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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Is God Bipolar or Are We Just Crazy? A Psychology and Biblical Studies Section Report: Personality, Aggression, and the Destructive Power of Religion

"Religious metaphors can kill." — J. Harold Ellens

Wow, there I was: my first time at an SBL/AAR Annual Meeting. A variety of emotions and reflections washed over me. The first thought I entertained was that I'd certainly come a long way from my home in the Caribbean. This nostalgic musing was followed by a second, more pressing series of concerns: Do I need to grow a beard in order to fit in? Am I the only undergraduate here? Shyness and awkwardness in front of so many learned scholars aside, I made my way to the first session I was to attend. It was only fitting that I survey the Psychology and Biblical Studies (which from this point on I will refer to as "PsyBibs") sessions, since I hoped to be exposed to the latest and most top-notch research in the field and to gather fresh and innovative material for my undergraduate honors thesis. I was mistaken, however, to have had such simple expectations. I left with a heavy dose of "research" done right, as well as cherished insight on the human psyche—in particular, its interaction with religious texts, fellow human beings, and the Divine—that challenged my thinking both as an aspiring psychologist and an aspiring scholar of religion. Due to space limitations, I will not be able to cover all of the research presented at the sessions; I will attempt, however, to best recreate the feelings, thoughts, and conflicts faced at these sessions.

Which is mightier, the pen or the sword? Let's ask good ol' King David...
The first session of the day was titled "Personality Development in the Biblical Context: Heart, Soul, and Mind"; Wayne G. Rollins from Hartford Seminary presided. The first presenter was Adrien Janis Bledstein, whose intuitive and imaginative work, "David at the Cave of Adullam, Depression and Hypergraphia," involved the audience in a heuristic exercise: to imagine that the psalms ascribed to King David were his authentic thoughts and feelings, glories and struggles. Using neurologist Alice W. Flaherty's work on hypergraphia ("the medical term for an overpowering desire to write"), Bledstein argued that David's hiding at the cave of Adullam on account of King Saul's persecution "stimulated a compulsion to write, to vent his anguish to the One who knew him." With this lens, she and her students then set to place each psalm in a specific period in David's exile. By expressing in song his struggle between hope and despair, courage and fear, David was soon able to tap into positive coping mechanisms and emerge "with strengthened trust in the Divine and confidence in his belief that he would survive and someday he would be king."

The insight of Bledstein and her students had given us a window not into a mythical all-powerful king, but to a human being who struggled with the pains and conflicts of life in light of one's relationship with the Divine. She presented us with a son of Israel who at the end had mustered the faith to go on, believing in the promise that he would lead his people. Yes, the image certainly evoked visions of a person who had strengthened his relationship with God and tapped into some of the most powerful coping mechanisms, praise and prayer. Nathan Solomon's "David and Jonathan in Iraq" reminded us of another very crucial and very real fact: This man also had blood on his hands. Employing the nascent but growing field of combat psychology as an interpretive tool, Solomon brings a new perspective to the studies on David and Jonathan's relationship in the Old Testament. Although he has no interest to "defend the heterosexuality of David and Jonathan," he does notice that many studies focus on a sexual interpretation of the relationship. Solomon finds it "hardly surprising, since civilians [and scholars] who have never been exposed to combat usually lack the capacity to understand how a relationship that is this close and passionate cannot be sexual." The question of sexuality aside, Solomon reviews the reported experiences of David and Jonathan in warfare and posits a "common base of experience from which their friendship might have sprung."

In arguing this point, he provides case studies of soldiers who made strong lasting bonds with each other while in the field of battle and then returned back to their homes and families. Solomon presents the following statement from a U.S. Marine, "Yeah, when I got home the first time my wife didn't understand was why I had to see [Tim] everyday. He's my bro and we're connected. Hard to explain, hell, no one here gets it." He argues that perhaps something analogous to this phenomenon may explain the intensity of the relationship between the crown prince and future king. With his review and application of combat psychology as a hermeneutic for understanding warfare in the biblical text, Solomon has made an outstanding contribution to the field of psychology and biblical studies. His study also presented us with a certain degree of ambiguity toward the figure of David, especially in light of the earlier study.

But What's the Text "Really" Saying? Exegesis, Subjectivity, and Violence.
In the evening session of PsyBibs, titled "Aggression and the Destructive Power of the Bible II: The Bible and Cultures of Violence" and led by J. Harold Ellens of the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, a paper of profound contemporary social relevance was presented: Ronald R. Clark Jr.'s "Submit or Else!: Intimate Partner Violence, Aggression, Batterers, and the Bible." He presents us with the problem of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV), where a profound dilemma is being faced by victims of domestic violence and faith communities: the use of biblical texts by abusers to subordinate and abuse women and their families. One particular problem with the targeting and treatment of abusers is that their behavior is often seen as an effect of anger, and treatment interventions are involved that "suggest that the abuser is not in control of his emotions nor is he cognitively responsible for his actions." But abuse is not about anger or anxiety on the part of the abuser; but "it is about power and control." Tragically, one of the ways in which batterers and abusers exert this control over their partners and families is by employing the resources of religion and local faith communities.

Clark argues that the problem lies not in the use of biblical text, but in its misuse. Abusers, it appears, have the tendency to read religious texts outside of their broader biblical and cultural context, transforming passages whose purpose is to foster equality between husband and wife, or deliver a message of redemption, into tools of coercion. One example Clark has noted often in his treatment and interaction with couples plagued by IPV is Malachi 2:16. Abusers will use it as proof that "God hates divorce" and force their partners to stay with them in light of physical and emotional battering. Clark brings to attention the ironic misuse of this text. Malachi 2:16 intends to equate divorce with a break with faith, the people of Israel breaking their covenant with the LORD and hence placing "God as the offended wife." Another text often misused by abusers is Ephesians 5: 22-24 ("Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord..."): they demand total submission from their spouses while completely ignoring the following verses that speak about the husbands' equality with and submission to their wives (Ephesians 5: 25-33)!

On top of the misappropriation of scripture by the abusers, faith communities have also seemed to play a role in IPV. A recurring phenomena is the invocation of Christ's Passion, asking women to "carry their cross back to their husbands"; thus "the victim consigns herself to carrying the burden and suffering in the family with hope that this will bring mutuality and equality in her relationship." Instead of inspiring redemption and justice, the faith, mission, and work of Jesus are used in such a way that they bring forth images of "trauma, abuse, and suffering." which serve only to destroy and undermine the self-esteem and self-worth of women at a deep psychological and spiritual level.

How does one confront the use of what is usually referred to as sacred scripture in this context? Clark states, "Biblical studies can have tremendous effect on the prevention of abuse, power and control, and IPV.... Power and control lie at the core of all dysfunctional relationships and need to be addressed in all human beings. In the faith community a new paradigm, one of mutuality, peace, and compassion can be presented to families caught in abuse." It is by educating faith leaders and the communities that suffer from IPV on the true nature and meaning of the biblical texts that one begins to lift the power once held by those who would use it for their personal narcissistic gain. By teaching healing and denying abusers the ability to control their partners, one can alleviate the symptoms and causes of IPV. This understanding of the role of the academy in social work and victim treatment shows tremendous promise not only for biblical scholarship, but also for our institutions of mental health.

Clark's research seems to indicate that the problem of violence and aggression in the Bible does not arise out of an inherent tendency within the text, but out of the subjective reading of an individual. In this case, the blame seems to fall on a person who already has a mindset slanted toward violence. But doesn't this make even the inherent positive aspect of a particular text obsolete if it falls prey to the subjective projections of an aggressive individual? Other presenters, such as Michael Newheart ("The Transgression of Aggression"), might disagree, since they discuss the inherent slant toward violence in texts such as the Gospel of John and its "hatred of the Jews, denigration of the flesh, and at best ambivalence toward women." Another position, such as that of Matthias Beier ("The Deadly Search for God: Absolute Aggression in the Heritage of the Bible"), argues that psychological hermeneutics are necessary to take into account the subjective image of God within the characters of the text as well as the subjective image of God for the reader of the text. In his review of the work of German theologian and psychoanalyst Eugen Drewermann, Beier argues that violence and aggression in biblical texts arise when a character's image of God "evokes fear rather than trust, which usually indicates... a psychospiritual or psychosocial distortion of God rather than an approximation to the reality of God" (original emphasis).

One presenter sensitive to all this conflict of exegesis, subjectivity, and violence was D. Andrew Kille in his "Second Thoughts on the Destructive Power of Religion." Kille notes an ongoing trend within the psychology of religious violence:

That in this patchwork of varying subjects, approaches, and reflections there is a discernable shared perspective. [This perspective believes that the] problem with the Bible... is that people don't really know how to read it correctly. There may be texts that we might describe as "toxic," but they are misread, misunderstood, taken out of context. Somewhere lurking behind the textual distortions, the historical accidents, and the theological missteps, there is an "essential" Judaism, a "true" Christianity, a "correct understanding" of Islam.

Kille reviews the work of Nelson-Pallmeyer, who has explored how the texts of Christianity and Islam have caused violence and destruction, and his contention that it is "necessary to hold a certain doubt about the assertions of sacred texts" and admit their traditions to a relativistic stance on truth. The work of Hector Avalos is also considered, in particular his argument that "no one interpretation can lay claim to [be] any more verifiable than another. Violent and peaceful readings alike amount to not much more than subjective value judgments which say nothing about the 'essence' or 'true meaning' of a religious tradition." In fact, the mere existence of diverse religions in proximity to each other is the source of violence, according to Avalos. In reflecting on these authors, Kille notes that there is something of perhaps greater importance and deeper consequence than the inherent peacefulness or violent-ness of a text, or its empirical meaning or subjective interpretation: "Something psychologically happens when we begin to read a sacred text" (my emphasis); there is something about calling a text scripture, calling it sacred: it becomes a text that "speaks, and it speaks with authority." Instead of providing concrete answers to the problems of objectivity and subjectivity, exegesis and eisegesis, inherent "peacefulness" or inherent violence, Kille raises even more questions: "How does scripture, taken as scripture, work on individuals and communities? What connection is there, if there is a connection, between the text and behavior?"

The Sacred: Crossroads of Salvation and Destruction
The material presented in this paper challenges us with an enigmatic yet intensely relevant question: Is God bipolar or are we just crazy? A member of the audience at the PsyBibs sessions asked, "Why is it that when things are looking good it's an act of God, but when someone starts killing in God's name it's a misinterpretation?!" I cannot say that any of the papers presented fully answered such difficult and highly loaded questions concerning the nature of the transcendent. It seems the debate will rage on and on. I end with some words of hope from PsyBibs chair, Dereck Daschke, "If not promoting violence in the name of religion is authentic, then this is as authentic as we're going to get!"

The homepage for the Psychology and Biblical Studies Section:

Daniel J. Gaztambide, Rutgers University.
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Citation: Daniel J. Gaztambide, " Is God Bipolar or Are We Just Crazy? A Psychology and Biblical Studies Section Report: Personality, Aggression, and the Destructive Power of Religion," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Nov 2005]. Online:


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