Exploring Psychology and Christian Faith: An Introductory Guide
Reviewed by Kristina M. Kays, Psychology, George Fox University
Paul Moes and Donald J. Tellinghuisen present the value of exploring psychology through five theological lenses. These respected Calvin College psychology faculty suggest that human nature is best understood through an analysis which combines theological underpinnings and psychological assumptions. Exploring Psychology and Christian Faith: An Introductory Guide examines the intersection of psychology and Christian faith through the common chapter headings one would find in a general psychology textbook. A primary frame the authors identify clarifies five themes that illustrate aspects of human nature from a biblical perspective. These themes are:
- Relational persons: We are made in the image of God, meant for relationship with him and meant to steward his creation.
- Broken, in need of redemption: We are sinners in need of salvation through Christ, living in and part of creation that suffers the consequences of all humanity’s sin.
- Embodied: We bear God’s image in real bodies in a real world.
- Responsible limited agents: We make choices (within constraints) that result in actions for which we are both individually and corporately responsible.
- Meaning seekers: We seek to make sense of our surroundings, our experience, and our purpose through perceiving patterns, creative meaning making, and desire for a deity (ix).
These orthodox Christian themes of human nature are explored well and succinctly in chapter 1, and establish a foundation for the remainder of the text.
The rest of the text explores 13 common introductory psychology topics from research methodology, to sensation and perception, to social psychology, and finishes with clinical therapy. This breadth of topics serves the authors’ stated purpose of providing a text as “a useful companion to introductory psychology textbooks for students who are interested in the intersection of Christian faith and psychology” (xi).
The book is well written; however, it is written with a higher reading level than the majority of introductory textbooks. This could lead to challenges for some students. Instructors may need to consider this difference and frame the reading carefully, while potentially considering some carefully constructed scaffolding assignments early on in the term in order to assure reading comprehension could mitigate these issues.
Each chapter concludes with a minimum of four discussion or reflection questions which may be included in class assignments or term papers. Many of these questions are typical and expected responses to the specific topics. One example from the chapter that addresses learning asks, “How has modeling from others influenced how you behave?” (106). Fortunately, the authors frequently take it a step further by offering a follow-up question to provoke the reader to consider how his or her own actions may be a role model for others. In the case of this chapter, a follow-up question asks, “Can you think of situations where you came to a deeper understanding of some issue or problem through ‘relationality’—in other words in the context of community or social interaction?” (106).
Some of these chapter questions are quite impactful and could help students understand key aspects of theology, Christian faith, and the integration of psychology. For example, one question at the end of the chapter on psychological disorders encourages the reader to consider, “Why does God allow people to have these difficulties?” (235). This question haunts many of us at times throughout our lives. This matter can be a particular personal challenge when we see people we care about facing such things as cancer diagnoses or unexpected losses. Providing a framework for conversation or personal reflection can establish a much more effective synthesis of learning. Thus, this type of question stands out as a key value of this book.
This text is a recommended companion to traditional introductory psychology texts, particularly for those who want to understand psychology within a Christian worldview. While there are other texts available that consider the integration of psychology and Christianity, there are none available that set out to provide a companion perspective to introductory psychology texts. Exploring Psychology and Christian Faith: An Introductory Guide allows a student or reader new to the field of psychology to grasp a number of the psychological essentials from key subject areas, while considering these concepts through an orthodox Christian lens.
As an introductory text, the authors do a sufficient job addressing the subjects with enough material to provide a foundation. It is essential to note that this text is not comprehensive enough to be a replacement for an introductory text. Some chapters are better crafted and more succinct than others. I found the last three chapters on personality, disorders, and therapy to be good examples of effective chapters, while others, such as the chapters on thinking and development, seemed too limited for the topic, perhaps because the authors assumed that the reader will come with some broader background to the subject. Some of this nuancing seems likely to be the result of the authors’ specialties, combined with the vast material to cover. Regardless, each chapter provides enough of a foundation in the subject matter for the reader to begin their analysis of Christian perspectives intersecting psychology.
There are times where the authors weigh in more heavily with Calvinistic perspectives regarding the foundation to the Christian viewpoint. However, this is not heavy handed, and there is a clear, deliberate attempt to represent a general orthodox Christian perspective. Some readers not familiar with Calvinistic views may find areas of stronger bias. This bias lessens when the book is read in its entirety. This suggests that a complete reading is a better approach than using isolated selections.
The authors weave the five themes illustrating aspects of human nature into many of the chapters, primarily in the conclusion and application sections of each chapter. One of the more exceptional examples is found in chapter 15, “In Search of Normalcy (Psychological Disorders).” This chapter reviews the common Christian responses to mental health issues and concludes with a clear outline of how these issues are best understood within the five themes found in humankind. The strength of comparing Christian faith and psychology is evident in the framing of mental health issues within the context of (the five themes) relationships, individual brokenness, biological contributions, cognitive/behavioral choice, and existential purpose which mirror the perspective of conceptualizing clinical issues within a biopsychosocial-spiritual framework. In this example, understanding from this themed perspective broadens the understanding for both those dealing directly with mental health issues and those providing supportive services for those involved.
As an example of the five themes, this chapter addresses the role of both sinful individual and institutional actions alongside the biological influences of mental health challenges. For instance, depression is a mental disorder that can be influenced by genetics, learning, broken relationships, sinful choices, and a lack of understanding that one bears God’s image. A larger understanding of influences on human experience can be empowering and place a sense of true agency with those that are equipped to address mental health concerns. The challenge is for readers from Christian foundations to be those who encourage the Christian community to address all of these factors with compassion and intention. This is potentially valuable as a response for readers of all the chapters from this text.
Encouraging Christian scholars and students to think critically about what they learn and read about psychology and other disciplines is the clear purpose of this text. Moes and Tellinghuisen accomplish their goal of providing a companion text for introductory psychology courses. In addition, this text would be of value for faculty in the field of psychology exploring a broader understanding of the integration of psychology and Christian faith. This text could also be included in a Christian institution’s undergraduate psychology capstone class as a valuable addition to critical thinking assignments. While not a replacement for an introductory psychology text, this volume fills a unique niche in the field of Christian higher education. Exploring Psychology and Christian Faith: An Introductory Guide has the ability to encourage readers to greater understanding, compassion, and intentional action. For Christian colleges and universities ready to include a quality discussion of Christian faith and psychology, this book is an essential read.