Discussing Tolerance

We held our book discussion today at lunch. We discussed two chapters from Psychology’s War on Religion, edited by Nicholas Cummings, William O’Donohue, and Janet Cummings. We’ve previously read and discussed some of the other chapters, including those that touch on the culture war, the relationship between psychology and religion, and the chapter on Islam. Today we discussed chapters 3 (“Intolerance in Psychology: The Problem of Religious Gays”) and 4 (“The Battle Regarding Sexuality”).

We all agreed that we prefer a different metaphor to “war.” I know I felt that way when I was drafting my chapter for the book (“The Battle Regarding Sexuality”). In fact, I opened the chapter explaining that very point but acknowledged that some conventionally religious people in psychology may feel embattled, and I pointed out some examples to illustrate why they might feel that way.

And I would say that many people do feel embattled. Unfortunately, people who feel embattled are not as inclined to engage. It is a challenge I suppose all Christians face, especially Christians involved in a broader field in which their worldview is not respected or tolerated and is often subjected to ridicule, bias, prejudice, and the like. But engaging others is important, too. Finding ways to enter into dialogue about what we hold in common, whether it is psychology itself, the role of science in informing our discussion of a specific topic, specific research findings, or some other thing, it is important to identify what we hold in common as well as those with whom we can discuss and share our common experiences.

I was struck, too, by a comment from one colleague who said that psychology could function more at the level of description as a science – it could describe experiences and human behavior – but that it is often functioning as though it had a vision for how people ought to live. In that way, some people may approach psychology in the way Don Browning wrote about clinical psychology in Religious Thought and the Modern Psychologies. That is, that the models of therapy actually function as moral philosophies. They suggest a way that people ought to live and provide a map for how to get from where they are to where they should go.

It is a real challenge for the so-called culture wars. One group of people will feel less embattled if they do not feel that the other group is advancing a vision for how people ought to live that runs contrary to the beliefs that the one people hold as true. This brings up the question of whether and how to live in a diverse society. This is the true test of diversity and of tolerance. Can we co-exist while we actually disagree? The ability to co-exist based on conformity to a single vision for how people ought to live says nothing about a person’s capacity to show tolerance.

On the Battle for Freedom

I was reminded today of the opening to Christian hip-hop artist Tedashii’s song, Make War. In the opening to this song you hear John Piper say: “I hear so many Christians murmuring about their imperfections, and their failures, and their addictions, and their shortcomings. And I see so little war! Murmur, murmur, murmur. Why am I this way? Make war!”

The student chapter of the American Association of Christian Counselors hosted a talk today an explicit integration protocol. The title of the presentation was “Faith-Based Interventions in Psychotherapy.” The first half of the presentation was by Dr. George Hurst, lead author of a peer-reviewed journal article which was an empirical study of the use of Steps to Freedom model prayers as a protocol for people suffering from depression, anxiety, and other mental health concerns. (The study was published in 2008 in Southern Medical Journal, vol. 101, no 4.) He walked through the details of the study itself in which his team used a 12-item questionnaire to measure outcomes from the use of Steps to Freedom by Neil Anderson. They reported on data pre- and post- intervention (6-7 hours of ministry) and 3-4 months later. He shared that some of the items on the quessionnaire had been correlated with some items from the SCL-90, a reputable and reliable measure of symptom distress. They reported significant changes over that time for the group (N = 33) receiving Steps to Freedom (and no significant changes in the control group).

The second speaker, Judith King, is a licensed mental health professional and she discussed the Steps to Freedom. According to Knig, the Steps to Freedom are seven lies that need to be renouced. They are counterfeit (replaced by what is real); deception (versus the truth); bitterness (versus forgiveness); rebellion (versus submission); pride (versus humility); bondage (versus freedom); and curses (versus blessings). So you see that all of what is a lie has to be renounced and replaced by what is true. Although she was unable to unpack the specifics in each of these areas, she was suggesting that these essentially make up one’s primary identity in Christ.

I sat in on the presentation because I teach a course on applied/clinical integration, and this kind of approach would be classified as an explicitly integrative model. I don’t know that I’ve thought about it this way because Steps to Freedom has to my understanding been a ministry model provided by lay persons in the church (rather than mental health professionals). King is a licensed mental health professional, however, and she spoke about its adaptation for licensed professionals.

The questions that came up for had to do with informed consent, which King says she provides, as well as how billing is handled, as some (many?) third party payors might not reimburse for an explicit protocol like this. It seems to me that having lay people provide Steps to Freedom in ministry keeps the roles clearer – that ministry is being provided rather than mental health services. So I think that is an area worth exploring further.

I think the other questions I had have to do with how a person distinguishes depression as “lie-based” from depression that is due to levels of neurotransmitters (e.g., dopamine, serotonin) or some other factor(s). Same thing with anxiety disorders and the other examples she provided, such as sexual addiction, characterological concerns, etc. In fact, she was sharing that one of the common myths about Steps to Freedom is that everything is demon-based. The other common myths were that meds are never needed and psychotherapy is never needed. She was saying that meds are beneficial, as is psychotherapy. But, again, this raises the question of how is that assessed? How does one make the distinction?

I also wondered if it lends itself to people who are open to the language used here. Words like “bondage” and “curse” and “lie” were not part of my Christian vocabulary growing up, so to hear about a model that regularly uses such language sounds quite foreign. I wonder if people who are drawn to it comes out of traditions that use similar vocabulary or ways of conceptualizing difficulties.

There was definitely an emphasis on spiritual battle and on identity in Christ. I think those in attendance have been given a lot to think about. For me, there was something about it that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It raised more questions than answers, but perhaps that is because of my own background and approach to conceptualizing concerns. I genuinely appreciated that they studied the approach empirically and took the time to get it published in a peer-reviewed journal. It sounded to me like they intend to do more of that, and that’s an important step for Christians interested in using explicit protocols in clinical practice.

Lights, Camera, Action!

I spent four hours in the role of “director” today. We have been working on a DVD of some of what I see as central messages that can be helpful for Christians sorting out sexual and religious identity conflicts. We developed seven modules based on recent talks I’ve been giving at Christian colleges. The modules introduce people to the idea of sexual identity (rather than debates about sexual orientation), how sexual identity develops, different ‘scripts’ that people read from to make meaning out of their attractions, and how some people form an identity ‘in Christ’ for various reasons.

Today we had our ‘talent’ record the seven modules. I sat in to provide feedback on how the script was being read, how it came across, etc. I also handled the water bottle. (Our talent was very thirsty.)

I have a new appreciation for the role of director, and not just because of the water bottle. There is a lot to be said for wanting the tone to be ‘just right.’ Our talent was very good, but it is hard to communicate tone to another person. Intensify here. Not too perky though – it’s a serious topic. Keep it somber. Not too somber – this isn’t a funeral…. I hope I didn’t drive her crazy with all of that. I think she was a good sport about it.

It does make me think about how I come across when I speak. I try to be sensitive to the topic. I learned a long time ago that it isn’t just theoretical, even if people want to discuss it at that level. It also isn’t just theological, even though theology is an important consideration. It is also personal, and the way sexual identity is discussed should reflect that it is a topic that touches on something so central and so very precious to the lives of real people. This isn’t a discussion that can really remain an abstraction. At the same time, holding all of these considerations together is a challenge, and not many people can pull it off. Too many people mean well but come off as cold or aloof or condescending, and that only further distances people from one another and from much needed resources.

So I learned about directing today. I don’t think I’m cut out for it. I also learned about tone. I know what I like when I hear it. I also learned about the importance of staying hydrated. Water bottle, anyone?

Playing with Anger

The Doctoral Program in Clinical Psychology at Regent hosts a monthly colloquia series. This month we welcomed Howard Stevenson, Ph.D., who spoke on racial negotiation in schools. He is associate professor and chair of Applied Psychology and Human Development at the University of Pennsylvania. The title of his talk was “Playing with Anger: Reaching Out and Teaching Angry and Aggressive Youth.”

Dr. Stevenson opened by recognizing the importance of talking about differences in race and culture. Among the many things he does, he teaches young African American males how to respond to being questioned by police – as black youth are more likely to be stopped (in their car or walking) in neighborhoods, regardless of whether they are the majority or minority in that neighborhood. He wants that exchange to end well. But the context here is a “Catch 33” by which he means damned if you do, damned if you don’t – just damned. It’s more than just a no-win situation, it is a no-win situation across the lifespan; it doesn’t get better. Racial bias can occur at age 5, 15, and 55. That is the context for teaching kids not to curse out police.

As Dr. Stevenson observed, we have a tremendous capacity to avoid racial discussion. We have skills to avoid it; we need skills to enhance it. We need racial literacy and negotiation skills. He’s about counter-socialization to manage Catch 33: for protection (manage stress), affirmation (develop talent), reappraisal (reframing “stress” as “challenge”), competence (to counteract microaggressions), and faith (the transcendent/divine).

In what ways is Dr. Stevenson’s work integrative? I’m sure that there are countless ways, and you’d likely have to sit down with him for awhile to get more of a full picture. I will say this: Dr. Stevenson is a person of faith, and from what he says he is drawn in part by his faith to this area of study. He has a heart for young people and a heart for racial literacy. It reminded me again that community psychology is particularly important for impacting a large number of people for the good; in ways that are different than individual counseling, community psychology can identify and find positive ways to respond to what might best be understood as systemic evil.

Pavlov’s Dawgs

The intramural basketball season is upon us. Actually, it began in December, but I am only now getting around to writing about it. Regent does not have sports teams to cheer for, unless you count Moot Courtroom and Film competitions, so we have to make do with intramural sports. I’m fine with that, actually. It give me a chance to relive the dream. (Who’s kidding who, I still have four years of eligibility left, and I’m not afraid to use them.)

For years now I have been part of the basketball team that represents the School of Psychology and Counseling in the intramurals. You probably already know how psychologists are renown for their athleticism and basketball acumen. I can attest that all that you heard is true. In addition to that, we came up with the clever name, Pavlov’s Dawgs, to draw on the fame of Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, Russian physiologist, psychologist, and physician most well-known for making dogs drool. You will recall that it was Pavlov who described classical conditioning; he could pair a bell with dog food and get a dog to salivate at the sound of the bell.

Well, if Pavlov could do that, surely we can play a little intramural basketball. We simply pair students who can dribble a basketball with faculty who cannot; eventually, we get the faculty to salivate at the sound of dribbling.

One of the unique features of intramural sports is that the games can be scheduled at any time. I write “unique” because it’s the nicest way for me to convey how ridiculous the schedule can be. Take, for example, our game this week, which is scheduled for 10:30pm on Thursday. Who plays basketball at 10:30 at night? I’ve watched basketball at 10:30pm, but that’s because some of the Western Conference teams – the Lakers or the Spurs – are on TV. But you don’t see that too often on the East Coast. No, we are typically shutting down for the night, not trying to shut down the leading scorer on the other team. But everything you’ve ever been taught about basketball is up for grabs when you sign up to run with an intramural squad.

The agreement I have with my wife, Lori, is that I can play intramural basketball but I have to have reasonable, modest goals for the season. Like not going to the hospital. This is actually the goal she gave me for this year. This is relevant given what happened the second week of intramurals. A good friend of mine on an opposing team, Roger, went down with a knee injury and was taken to the hospital for x-rays. I say this only to recognize that Lori’s goals are much more realistic than mine (goal #1: shoot 50% from the 3-point line for the season). In any case, Roger is a few years older than me, and he’s always given me hope that I could play for many more years. This may still be true, but I want to keep Lori’s goals in front of me as much as possible (and probably not mention to her what happened to Roger).

The Dawgs are currently 4-1. We have played increasingly talented teams over the first five games, and we were dealt our first loss this past weekend. It’s time to regroup, get our game plan together, and show up on the court (at 10:30pm!). After all, they say it’s how you respond to a loss that defines your team, and we could use a little definition right now. Anyone have some 5-hr energy drink they can spare? Or at least a bell?

Wired for Intimacy

Wired for Intimacy is a new Christian psychology integration resource written by William M Struthers. Struthers is Associate Professor of Psychology at Wheaton College. He is an expert on behavioral neuroscience and biological bases of behavior, which are among the courses he teaches at Wheaton. The subtitle of  his new book is How pornography hijacks the male brain. This is what IVP says about the book:

Pornography is powerful. Our contemporary culture as been pornified, and it shapes our assumptions about identity, sexuality, the value of women and the nature of relationships. Countless Christian men struggle with the addictive power of porn. But common spiritual approaches of more prayer and accountability groups are often of limited help.

In this book neuroscientist and researcher William Struthers explains how pornography affects the male brain and what we can do about it. Because we are embodied beings, viewing pornography changes how the brain works, how we form memories and make attachments. By better understanding the biological realities of our sexual development, we can cultivate healthier sexual perspectives and interpersonal relationships. Struthers exposes false assumptions and casts a vision for a redeemed masculinity, showing how our sexual longings can actually propel us toward sanctification and holiness in our bodies.

With insights for both married and single men alike, this book offers hope for freedom from pornography.

The money chapter is chapter 4, Your Brain on Porn. This is the chapter that might be the most difficult for readers to wade through, as it gets into the details of neurobiology, but Struthers does a great job making complex information accessible.

The book does not focus on recovery from pornography addiction. There is an appendix with recommended resources for recovery. However, Struthers ends the book with chapter 8, Rewiring and Sanctification, which offers a vision for changes that could me made if people understood the brain better and took strides to tap into the ways in which neural pathways and related aspects of our embodied personhood can be formed for good (sanctification) or for ill (pornography).