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Restoring the voice of Tamar: three psychoanalytic views on rape in the bible.

In 2 Samuel 13, the reader is confronted with the tragic and horrific story of Tamar, who is raped and repudiated by her half-brother Amnon, not validated by her brother Absalom, and ignored by her father David. This particular passage can no doubt leave one quite disturbed. Stepping inside the subjective world of a person capable of such acts can evoke feelings in the psychotherapist that are often quite foreign. Although therapists tend to be quite familiar with experiencing sadness, anxiety, despair, and hopelessness with patients, Mitchell and Melikian (1995) note that identifying with a person's sadism and aggressive sexuality can be very unnerving. Indeed, many therapists would find identification with the trauma suffered by Tamar far easier than identifying with Amnon's sexual aggression. While developing an understanding of Amnon's actions does not make them any less reprehensible, such conceptualizations do offer a way to develop a meaningful empathic connection with those who perpetrate such violence.

Toward this aim, three Christian psychologists practicing from three different psychoanalytic perspectives present discussion of the underlying causes and consequences of Amnon's sins against Tamar. Dr. Lowell Hoffman offers a view informed by the British object relations school and its focus on love repudiated and destructiveness. Dr. Earl Bland provides an examination from Kohut's (1984) Self Psychological model in which narcissism, entitlement, and rage emerge from significant failures to meet normal needs for mirroring, idealization and connection. Finally, Dr. Mitchell Hicks explores the passage from a relational intersubjective view focused on the failure of mutual recognition, extreme self assertion at the expense of the subjectivity of the other, and the reversal of doer and done to. It is hoped that this exercise will offer those interested in psychoanalytic ideas an opportunity to see how they may be useful in making sense of complex phenomena.

Object Relations--L. Hoffman

Object relations theory is a paradigmatic shift in psychoanalysis that began with Sandor Ferenczi and the Sutties, Ian and Jane. Freud had privileged nature over nurture and understood nurture as the self-preserving attempts of humanity to contain its natural proclivities toward destructiveness.

Object relations theory starts and ends with love, the paramount posture of nurture. Apart from Melanie Klein, who retained destructive drives and thereby remained aligned with Freud, object relations theorists privilege nurture and understand nature as organized toward the ultimate outcome of seeking and maintaining relationships.

Beginning with the Sutties' work, hate and aggression are not understood as nascent drives, but as merely the result of thwarted love. They effected the epistemological break with drive theory and prefigured W.R.D. Fairbairn's and D.W.Winnicott's writings, which emphasized the maternal environment and de-emphasized Freud's patriarchy. The Sutties also pre-saged Winnicott's interest in play and Bowlby's work with attachment. Bowlby has written a preface to Ian Suttie's only book, The Origins of Love and Hate (1999) originally published in 1935, days after Suttie's tragic and untimely death. Ian and Jane Suttie were Christians and were explicit about their faith in their writing.

Object relations theory borrows heavily from Freud's development of the unconscious and emphasizes repression as the defensive operation that constellates the accretions of unconscious material. According to Klein (1975), a pathologically organized unconscious splits off external and internal affects of anger and hatred toward another which are felt as persecutory. Not only are these persecutory perceptions repressed, but the object (i.e. the person) associated with the feelings of hatred/anger becomes the target of envious, annihilating/rejecting attacks. Additionally, a pathologically organized personality who desires its ideal object (person) will enviously attack this object/person when the desire is unrequited.

In the rape of Tamar, Amnon lusted after his half-sister, but believed he had no chance to asah, translated "do her" (2 Samuel 13:2). Her virginity was essential to her worth as a woman, a commodity waiting to be brokered at her father's choosing. Amnon's hesitancy to act on his longings may be further explicated by Fairbairn's (1952) description of the schizoid position. When a child consistently feels unloved and not valued (especially by the mother), the child understands its love to be destructive and bad--a malignant love which has destroyed the mother's affection. The child assumes a schizoid (withdrawn) position since its love is too dangerous to release. In the service of assisting in Amnon's (schizoid?) hesitancy to pursue his goal of "doing" his sister, Jonadab, his cousin, the son of Shimeah, David's third eldest brother, connived a plan to trick David into bringing Tamar to be alone at Amnon's residence. Alone with Tamar, Amnon shakav or "laid her" (2 Samuel 13:14). The Hebrew is much more graphic than our sanitized translations. Brueggeman (1990) notes "a long established practice of an 'innocent' or 'pious' reading of [this] Samuel narrative." (p. 2).

In a feminist critique of the narrative, Pamela Cooper-White (1995) observes that Tamar is "... the only rape victim in the Old Testament to have a voice and yet all power to act or even speak is taken away from her. It becomes men's business. In the end, the father [David] ... weeps[s] bitterly day after day--not for the victim--but for the perpetrator and the victim's brother" (p. 1). She continues, "The narrator of 2 Samuel 13 portrays Tamar's seduction poignantly, ... but steers us in the direction of primary interest, even sympathy for the men around her." (p. 5).

We can infer from the reference to Amnon's strength during the rape that Tamar struggled valiantly to resist the violation. Tragically, she is forced from Amnon's presence immediately after the rape because of a reversal in his passion from wanting her to despising her. Fairbairn (1952) described this reaction to unrequited love. "Since the joy of loving is barred [by Amnon's unconscious belief that his love is destructive], he may as well deliver himself over to the joy of hating and obtain whatever satisfaction is there." Fairbairn continues, "He thus makes a pact with the devil and says, 'Evil, be thou my good.'" (p. 27).

The double and triple trauma to Tamar yet await her. Upon apprising her beloved brother Absalom of the heinous treachery, Absalom minimizes the crime. He urges her to keep it quiet, to stifle her feelings: "He is your brother, do not take this to heart". Likewise her father David, was very angry, but did nothing. Tamar's end is as "a desolate [childless/husbandless] woman in her brother Absalom's house" (2 Samuel 13:20, New International Version). Inferences from the text suggest she died within the next 5-7 years and in her place Absalom names his daughter Tamar in memory of his deceased sister.

This treachery, which was suppressed and denied in David's family follows in the train of many prior generational treacheries including: Abraham passing off his wife as his sister; Rebecca tricking Isaac into blessing Jacob; Jacob's trickery of Laban; Judah's plot to sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites and his account to Jacob of Joseph's death; Judah's refusal of his third son to an earlier Tamar (his daughter-in-law) and his unknowing entrapment to Tamar's prostituting seduction that yielded her twins Zerah and Perez and Jacob's crossing of his hands to bless Joseph's younger son Ephraim. As a result of David's passivity in the face of Tamar's rape--the transgenerational treachery continued with Absalom's murder of Amnon and Absalom's hatred for his father which drove him to usurp David's throne with the assistance of Joab, David's nephew and son of David's sister, Zeruiah.

The sins of David's fathers were visited down 13 generations from Abraham through Jesse and continued their treacherous trajectories through the ongoing debacles of the divided kingdom. The untold human suffering that occurred in David's line of ancestors and descendants climaxed in the life of a Man of Sorrows who was acquainted with grief. He alone drank from the cup that made men stagger, that caused their children to lie in a stupor at every street corner--and survived. (Isa. 51:17-20; Matt. 28:6).

Sue Grand (2000), contemporary relational psychoanalyst, writing in the object relations tradition, poignantly depicts the annihilating unconscious dynamics of "Evil, be thou my good" which our Lord experienced, survived, conquered, and delivers us from:

Evil seduces with its perverse promise of recognition. Evil will always be constituted so that victim after victim is accompanied by her perpetrator to the obscure solitude of extinction. In each new victim, the perpetrator shares his own catastrophic loneliness, in what [Christopher] Bollas calls the "companionship of the dead." Evil always reaches its terminus in the shared loneliness and in the shared disappearance of selves. (Grand, 2000, p.7)

Self Psychology--E. Bland

To some degree the current theoretical exposition is a violation of a basic principle in self psychology--that of the empathic introspective position. Kohut (1984) believed categorically in the primacy of empathy as the most effective method of psychoanalytic inquiry. We discern the meaning and significance of events through empathic immersion and vicarious introspection into the subjective self-experience of the other. Despite this limitation, however, it is not difficult to imagine the destructive emotional and relational dynamics that must have plagued David's family during the tragedy of Tamar's rape and the subsequent killing of her assailant and half brother Amnon by her brother Absalom. The powerful needs and expressions of rage in this narrative evoke both sorrow and outrage authenticating the scriptural portend that sins of the father will be visited upon the children (Numbers 14:18). Amnon's lustful and violent bedding of Tamar echo's their father David's scandalous assignation with Bathsheba and the subsequent murder of her husband to cover the crime. Unified in their unhinged passion, both father and son give play to their desire beyond reasonable boundaries. "Such a thing should not be done in Israel!" (2 Samuel 13:12).

Given the epic and archetypal nature of this family tragedy one way to demonstrate a self psychological perspective is to analyze the Amnon/Tamar narrative in the context of the well travelled Oedipal myth so central to the classical psychoanalytic vision. First, let us review relevant self-psychological principles followed by a brief review of the story in light of Oedipal themes. We will end with a reinterpretation of the drama using the concepts of self psychology.

Theory review

Self psychology, as its name suggests, is a psychology preoccupied with the development, organization, and maintenance of the self. A broad and elusive term, the self is understood as the subjective experience of I. Inescapably paradoxical, the self is both structure and process wherein conscious and unconscious memory, knowing, and initiative coalesce in one's sense of self-esteem, efficacy, and vitality. The self emerges within a complex matrix of motives and organizes patterns of relational connection which provide self sustaining functions called selfobject experiences. These selfobject experiences refer ". to those affective experiences that are sought by the self to build and maintain, or restore, cohesion" (Lichtenberg, Lachman & Fosshage, 1992, p.122). A responsive selfobject environment not only acts to transform early narcissism into vital ambitions and ideals; relationships are required for ongoing selfobject experiences. A healthy self is generative and connected with permeable boundaries that allow "a deeply felt presence of another in one's experiential world" (Geist, 2008a, p. 132).

Alternatively, development in the context of empathically barren and misattuned environment compromises the self. Unregulated loss, trauma, or persistent selfobject failure results in a deficient development of the self, ". a derailment of normal narcissism" (Silverstein, 2007, p.35). Powerful and infantile self needs for idealization, mirroring and connection remain intact, leaving the adult with an enfeebled and unsteady self structure. This compromised self organization leaves one exceedingly sensitive to selfobject failures as the internal self is empty of meaningful emotional selfobject ties, making it prone to episodes of fragmentation. Fearing collapse the self responds to fragmentation threats with defensive soothing or narcissistic rage. The subjective emotional experience of fragmentation is one of shame, helplessness, rage, and loss.

Amnon, Tamar, and Absalom--tragic selves

Upon reflection it is not hard to see the oedipal themes running through the story. Consider that Amnon is David's eldest son and in direct succession to the throne. Absalom is next in line, most likely due to the premature death of his older brother Chileab. Remember also that Absalom and his sister Tamar are children of royalty from both parents. Amnon's mother, on the other hand, is of less than noble birth. Despite being raised in separate households Amnon would have no doubt known of Absalom's voracious ambition and seen him as a threat. Amnon's Oedipal wish, however, to kill the father and possess his phallic power by lying with the mother is a dangerous quest. David is a treacherous figure, a war lord brought to power by overthrowing the father of his best friend, and he has already committed premeditated murder to protect his throne. Amnon resolves his sexual and aggressive strivings by displacing them onto Tamar. In the rape of his half-sister, Amnon asserts his phallic power (equal to that of David) and shames the family of his rival for succession. Absalom, of course, shamed by his sister's weakness, enacts his own Oedipal drama by slaying the only impediment between him and his father. Symbolically, Amnon's murder was a trial run, "If not, at least let my brother Amnon go with us" (2 Samuel 13:26). In time, Absalom would make a bid for his father's throne.

In contrast to a more classic psychoanalytic interpretation based on sexual and aggressive drive motives, how would self psychology view the drama differently? Remember that in self psychology the self develops appropriately in a responsive and empathic selfobject milieu where narcissistic strivings of entitlement, grandiosity and idealization are transformed into realistic and appropriate ambitions and ideals. Aggression from this perspective is not an inherent and inevitable expression of the human condition. Aggression is a byproduct of selfobject failure.

When needs, assertions, and grandiosity are empathically understood and validated the child is able to use connection with the parent to soothe and temper anger, eroticized feelings, competition, and envy. In this light self psychology does not need to deny that Oedipal passions may exist (Geist, 2008b). As Ornstein (1980) points out, when the child feels a deep selfobject connection with the parents these passions are experienced in a way that further consolidates the self. Anger, competition, and the sexualization of feelings are empathically held and allowed to appropriately disperse as deep connection and care help the child integrate these unwieldy emotions into a mature sense of self.

In the case of Amnon, Tamar and Absalom it is conceivable that such an empathic early environment was unavailable. Amnon was most likely born when David was king in Hebron as the struggle for power in Israel was still in progress. Preoccupied with politics of domestic reign and an ongoing war David would have been unavailable as a responsive selfobject to his children. Although we do not know the state of David's household it is likely that the wives lived in separate dwellings with their children and that competition amongst the different households existed--who would curry the favor of the King?

For Amnon and Absalom the needed selfobject mirroring and the availability of a responsive and ideal parent imago were missing. Contained in the privileged but emotionally disconnected royal family, both would have grown up with weakened self-structures. Their longing for a responsive selfobject experience of admiration from the idealized father remained active but hidden behind expectations that one should seek power and dominance within the family setting. Vulnerable and dependent selfobject needs for love, soothing, and connection were not mirrored or affirmed. The only manner by which one could attain connection was through the patterned relational pathways of dominance and power. Unable to give conscious consideration to his deep need for connection and soothing Amnon experiences his selfobject longing disguised in the proscribed but more tolerable form of lustful desire. Amnon is unable to consider the subjectivity of Tamar as a woman with valid and primary claim to her personhood. She is an instrument of narcissistic gratification. Amnon's sense of entitlement dismisses cultural and familial taboos and sees her refusal--even compromised hesitancy--as an injury to his grandiose claim. His actions boldly state: I am the King's heir apparent, I deserve what I want.

Once the soothing of his selfobject need is accomplished Amnon is ashamed. Although the classical view might see Amnon's expulsion of Tamar after the rape as evidence of guilt feelings for having transgressed a sexual boundary; from the view of self psychology Amnon's "intense hatred," greater than the love he previously felt is most clearly seen as the flush of shame. A unique self experience shame motivates one to hide, to not let one's vulnerability show. But why so intense? "Get this woman out of here and bolt the door after her" (2 Samuel 13:17). Consider that Amnon's needs for affection, tenderness, and love, unconsciously retain the idyllic grandiosity wherein he wishes for the perfect union with the perfect object as a reinforcement of his own perfection. Moreover, is it possible that Amnon is performing for his father, a wish to have his father admire his own vitality by demonstrating sexual decisiveness? Yet violence and entitled taking does not produce the reverie of shared connection so longed for. In the moment after orgasmic release, when drivenness is abated, Amnon is faced with the starkness of his continued hunger for selfobject responsiveness and the destructiveness of his rage. Despite having just completed an act of utmost intimacy, the emptiness of his inner self remains. The lack of reciprocity repeats the trauma of his childhood. In his own self-contained narcissistic cycle Amnon desires connection with an idealized figure and affirmation of his own narcissistic strivings, yet pursues it in a manner that guarantees he will be left unfulfilled.

For Absalom the assault on his own entitled experience is immense. Like Amnon, he does not see the subjective experience of Tamar "Be quiet now, my sister, he is your brother. Don't take this thing to heart." (2 Samuel 13:20). In some ways Absalom's self-structure is more solidified than Amnon. Absalom is able to temper his passions, holding onto his rage for years. His eventual commission of fratricide is not an expression of a biologically induced aggressive drive to assure the ascendency of his progeny. Rather, Absalom's rage contains both shame for not protecting his sister and a displaced frustration at his father who was unable to validate his grandiose wishes. No doubt David's tacit approval of Amnon's rape by refusing to seek justice for Tamar is an assault on Absalom's sense of self. Absalom's needs and strivings are of secondary importance and only find their place after Amnon. The removal of Amnon from the sight of David is Absalom's only solution that will allow him the potential of catching the gleam of his father's eye and quieting the shame of narcissistic injury. To conclude, from a self psychology perspective violence and aggressive sexual taking may be common human experiences but they are not inevitable. Destructiveness is a sign of a deeper need for validation and connection; the need for empathy and love.

Intersubjective--M. Hicks

At the beginning of this passage Amnon is driving himself mad with fantasies regarding Tamar. What could be the meaning of these idealizing fantasies? One possibility is that Tamar as the pristine and snow-white virgin is representing moral purity, and he may have a wish to identify himself with this purity in an attempt to fend off unconscious shame. The text tells us that her status as a virgin was clearly identifiable to all because of the clothing that she wore-perhaps a symbol of the supposed righteousness of King David and his family that stands in stark contrast to the judgment pronounced by the Lord on David's house just one chapter before. This history no doubt has had a significant impact on the intersubjective field of David's house. Yet when considering Benjamin's (1999) contributions, we must recognize that "all fantasy is the negation of the real other, whether the fantasy's content is negative or idealized" (p. 197). Rather than relating to Tamar as an independent subject with feelings, desires and rights, Amnon is already distraught that he cannot "do anything" to her. In short, he is already denying her status as a subject.

It is at this point that Amnon's friend and cousin Jonadab enters the scene. The text describes Jonadab as a very "shrewd" man, and he asks in an almost rhetorical manner why a son of the king, a person of such privilege and prestige, should have to suffer such sadness and deprivation. With this change in the intersubjective field, Amnon seems to experience an increased level of entitlement that for the first time allows him to consider actually manipulating even the king himself to serve Tamar up to his lustful desires (or at least as permission to do so). Although this plan was suggested by Jonadab, Amnon seems to experience a major shift in his own level of entitlement and shrewdness. He begins to contemplate what is rightfully his as a prince and the extent to which he is willing to go in order to secure it.

This scene with Jonadab ushers in a major shift in Amnon's subjective state. As has already been insinuated above it is quite difficult to suggest that Amnon's preoccupation with Tamar had much to do with true love. Not only did he not consider simply asking her to marry, he seems to become all the more enraged when she refuses his advances and instead requests that they marry first. If his sexual urges truly had been born out of a love of Tamar as a person, this would have been a cause for celebration. But instead Amnon becomes enraged and defiles her. What could produce this?

In her rebuke of him she sent a very clear message. By stating that "such things" (e.g., forcing a woman to have sex against her will) are not done in Israel was a communication that this was a violation of the Torah, and that following through would place him amongst the fools of Israel. No doubt this was experienced as a narcissistic injury that fueled such a high degree of entitlement and sense of privilege that he cannot hear Tamar's entreaty, one that may have stimulated an underlying sense of unbearable shame and humiliation that he defended against with rage. Further, she is communicating clearly that she is not interested in the same thing right now as Amnon. Benjamin (1999) observes:

The initial response to [the discovery that we do not want the same thing] is a breakdown of recognition between self and other: I insist on my way, I refuse to recognize you, I begin to try to coerce you, and therefore I experience your refusal as a reversal: you are coercing me." (Benjamin, 1999, p. 194)

We have already established that Amnon was failing to recognize Tamar's status as a subject, but in this portion of the text we see the level of destructiveness achievable when narcissism, disowned shame, extreme entitlement, and a failure of recognition and empathy occur.

As this horrible scene ends, the Benjamin (1999) quote above offers insight into yet another great insult toward Tamar in Amnon's attitude toward her, which is marked by hatred and repudiation of her. Although it is not stated in the text, it could be inferred that Amnon has experienced Tamar as forcing him to rape her, not only as a disavowal of his agency but also as a denial of both her subjectivity and his own. It is as if he is saying, "how dare you force me to force you! I hate you! Get out of my sight!" Rather than viewing his own behavior as repugnant and shameful, he sends Tamar away in a disgrace that she bears for the rest of her life. Amnon has succeeded in destroying this image of purity, and has managed to disown his own self hatred. It is as if with this forced, aggressive sexual act Tamar found herself penetrated with the shame and brokenness that Amnon himself could not bear. In short, this extreme act of aggression became a way to dispose of a bad feeling (Benjamin, 1990, 1999, 2004; Lichtenberg, 2008).

Before concluding, it would be appropriate to briefly examine what this approach might offer regarding an understanding about what led to this regression. In an analysis informed by feminism, Benjamin (1988, 1999) suggests that viewing women as objects rather than subjects is woven into the social fabric of a patriarchal society, and that men often assert power and dominance over women out of dread and retaliation from the days of the omnipotent mother who dared to assert her own will. Thus, in Amnon's heinous crime we might hypothesize that he is enacting vengeance on the mother of his infancy in response to the rage that he felt but was never able to resolve. Within a society dominated by men where women were often viewed as property, with the transgressions of his father, and with a perceived entitlement to sex and perhaps whatever else his royal heart desired, Amnon entered a fit of unbridled rage that blinded him to Tamar's position as subject. This was a perfect storm for an act of sexual violence. It seems useful to also consider Stolorow and Atwood's (1992) conceptualization of the dynamic unconscious as those things denied articulation via repression or other defenses because of their perceived associations with threats to important emotional ties. With this in mind, let us consider the Biblical text. While very little is known about Amnon before this point, it is clear that his father David also had some difficulties with destructiveness and using others for his own gain; a problem that seems to have continued given his complete lack of concern for what had been done to Tamar. It is therefore possible that expression of these types of feelings during more formative years was met with disapproval or worse and David, and perhaps Amnon's mother, attempted to deny this aspect of David's character (Lichtenberg, 2008).


In closing, two final issues merit consideration. One of the most disturbing aspects of this passage is its silence with respect to Tamar. There is a stunning lack of concern for her plight shown even by her father; instead David mourns for his son. Although the authors of this article are male, each independently sought to restore Tamar's voice through recognition of the sexual and psychological violence done to her. Further, each of us has drawn to varying degrees on the work of feminist psychoanalysts and Biblical scholars.

Second, one may ask if Amnon's acts should be considered to be so beyond the bounds that few but the most sinful and ill could commit them. That is, are his sins so beyond the humanly comprehensible? To endorse this would be a denial of the universal fallenness of humanity. By believing that such actions are beyond one's ability, the effects of sinfulness in one's own life are disavowed. Further, Benjamin (1999) asserts that there is nothing inherently unusual about failing to see the other as a subject--all are expected to fail at this at least some of the time. It even has some adaptive value, such as in the expression of creativity or in the ability to perform surgical procedures. What is important is whether or not mutuality can be restored quickly, and becomes pathology only when it becomes a rigid way of relating or spurs violence and mistreatment as is the case in this passage. A similar notion can be found in the sex offender treatment literature. For example, Ward and Hudson (2000) theorize that those who commit acts of sexual aggression are seeking in destructive ways universal human "goods," such as autonomy, relatedness, happiness, creativity, and mastery. Lapses in mutual recognition or seeking some human "good" is not in and of itself sinful, but rather establishes necessary yet insufficient conditions that lend themselves to offense.


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Mitchell W. Hicks

Walden University School of Psychology

Earl D. Bland

MidAmerica Nazarene University

Lowell W. Hoffman

Brookhaven Center for Counseling & Development


Mitchell W. Hicks (Ph.D. in clinical psychology, University of Cincinnati; Certificate, Adult Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Program, Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis; ABPP Clinical Psychology) is core faculty in clinical psychology at Walden University, and maintains a private practice in Arlington Heights, Illinois. His interests include psychoanalysis and Christian faith, sexual addiction, and the psychology of men.

Earl D. Bland, (Psy.D. in Clinical Psychology, Illinois School of Professional Psychology) is a Professor of Psychology at MidAmerica Nazarene University in Olathe, KS and a Licensed Psychologist. His research and professional interests include psychoanalytic psychology, integration of psychology and Christianity, psychologist/clergy collaboration and narcissistic disorders.

Lowell W. Hoffman (Ph.D., Clinical Psychology, Union Institute; Certificate, Post-Doctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis, New York University; M.A.R., Theology, Westminister Seminary) is clinical psychologist/co-director of the Brookhaven Center for Counseling & Development in Allentown, PA., and is co-director, Society for the Exploration of Psychoanalytic Therapies and Theology.

The authors are grateful to John Carter, Ph.D. who initially conceptualized this article and moderated an expanded presentation of the paper at the 2009 International Convention of the Christian Association for Psychological Studies in Orlando, Florida. Please address correspondence regarding this article to Mitchell W. Hicks, Ph.D., 1655 North Arlington Heights Road, Suite 205E, Arlington Heights, IL 60004;
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Author:Hicks, Mitchell W.; Bland, Earl D.; Hoffman, Lowell W.
Publication:Journal of Psychology and Christianity
Date:Jun 22, 2010
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