henri Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus, pages 57-60

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Jesus and mental health

On Wednesday I am giving a talk, Jesus and Mental Health, for Jesus Week at UQ, organised by several student Christian groups.
Here is the current version of the slides.
I also recommend a related talk by Santa Ono, Vice-Chancellor of the University of British Columbia.
Recommended resources (books, websites, and courses) are here.
Video below.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Competing models of mental illness

Surveying the vast literature on mental illness I have learned that there are many competing viewpoints about the origins of mental illness and proposed cures. In both the academic community and public debate, the relative validity of these perspectives is contested. The different perspectives can be broadly classified in terms of four distinct models: biomedical, psychological, social, and spiritual.

Mental illness arises due to chemical imbalances in the brain. Healing can occur through treatment with appropriate drugs. With the development of new drugs, such as SSRIs, in the last thirty years, this has become widely used by psychiatrists and medical doctors. There is no doubt that many people, including myself, have benefited significantly from these drugs. Unsurprisingly, big pharma strongly pushes this point of view. However, drug treatment is not always successful and it is debated whether such drugs are over-prescribed. Even among psychiatrists, the biomedical model is contested because it ignores thinking patterns and the social interactions of the patient. Recently, the New York Times had op-ed articles by a doctor and a patient contesting this model.

Mental Illness Isn’t All in Your Head 
Lisa Pryor

It’s Not Just a Chemical Imbalance 
Thinking of my mental illness as preordained missed many of the causes of — and solutions to — my emotional suffering.
Kelli María Korducki

Mental illness arises due to negative thought patterns.
Healing can occur through psychotherapy.
Freud drew an analogy with grief over the death of a loved one to argue that depression arose due to the patient turning their anger inward about losing an ideal object.
Cognitive behaviour therapy seeks to train the patient to think in more positive ways.
Other approaches focus on past trauma and/or unresolved conflicts, particularly from childhood.
Mindfulness uses meditation exercises to help the patient learn to control their thoughts.
Many people, including myself, have benefited from this approach. However, there are many people for which this approach is ineffective, particularly without medication.

People are social beings. When they are isolated from true community mental illness results. One of the first advocates of the social model was Emile Durkheim, one of the founders of sociology. He found suicide rates varied significantly between different social groups, and argued that this was related to the levels of social integration felt by individuals.
A recent popular advocate of the social model is Johan Harari, in Lost Connections.
The best treatment for patients is to help them establish meaningful relationships in the context of a community.

In capitalism, people are defined by their jobs, by their relationship to the ``means of production'', the technology that is at the heart of the economy. As a result, they are alienated from one another, from nature, and from meaningful work. The solution is political and economic: revolution leading to a socialist economy where workers own and control the ``means of production.''

The most extreme form of this model is that mental illness arises due to demon possession. Healing can occur through prayer, particularly exorcism. Advocates will point to accounts in the Gospels such as Jesus healing the demoniac. A milder form of this model is that mental illness arises due to the sin or lack of faith of the individual. The solution is repentance and faith. There is no doubt that substance addictions and abuse are bad for mental health. Studies also show that forgiving others is beneficial for mental health.

These competing models raise fundamental questions such as
What really defines a human person?
How do you define human well-being?

Is a human essentially biological (biochemical and genetic), mental, social, political/economic, or spiritual? These models for mental illness tend to each assume an extreme reductionistic view of the essential character of a person.

However, Jesus seems to have had a more integrated view. He said people should love God with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength. He is not presenting a partition of a person, but saying a person is a complex unity of emotions, brain, spirit, and body. Furthermore, the incarnation is about God taking on a human body. Jesus promises his followers will be resurrected with him: not disembodied souls, but rather bodies.

Rather than seeing that one of the models as being mutually exclusive I see that they all have strengths and weaknesses. Individuals are complex and diverse and they live in diverse contexts. Hence, causes and solutions for mental health may vary significantly.

This week I am giving a talk on Jesus and Mental Health for Jesus week at UQ. More to follow.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

When theology, culture, and context don't meet

The African theologian John Mbiti once told this parable about an African who spent years studying theology in the West.
He learned German, Greek, French, Latin, Hebrew, in addition to English, church history, systematics, homiletics, exegesis, and pastoralia, as one part of the requirements for his degree. The other part, the dissertation, he wrote on some obscure theologian of the Middle Ages. Finally, he got what he wanted: a Doctorate in Theology. It took him nine and a half years altogether, from the time he left his home untill he passed his orals and set off to return. He was anxious to reach home as soon as possible, so he flew, and he was glad to pay for his excess baggage, which after all, consisted only of the Bible in the various languages he had learned, plus Bultman, Barth, Bonhoeffer, Brunner, Buber, Cone, Küng, Moltman, Niebuhr, Tillich, Christianity Today, Time Magazine… 
At home, relatives, neighbours, old friends, dancers, musicians, drums, dogs, cats, all gather to welcome him back. The fatted calf are killed; meat roasted; girls giggle as they survey him surrounded by his excess baggage; young children have their imagination rewarded-they had only heard about him but now they see him; he, of course, does not know them by name. He must tell about his experiences overseas, for everyone has come to eat, to rejoice, to listen to their hero who has studied so many northern languages, whyo has read so many theological books, who is the hope of their small, but fast growing church, the very incarnation of theological learning. People bear with him patiently as he struggles to speak his own language, as occasionally he seeks the help of an interpreter from English. They are used to sitting down and making time; nobody is in a hurry; speech is not a matter of life and death. Dancing, jubilation, eating, feasting-all these go on as if there were nothing else to do, because the man for whom everybody had waited has finally returned.m 
Suddenly there is a shriek. Someone has fallen to the ground. It is his older sister, now a married women with six children and still going strong. He rushes to her. People make room for him, and watch him. “Let’s take her to the hospital,” he calls urgently. They are stunned. He becomes quiet. They all look at him bending over her. Why doesn’t someone respond to his advice? Finally a schoolboy says, “Sir, the nearest hospital is 50 miles away, and there are few busses that go there.” Someone else says, “She is possessed. Hospitals will not cure her!” The chief says to him, “You have been studying theology overseas for 10 years. Now help your sister. She is troubled by the spirit of her great aunt.” Slowly he goes to get Bultman, looks at the index, finds what he wants, reads again about spirit posession in the New Testament. Of course he gets an answer: Bultman has demythologised it. He insists that his sister is not possessed. The people shout, “Help your sister; she is possessed!” He shouts back, “But Bultman has demythologised demon possession.”

Friday, July 5, 2019

Theological concepts and academic disciplines

At the African Scholars track of the IFES World Assembly, we are discussing Christian perspectives on academic disciplines.

A helpful article is by Elizabeth Hall, Structuring the Scholarly Imagination.
A video of a lecture is here

I will give a shorter of my seminar, Moving towards a Christian perspective on your academic discipline. Slides and a questionnaire are available here.
There is also a French translation of the questionnaire.

It builds around four key theological concepts: creation, fall, redemption, renewal.

IFES seminar on biblical theology and the sciences

I am giving a seminar on this topic at the IFES World Assembly in Johannesburg.
My slides are here.

Here are some of the recommended resources


Science and Genesis, featuring John Polkinghorne, Alister McGrath, N.T. Wright, and others.

introductory books

Let there be science

Exploring Science and Belief by Michael Poole

Why study?

advanced books

Psychology through eyes of faith

Sociology through eyes of faith

Gods that Fail by Vinoth Ramachandra

courses and study guides

Test of Faith


Faraday Institute for Science and Religion

Christians in science


Resources in French

Saturday, June 29, 2019

IFES seminar on mental health in universities

I am giving a seminar on mental health in universities at the IFES World Assembly in Johannesburg.
My co-presenter is Ibukun Adekoya, a Ph.D. student in Counseling Psychology at McGill University.
Later I will post our slides.
Here are some of the recommended resources


Why Africa needs to start focusing on the neglected issue of mental health
Article in the conversation, by Crick Lund.

Turning the church's attention to mental health
Lausanne movement

Mental health: a guide for Faith Leaders,
American Psychiatric Association

Introductory books

Troubled Minds, Amy Simpson

Grace for the afflicted, Matthew Stanford

Lost Connections, Johan Hari

Advanced books

Psychology through the eyes of faith,
David Myers and Malcolm Jeeves

Global mental health and the church

Christian counseling: an African Indigenous Perspective.


Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries 

Grace alliance

Trauma Healing Institute of the American Bible Society