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Psychology and the Bible: A New Way to Read the Scriptures.

PSYCHOLOGY AND THE BIBLE: A NEW WAY TO READ THE SCRIPTURES (4 volumes). J. Harold Ellens and Wayne G. Rollins (Eds.). West port, CN: Praeger. 2004. Pp. 1424. $315.00.

Adequately describing a work of this magnitude is like touring Los Angeles in a day--while possible, many things will be missed. This four volume set is a significant addition to the literature, but like Los Angeles there are both skyscrapers and tenements, sea breeze and smog, airports and amusement parks.

Being released only one year after a similar set of four volumes edited by Ellens, titled The Destructive Power of Religion, and now succeeded by the single volume work Sex in the Bible in 2006, it is clear what Ellens is doing in retirement--editing! Dr. Ellens is the former executive director of the Christian Association for Psychological Studies, the founding editor of The Journal of Psychology and Christianity, and the author, coauthor, or editor of an astounding 78 books.

Each of these four volumes considers a variety of psychological opinions on biblical and theological content. volume one, subtitled "From Freud to Kohut," surveys selected theories of psychology and how each views the Bible and biblical content. The second volume, "From Genesis to Apocalyptic Vision," examines the Old Testament record using psychological perspectives. This is followed by a third volume devoted to the New Testament, titled "From Gospel to Gnostics." The series concludes with the final volume, "From Christ to Jesus," which narrows the focus to the four gospel accounts of the life of Christ.

The forward reveals that this series grew out of an increased interest in interdisciplinary studies, as well as the 1960s critique of the positivist assumptions of the Enlightenment, which eventually gave birth to Postmodern thought. The essays are concerned with the relative health and pathology of biblical writers, their interpreters, and the communities within which they functioned, although these may sometimes be more implicit than explicit to the biblical text. The implication is that scripture can influence the individual in either a psychological healthy or unhealthy manner. The reviewers suggest that the degree of health resulting is primarily a function of the interpretation provided.

Volume 1 builds from the historical shifts in both biblical studies and psychology that have produced a bridge between what were often antagonistic fields. Considering scripture from a wide variety of psychological approaches an interdisciplinary hermeneutical approach is explored.

Subsequent chapters in this initial book of the series considers topics such as Hebrew sexuality, Jung's approach to literary and dream analysis as an interpretive lens for scripture, and a developmental stage perspective of Adam and Eve. In one provocative chapter, exiled Jews are understood to be experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, with Isaiah 52 and 53 serving as a means of coping with their loss.

In a concluding chapter of the first volume Ellens describes his own interdisciplinary pilgrimage, from the founding of the present journal to the writing and editing of the book being reviewed here. Throughout this quest, the appropriateness of dialogue between psychology and the Bible are underscored. Three principles are offered in the development of a model of illuminating both fields of study: recognition of the independence of truth in each field, the validity of each depends upon the degree to which they challenge and enlarge the vision of the other area, and that both scholars of scripture and psychology should see themselves as "midwives" of truth rather than "possessors" of truth.

The second volume extends many of the perspectives summarized in volume one to specific passages of scripture. The account of Jacob wrestling with God is interpreted as the ongoing attempt to find meaning in life, as one "wrestles" with opposing aspects of the self. Like Jacob, we express fear, admit guilt, and attempt to relate to one another, including estranged brothers.

Ellens picks up the developmental theme introduced in volume one and expands the account of the fall of humanity in Genesis 2 and 3 as parallel to the experience of adolescence in modern life, marked by childish dependence moving to assertive distance and culminating in adult responsibility. A later chapter returns to the story of Jacob separating and later reuniting with Esau, an example of the individuation process described by Jung. The roles of humor and the unconscious mind are considered in the book of Jonah. The volume concludes with a chapter on mourning and grief, as reflected in the book of Ezra.

In volume three there is a shift of focus to the New Testament, beginning with an important piece that underscores the tendency for many readers of scripture to highlight personal meaning rather than social implications. Several chapters consider the psychological dynamics of the crucifixion, attempting to infuse meaning into the death of Christ apart from a literal resurrection. For those who embrace the historic Christian faith, such a premise is troubling to say the least. A later chapter that traces possible defense mechanisms in Paul's writings is, by contrast, intriguing albeit unconvincing.

Volume four begins by delving into the quest for the historical Jesus, a quest that long has been pursued in some theological circles. After a brief synopsis of this movement, the editor has arranged several chapters proposing psychobiographies of Jesus from both contemporary and historical psychologists. Later in this final volume an attempt is made at deconstructing any such quest for a historical Jesus, reducing that quest to a meaningful myth primarily based on personal assumptions.

This four-volume work represents an immense amount of work, which brings with it many limitations. The emphasis throughout is upon Jungian theory. Almost as common is the use of systems theory, object relations theory, Freudian and Neo-Freudian perspectives. Less often cognitive, developmental, and social psychological theory enter the spotlight. While this diversity is helpful, one wonders why there are so many chapters that make use of Jung and yet other theories--such as behaviorism--are almost entirely ignored. As has been noted, there also is a decidedly non-Evangelical tone to many of the chapters; the possibility that the biblical account may reflect what actually took place seems to never be considered by many of the authors.

Perhaps it is helpful to think of this work as a hermeneutical experiment--how can psychological theory be used to explain biblical content? such an attempt is fraught with danger--not only the sacrificing of spirituality on the altar of naturalism and reductionism, but also the likelihood of sacrificing exegesis in favor of eisegesis. The biblical text carries little or no authority in the process. it is an interesting experiment, though the product may reveal more about psychologists and psychological theory than it does about the scripture. At the same time, such an analysis can meaningfully inform readers of their own psychological influences that may produce a less than faithful rendering of the text. Where does such analysis stop informing and begin distorting the text? The answer is often unclear. While the experiment may be interesting, apart from any scriptural authority, evaluating the accuracy of many conclusions found in these volumes is difficult if not impossible. After all, there is no statistical test for hermeneutical credibility.

Reviewed by Donald E. Ratcliff (Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL) and Stephen E. Ratcliff (Wheaton College graduate student, Wheaton, IL).
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Author:Ratcliff, Donald E.; Ratcliff, Stephen E.
Publication:Journal of Psychology and Christianity
Date:Jun 22, 2009
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