The Bible and Mental Health: Towards a Biblical Theology of Mental Health

Written by Christopher C. H. Cook and Isabelle Hamley, eds Reviewed By Jesse M. Ratcliff

This book, a product of a conference in 2019 hosted at Lambeth Palace, joins the ranks of a growing body of Christian literature that seeks to understand better mental ill-health and how to minister to Christians who struggle with it. The intended readership is: (1) those involved in leadership and pastoral care; (2) lay members; and (3) medical professionals (p. xvii). Although not primarily an academic text, some of the essays assume that the reader will be conversant with developments in contemporary biblical criticism. The book’s purpose is to challenge the bifurcation of faith and modern medicine by hosting an ‘interdisciplinary conversation’ between the fields of biblical studies, psychiatry, psychology, and psychotherapy (p. xvi). In the words of the editors, ‘This book is an attempt to bring together these different discourses and different worlds, through the specific lens of the Christian Scriptures’ (p. xvi).

Providing a comprehensive analysis of a collection like this in the short compass of a book review is difficult. Therefore, I shall restrict myself to briefly summarising each chapter before reflecting on the strengths and weaknesses of this volume as a whole.

Topped and tailed with an introduction and conclusion written by the editors, the book’s fifteen contributions are divided into three parts: (1) Biblical Theology, (2) Biblical Case Studies, and (3) Practical Focus.

In the first part, Jocelyn Bryan argues for the importance of narrative in finding meaning in our lives and constructing our identity. Gordon McConville examines what the Old Testament has to say about human nature and what it means for humans to be whole. Joanna Collicutt offers a provocative exploration of the concept of madness through how Jesus was perceived and treated in his earthly ministry. Stephen Barton and Paula Gooder both focus on aspects of Pauline theology. Barton argues that a ‘disruptive apocalyptic hermeneutic’ (p. 71) best explains Paul’s anthropology and his understanding of the self; Gooder analyses the semantic range of the word ‘mind’ and its cognates before relating it to Paul’s teaching on the mind of Christ.

The second part is a selection of snapshots from specific biblical texts. Isabelle Hamley, focusing on the prologue and epilogue of Job, argues that the ambiguous use of language by the narrator and main characters can help faith communities to explore together the challenges invoked by mental ill-health. David Firth examines the language of anxiety in the Old Testament and then analyses how Psalms 38, 94, and 139 use that language. Walter Brueggemann provides a brief overview of the lament psalms as examples of truth-telling and challenges the Church to recover these psalms in its liturgy. Jill Firth explores the character of Jeremiah as a case study of resilience in the face of national trauma. Christopher Cook, in two essays, first looks at the importance of prayer for mental health in the Sermon on the Mount and then explores the language of demon possession as a metaphor for mental illness through the example of the Gerasene demoniac.

The third part approaches mental health via practical theology to offer some suggestions for pastoral application. John Swinton explores what a mental health hermeneutic might look like through the experience—both positive and negative—of Bible study in the lives of three Christians. Nick Ladd examines the Church’s role in reading the Bible, specifically in the practice of dwelling in the Word, and how this can help form genuine community. Megan Turner’s insight that many biblical writers wrote against a backdrop of national trauma provides an introduction to trauma theory as an interpretative lens. Nathan White looks at the role of Scripture in promoting resilience or, referencing Hebrews 11, how Christians are to live ‘in-between promise and fulfilment’ (p. 206).

All the contributors are mindful of the difficulties of using the Bible to address an issue that it rarely mentions explicitly. Repeatedly, the reader is cautioned against anachronistic proof-texting and, thankfully, this is consistently borne out in the essays. There are few attempts to psychoanalyse biblical figures, choosing instead to carefully examine key themes and what they might contribute to a theology of mental health.

Most of the chapters are very strong—indeed, some are excellent—offering much for the reader to ponder. Particularly worthy of note are Cook’s two contributions, Barton and Gooder’s explorations of Paul’s thought, Swinton’s proposal for a mental health hermeneutic, and White’s examination of resilience. Jill Firth and Turner complement each other’s work nicely on trauma. Some essays, such as David Firth’s, feel more like vignettes, suggestive appetisers for future research and study. The chapters by Collicutt and Hamley, however, although containing some intriguing insights, utilise a hermeneutic of suspicion, sometimes reading against the text as much as with it. The reader will need to sift these chapters carefully to extract what is of value.

For this reviewer, one contribution, the first chapter by Bryan, was a disappointment. As an exploration of the importance of narrative or stories, this was the ideal place to provide an overview of the redemptive storyline of the Bible, demonstrating how Baumeister’s four needs for meaning might relate at each point. Frustratingly, Bryan’s only examples are from Genesis 1–3 and the Gospels (with one minor reference to Paul). I feel that this chapter was a missed opportunity to set out a framework to situate the other contributions—which, ironically, encompass most of the Bible’s storyline—and give the book a better sense of structure and direction.

Inevitably, considering the almost impossibly large area that mental health covers, there are many aspects of mental health that this book doesn’t address—something the editors acknowledge (p. 225). That said, perhaps a tighter focus on specific aspects of mental health or either the New or Old Testament would have given this collection a better thematic unity and allowed the contributors to delve deeper into their respective topics.

A more significant criticism is that this volume omits the very voices it purports to represent. Except for three of the practical focus chapters, none of the other contributions refers to the experience or insights of people with mental ill-health, church leaders or pastoral carers, and therapists. The reader, especially the busy church leader, will find plenty of suggestions for pastoral care but little of actual substance about how these might be concretely applied. What might it look like to incorporate lament into a church’s public worship? How do Christians with poor mental health read particular parts of the Bible, and what do they find most helpful and unhelpful? How might a faith community offer support to someone with mental ill-health or suffering significant trauma? How might a therapist incorporate Scripture and other spiritual resources into their sessions? The addition of these perspectives would vastly improve this volume’s usefulness.

These criticisms aside, I would recommend this book for its numerous and valuable insights, as long as the reader approaches it with discernment. These essays are not the end but just the start of a long but hopefully fruitful conversation on mental health.

Jesse M. Ratcliff

Jesse M. Ratcliff
University of Aberdeen
Aberdeen, Scotland, UK

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