Last week’s summer course at Wheaton was fast-paced. It is a one-week intensive that requires everyone to read in advance to get the most out of the course. The class is a grad level course on sexuality and counseling. There were many highlights, including good discussions of Lisa McMinn’s book, Sexuality & Holy Longing, which was our primary integration resource, as well as other topics ranging from paraphilic-related disorders (e.g., the construct of “sexual addiction,” compulsive masturbation, pornography), the recent controversies surrounding the diagnosis of Gender Identity Disorder and whether it will be removed from DSM-V, and controversies surrounding sexual identity concerns, including the APA’s Task Force that is revisiting approaches to sexual orientation in clinical practice.
This next week I’ll be at Wheaton College to teach their graduate human sexuality course titled Sexuality & Sex Therapy. It is similar to the summer course I teach at Regent. We open with a discussion of theological considerations in approaching the topic of human sexuality and then move into sociocultural perspectives. We then discuss relevant biological issues and then turn to clinical perspectives on addressing sexuality as mental health professionals. The remainder of the course is on learning about specific sexual issues, such as sexual dysfunctions (e.g., desire disorders), paraphilias and paraphilic-related disorders, gender identity concerns, and sexual identity concerns. Students read some of the leading secular theorists, clinicians, and researchers; the primary integration readings come from Lisa McMinn’s book, Sexuality and Holy Longing.
Alan Jacobs has a new book out. It is titled Original Sin: A Cultural History . Jacobs is Professor of English at Wheaton College and also author of a biography of C.S. Lewis (among many other books). In any case, one of the first things you notice about Original Sin are the reviews on the back cover. I love the one from Alan Wolfe: “I do not believe in original sin. I do believe in Alan Jacobs.” These are the kinds of endorsements that truly reflect some of the points made in the book about the deep ambivalence (or disdain, really) regarding the concept of original sin.
For the Christian psychologist, the book makes one think about the implications for psychology of an Augustinian view of original sin. I was particularly struck by the final chapter dealing with contemporary psychology and, in particular, the work of Philip Zimbardo and the Stanford Prison Experiment conducted in 1971. After explaining some of the design and outcomes from the study in which students were randomly assigned to “guard” and “prisoner” status and soon after had some guards engaging in abusive behavior to fellow students, Jacobs points out Zimbardo’s conclusions that include that people are essentially good and can turn evil. Jacobs is right to point out that Zimbardo fails to argue for the inherent goodness of people but simply assumes it to be true. In response to those who say the word “evil” should have “withered” from our vocabulary, Jacobs raises the question: “But doesn’t Zimbardo’s book suggest the opposite, that the word [evil] is of wider application than most of us (especially Zimbardo) would want to admit? Doesn’t it make us wonder whether something is wrong with all of us?” (p. 252).
William Paul Young’s book, The Shack, has become a national phenomenon. It is a very quick read. It has been described by others as “a little clunking,” which does sort of capture the writing style. That reviewer attributed the “clunking” to it being the first book by Young and the “raw” nature of the story.
In any case, here’s the synopsis from Barnes and Noble’s bookstore site:
Mackenzie Allen Philips’ youngest daughter, Missy, has been abducted during a family vacation and evidence that she may have been brutally murdered is found in an abandoned shack deep in the Oregon wilderness. Four years later in the midst of his Great Sadness, Mack receives a suspicious note, apparently from God, inviting him back to that shack for a weekend. Against his better judgment he arrives at the shack on a wintry afternoon and walks back into his darkest nightmare. What he finds there will change Mack’s world forever.
I am writing about it because I’ve had two clients now ask if I’ve read it. They both loved the book, were moved to tears, and genuinely found it to be personally compelling for them. In one of my areas of specialization (sexual identity), clients often hold in common a very difficult struggle that is often enduring, and the struggle itself is often associated with shame. And maybe this is part of the appeal of the book: It does not try to gloss over a terrible situation. Some Christian authors of fiction seem compelled to wrap up stories in such a way that everyone feels better at the end; that everyone “gets saved” or any misunderstandings are resolved. With this kind of ending in view, it makes some authors work very hard to get there, sacrificing quality of writing for preaching.
Clients who seek mental health services for sexual identity concerns and other very difficult, complex concerns often also struggle with shame. The messages over and over again in The Shack is God as the Father (a black woman) talking about so and so and saying how fond she is of someone. The fondness is not favortism but a genuine delight and regard for a person. Of course, the antidote to shame for the Christian is to see themselves through God’s eyes, and this book provides a narrative through which that happens.
Let me say that the clunkiness may reflect a desire the author had to share an idea. My wife thought that the author had an idea for how the trinity relates to one another and that the story is a way to share those insights. The reader initially thinks its about the daughter but it turns out to be a discussion in part about the trinity, and Christians think about how the trinity relates. Some want to move beyond “water, ice, and steam” as an analogy for the trinity, and this book provides a picture of what one person thinks those exchanges might look like.
That it is “raw” and that it speaks to how God might think about individual persons as tremendously valuable is probably the tie to why people suffering from loss, hurt, and especially shame, find such comfort in acceptance and delight on God’s part with who they are.
Ken Pargament published a book titled Spiritually Oriented Psychotherapy: Understanding and Addressing the Sacred. It came out in 2007, but I wanted to highlight it here, as it was used this summer in our integration capstone course in the doctoral program in clinical psychology. Pargament is Professor of Psychology at Bowling Green State University and has conducted extensive research on religious coping.
In this book Pargament provides the reader with a research-based/informed resource for addressing religion and spirituality in clinical practice. He opens with a rationale for addressing spirituality in practice and moves into a major section on the sacred, where he covers what it means for people to discover and hold onto the sacred, particularly during times of distress.
Pargament also has an extensive section on conducting spiritual assessment. He discusses implicit and explicit assessment and closes with a call for more “spiritually integrated psychotherapy.”
Students interested in practical, clinical integration will not be disappointed by this book. Although it is not explicitly Christian, it provides a broad, far-reaching and research-derived model for addressing religion and spirituality in meaningful ways, and it is the kind of resource Christian clinicians can benefit from using with a range of clients.
In one study on sexual identity among Chistians, both those who identified with a gay identity (and were part of the Metropolitan Community Church) and those who dis-identified with a gay identity (and were part of Exodus) shared information on their experiences. Interestingly, both groups talked about what might be considered congruence. Both wanted to line up their behavior/identity and their beliefs/values. Those who identified as gay appeared to line up their beliefs/values with their behavior/identity as gay, while those who dis-identified with a gay identity appeared to line up their identity/behavior with their beliefs/values (with this group, identity was often “in Christ” and behavior often reflected chastity).
In addition to congruence, there were differences with respect to attributions about the meaning of same-sex attractions. Those who identified as gay tended to attribute their attractions to who they “really are”; their attractions signalled their “true self” as gay. In contrast, those who dis-identified with a gay identity tended to attribute their attractions to other things (e.g., a reflection of the fall, a result of strained parent/child relationships, etc.).
One last thought: For those Christians who identified with a gay identity, authenticity meant worshipping God as who they really are – that attempting to approach God while not acknowledging their gay identity would be inauthentic. In contrast, those who dis-identified with a gay identity tended to view authenticity as important too – that they would approach God on His terms and not form an identity as gay.
For reflection: Is congruence a reasonable outcome that mental health professionals could work toward when it comes to sexual identity concerns in counseling? How important is it to live authentically? What are your impressions about how authenticity might be defined differently by different people?
In considering how different people approach the complex issues associated with gender dysphoria and transgender persons, I was looking at a web site that discusses various approaches to the topic. They discuss four “categories in the study of transgender”: (1) essentialism or naturalism, (2) social constructivism, (3) performance, and (4) memory and language generation. The first two of these also represent two philosophical perspectives on the subject: essentialism versus social constructivism. According to the definition given on the web site, essentialists focus on the two genders as distinct and treat biological sex and gender as if there was no real difference between the two. Proponents also hold that they cannot be changed. In contrast, social constructivists claim that sex and gender are linguistic constructs fashioned by society. According to the article, they are in some ways products of how society assigns meaning to them and can to some extent be addressed or changed.
For reflection: Which philosophical position reflects your understanding of sex and gender? How does one’s philosophical position inform at a practical level how a person approaches the topic of gender identity? Also, moving in a different direction, it has been suggested by Richard Carroll that there are separate dimensions to sexuality, including one’s body, one’s social role, one’s sexuality, and one’s gender identity. Are there any other dimensions or considerations? Also, what are the relative weights you would give to these dimensions of sexuality? How does this inform how you approach the topic of gender identity concerns?