A FRIEND of mine saw that I was reading The Bible and Mental Health. Just coming up to the third anniversary of her 20-year-old son’s losing his fight with depression and taking his own life, she spoke about the pages at the front of the Gideon Bibles which tell you which psalms to read when you are desperate, sleepless, worried, or feeling inadequate. Several of the chapters of this book focus on the psalms as expressing the full range of mental health. No chapter in the book sees anxiety, depression, or suffering as failures of faith.
Many clergy will have been taught courses in theology and psychology, some will have been trained in the Pastoral Counselling Movement inspired by Frank Lake; so bringing the Bible and mental health together is not as new as the introduction appears to suggest.
What is new is the adjusting of the lens used on biblical texts by eminent biblical scholars to show the way in which the Bible bears witness to the human experiences of mental-health challenges. This is an important step when, as the Archbishop of Canterbury acknowledges in the foreword, the Church has not always been good at talking about mental health or supporting those with mental health challenges.
Mental illness and mental well-being are both aspects of our understanding of mental health today, and both weave in and out of the chapters; but they cannot be lifted as concepts from the pages of scripture. St Paul, Paula Gooder reminds us, would not split mind and body as we do, and, were he asked to point to his mind, would quite probably point to his heart as the place where thought and emotion intertwined, or his whole body, where reason, emotion, imagination, will, and consciousness all resided and were expressed.
This is a book about the Bible, not a handbook for pastors seeking information about the specifics of mental-health challenges. It is a collection of articles to dip into and be enriched by. Narrative is a strong theme. Chapters in Part 1 on “Biblical Theology”, and Part 2, “Biblical Case Studies”, enable the reader to grapple with the experiences of Job, Jeremiah, the Gerasene demoniac, and more.
The final four chapters (of a total of 15) in Part 3, “Practical Focus”, all begin with contemporary experience of mental-health challenges, as you would expect from a pastoral or practical theological stance. These address pastoral care, congregational life, trauma, and resilience.
There is a great deal of further work of collaboration to arrive at a biblical theology of mental health, work that should have alongside it a pastoral theology addressing key aspects of church life, such as using the Bible in preaching, teaching the faith to children and young people, and scripture seen with the lenses of suicide and self-harm.
In my experience of visiting churches Sunday by Sunday, psalms are not often heard and are rarely preached on. The psalms dear to my friend in her grief, explored by many of the writers in this book, are still provided free in hotels and to schoolchildren by the Gideons. Perhaps we might begin our thinking about how the fullness of scripture can be brought to bear on the fullness of human experience, by hearing them more in church.
The Ven. Dr Justine Allain Chapman is the Archdeacon of Boston in the diocese of Lincoln and the author of Resilient Pastors: The role of adversity in healing and growth (SPCK, 2012) and The Resilient Disciple: A Lenten journey from adversity to maturity (SPCK, 2018).
The Bible and Mental Health: Towards a biblical theology of mental health
Christopher C. H. Cook and Isabelle Hamley, editors
SCM Press £25
Church Times Bookshop £20