It was right around this time last year that my wife began experiencing a sharp pain in her left wrist. Lifting anything with that hand or turning it in the wrong position produced a spasm that felt like someone was jamming a fork into her elbow. She took ibuprofen and hoped it would get better. It didn’t.
Readers of this blog will remember what the doctors eventually concluded: that she had a form of tennis elbow, with a series of small tears in the tendons of the arm. That’s a serious injury that requires treatment, but the good news is that doctors know how to treat it. They put her in a cast to immobilize that wrist for several weeks to give the tendons a chance to heal without aggravation. (Thank you, again, to everyone who generously contributed to the fundraiser here that enabled us to pay the bills while she was unable to work during that time.) That treatment worked, meaning she escaped the more extreme step of corrective surgery on her arm. After a month in that cast, she began sessions with a trained physical therapist and, after a couple of months, was able to return to work. These days, her arm is as good as ever.
I mention this because at no point did anyone ever suggest to my wife or I that our reliance on modern, “secular” medicine to restore her arm was sinful. No one — not even the fundiest of fundamentalists — would have argued that turning to medical doctors for the treatment of her wrist was somehow “unbiblical” or a “total and utter mockery of God’s word.” No one insisted that we rely only, instead, on “biblical therapy” because “the Bible, and the Bible alone, is a sufficient and an authoritative guide to” medicine.
No one tried to twist our reliance on medical doctors into an accusation that we lacked faith in the sufficiency of such “biblical therapy,” telling us that “In this therapeutic age, it is really important that we think as Christians … that we employ authentically Christian thinking, biblical thinking, to human life, and that we do this in a way that, without apology, confronts and critiques the wisdom of the age and seeks the wisdom that can come only from God and God’s word.”
That would seem laughably absurd, wouldn’t it? It would seem like a hostile caricature of fundamentalist Christianity, an exaggerated mockery of the self-glorification-by-proxy they practice by constantly glorifying the supposed all-sufficiency of the inerrant, infallible Bible. You might say, Come on, be fair. Those fundies may reject evolution, but even the most rigidly brittle young-Earth creationists aren’t going around condemning medical science.
Except they are. Not when it comes to lateral epicondylitis, perhaps, not yet.
But this is absolutely what they’re doing when it comes to mental illness and psychological trauma. John Fea provides a helpful overview of the latest clash between so-called “biblical counseling” and medical science. It involves our old friends at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where a long-time professor of pastoral care has just been pushed out following harsh criticism by one of his fellow professors — a “biblical counseling” advocate named Heath Lambert. All but one of the phrases in quotation marks above are things that Lambert has actually said about psychology, which he rejects completely.
The other quotation is from his boss, Southern Seminary’s president, Al Mohler, who shares Lambert’s claim that anything beyond Bible-only counseling involves a rejection of “the wisdom that can come only from God and God’s word.” (When Mohler first led the fundamentalist transformation at Southern, his faculty purge got rid of most of the school’s pastoral care, counseling and social work professors. I always assumed this was mostly because they were among the few women and people of color at the school. Apparently, that was just an added bonus.)
Warren Throckmorton is a psychology professor. He’s also a solidly evangelical fellow who teaches at the solidly evangelical Geneva College. He’s accustomed to some Christians being uneasy about his discipline. “Representing different ways of approaching knowledge, religion depends on revelation and scientifically informed psychology depends on research,” he writes. “For me as a psychology professor at a Christian college, the tension is just another day at work.”Dr. Throckmorton addresses this “tension” with commendable patience:
One way that tension shows up is in the practice and teaching of counseling. Some counselors insist that the Bible is all that should be used in counseling whereas other Christians believe that psychological research should inform selection of techniques. A skirmish in that conflict appears to be taking place at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
… My primary interest in this matter isn’t about a personnel matter at the seminary. Those details will probably remain private. Rather, I want to focus on the conflict between so-called biblical counselors and Christian psychology. While I don’t know what Mr. Lambert’s role was in Johnson’s situation, it does seem clear that Lambert sees himself as a reformer of counseling conducted by Christians.
In the spirit of the Reformation, Lambert recently released “95 Theses for an Authentically Christian Commitment to Counseling.” In this document, Lambert offers a challenge to “secular therapy” for the “purpose of debate.”
I plan to take Lambert up on his offer. While I agree with Lambert that the topic is timely and important, I disagree with his general approach. In future posts, I will outline why I believe that his key claims are incorrect and if followed to the letter could be harmful.
I look forward to reading Throckmorton’s ongoing discussion of this. I hope his irenic, charitable, professional engagement with Lambert’s ideological rejection of science bears fruit.
I also wonder, though, if it’s necessary, appropriate, or ultimately helpful to engage Lambert’s garbage as some kind of legitimate, good-faith effort. His grandiose “95 Theses”* suggests that what science calls mental illness or trauma is merely the need for “the wisdom needed to deal with life’s problems,” which he says can only come from “the contents of the Bible” and “the very same issues that God writes about in his Word.”
(Yeah, he really thinks God wrote the Bible. This is not true. Nor is it what the Bible itself claims or what the Bible allows others to claim about it. But, like his boss Mohler, Lambert holds such a “high view” of scripture that he refuses to be bound by what it actually says.)
Throckmorton’s concern that this “could be harmful” understates the problem. Teaching people that mental illness is merely a function of a lack of “wisdom” is a nasty, venomous bit of trash. This is nonsense that gets people killed.
It’s also a racket — a potentially lucrative side angle that serves to bolster the longer con. By suggesting that their “biblical counseling” model is the only legitimate approach, they are also suggesting that Southern Seminary is thus the only legitimate place to pay for certification. That’s a scam along the lines of Trump University. This shtick also allows them to sell some books and milk the speaking circuit, but that’s just a bit of gravy.
The main function of this is its role in delegitimizing every source of truth, authority and expertise other than themselves. Fundamentalists, like all abusers, need to isolate their victims in order to control them. This is what “biblical counseling” attempts to do — to prevent any of their followers from turning to any other counsel, any other source of assistance, than them. Here, as always, the claim of the all-sufficient authority of “God and God’s word” is nothing more than the claim of their own all-sufficient authority as the exclusive legitimate arbiters of what “God and God’s word” say and mean.
Some might say that it’s overly cynical to regard this “biblical counseling movement” as nothing more than such a naked power play. We have an obligation to presume good faith, they say.
But I’ve been watching these folks do this dirty work for decades. It really isn’t possible to be overly cynical about them. Be as cynical as you can manage, then double that, and you’re still not going to match the cynicism that drives them and everything they do.
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* The attempt there to appropriate the mantle of Martin Luther is morbidly hilarious. Luther himself suffered from what was probably depression and he recognized it was not an exclusively spiritual or biblical condition requiring an exclusively biblical remedy. His counsel for enduring such “melancholy and dejection,” for himself and for others, involved practical advice that often had more to do with clinical care than with anything like the scam of “biblical counseling.”