Book Review

"Ministry with Persons with Mental Illness and their Families" Edited by Robert H. Albers, William H. Meller, and Steven D. Thurber

Rev. Stephen Donovan
Robert H. Albers
Tuesday, July 1st 2014
Jul/Aug 2014

In this scholarly textbook, eighteen authors collaborate in an effort "to develop an integrated and interrelated approach that honors the work of the specialists in psychiatry, psychology, and theology" (5). Even though the overall tone leans toward the clinical (with no shortage of medical, scientific, and public health terminology), most of the authors are to be commended for translating the jargon into language that is generally accessible. Their effort is limited to nine diagnoses out of hundreds "that are either most common in this society [i.e., Western society] or are most challenging" (8), such as depression, anxiety disorders, psychotic disorders, personality disorders, substance-use disorders, eating disorders, autism, acquired brain injury, and dementia.

The authors come "together in an interdisciplinary, collaborative effort to ensure accuracy of information concerning the medical dimensions of mental illness, interpret these illnesses from a faith perspective, and make suggestions relative to effective ministry. Readers will learn how science and a faith tradition can not only coexist but work in tandem to alleviate the pain of the afflicted and affected." This threefold purpose finds expression in every chapter, each addressing a single diagnosis (or diagnostic group) in the following manner: first, an exemplary case study; second, a psychiatric or psychological presentation of clinical features and social implications of the diagnosis; and third, a theological presentation of ideas for ministering (i.e., caregiving) to persons with mental illness and their families.

The psychiatrist and psychologist contributors are concerned with overcoming both ignorance and misinformation about how they understand and approach the treatment of mental illness. Overall, I found the "accuracy of information concerning the medical dimensions of mental illness" to be good and helpful in their descriptions. If you have not already encountered family, friends, or congregants fitting the descriptions offered here, I agree with the editors that you most likely will. I have known and ministered to at least one person fitting each description, most of whom have a working knowledge of their clinical diagnosis and corresponding vocabulary. The psychiatric/psychological presentations are well suited to help the reader apprehend how clinical professionals and their patients understand and communicate these disorders.

I did not find the authors' interpretations of "these illnesses from a faith perspective" nearly so helpful. It became evident early on that I do not share many of the authors' religious convictions. I therefore found myself often struggling against or outright rejecting many of their interpretations. Although all of the theological contributors were trained and/or serve in Christian institutions, none offers an interpretation from a specifically Christian perspective. The "faith perspective" offered here is intended to be broad enough for synagogue, church, or mosque. The Bible, although occasionally referenced, is but one resource among "various sacred texts." Several contributors were explicit in their effort to encourage dialogue among people in varying faith communities.

In his contribution on depression, Robert H. Albers is right to remind us that "the diagnosis of the person afflicted with any mental illness does not become her or his identity….They are first and foremost people, created in the image of God" (20). Most of the theological interpretations and recommendations offered throughout this volume are applications of this bedrock doctrine with which we heartily agree. Beyond that, however, direct use of Christian Scripture is not only minimal, it is often perturbing. For example, referencing the casting out of Legion by Jesus in Mark 5:1-20, Albers asserts that "exorcism was the singular 'treatment of choice,' simply because knowledge of mental illnesses as we know them today had not yet been discovered" (4). His interpretation suggests not only what C. S. Lewis called "chronological snobbery," but also a troubling doctrine of Scripture. Theological interpretations throughout this volume suggest that the underlying doctrines of God, man, sin, and salvation are likewise troubling.

The aforementioned doctrine clearly informs the many practical "suggestions relative to effective ministry" offered in each chapter. The common thread upon which many helpful suggestions hang is this: persons are more than material bodies with a diagnosis, and persons afflicted with or affected by mental illness need and deserve compassion and care. Even so, there are many riches to be mined from the experiences of others presented in these chapters. I found the chapters on autism, acquired brain injury, and dementia especially poignant and illuminating.

As the authors see it, "ministry" is driven by the moral imperative "to address effectively the agony and anguish that is often experienced when a person in the family or in the wider community is diagnosed with a mental illness" (6). Its goal is by and large therapeutic. Quoting Albers again: "For the people who claim a particular faith tradition, there are rites, rituals, traditions, and insights that are germane to assist in their healing" (6). In particular, religious caregivers are encouraged to show compassion to individuals and their affected families and communities, facilitate comfort and trusting patience in the ministrations of psychiatrists and other medical caregivers, and promote understanding of mental illness within the faith communities.

This book offers much to help "religious caregivers" understand not only people with mental illness and their families, but also the prevailing therapeutic framework within which they are diagnosed and treated. Christians should read this book with discernment.

Tuesday, July 1st 2014

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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