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Religion and the personality

11 November 2016

Ann Holmes reads a psychological text


Human Being: Insights from psychology and the Christian faith
Jocelyn Bryan
SCM Press £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50


THIS thoughtful and well-written book is a substantial contribution to the growing literature that develops the dialogue between psychology and theology.

The author, a psychologist, teaches at a theological college and, one senses, has perhaps written this book at the request of generations of grateful students. While that might put off those who eschew textbook material, the easy and coherent style of writing makes this a desirable addition to the bookshelves of practical theologians and experienced clergy, as well as those in training.

Structurally, the book is conceived in two parts. The first part considers the interpretation of story as a source of revelation both in psychology and the Christian faith. After an introductory chapter, chapters 2 and 3 examine the common theme of narrative within theology and psychology. Chapter 4 focuses on personality, and examines different psychological approaches and theories of personality, before considering how Christian faith can influence or change personality.

In the second part of the book, the author draws on Dan McAdams’s three-level description of personality, of traits, goals and motivation, and life story. Chapter 5 focuses on goals and motivation. In chapter 6, Jocelyn Bryan explores how our relationships from the first stages of life affect the development of our personalities and personal narratives.

In chapter 7, the relationship between how we interpret a situation, what we feel, and how we respond provides a focus for a helpful dialogue between the disciplines. Chapter 8 examines the psychology of self-regulation and reflects on it as the divided self, citing St Paul. This leads into chapter 9 and the impact of self-evaluation and self-esteem, a concept viewed with caution in both theology and psychology.

The final chapter picks up on Erik Erikson’s later life-stages with a return to narrative and the question “Have I lived my life well?” Those who are able to see a redemptive pattern in their experience sustain hope and commitment in their story.

Bryan’s stated aim is to “enrich a Christian description and understanding of what it means to be a human being” and be “a resource which will transform our understanding of ourselves and others”. This at first seems ambitious, but could well be true for those who are unfamiliar with the many sources on which she draws.

I see this readable book as complementary to The Psychology of Christian Character Formation by Joanna Collicutt (Books, 14 August 2015) and Psychology for Pastoral Contexts by Jessica Rose (Books, 14 March 2014), both of whom have drawn on clinical experience as well as academic literature. The absence of any reference to either of these works is a minor shortfall in an otherwise thorough bibliography. Overall, I strongly recommend this book.


The Revd Anne Holmes, a former NHS mental-health chaplain, is a psychotherapist and self-supporting minister in Oxford diocese.

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