Tom Cruise and mental suffering

I see that Tom Cruise has generated more publicity for his new film through attacking a TV interviewer on the subject of drugs for mental illness. Much as I might disagree with scientology, I agree with Tom that there are serious problems with the medicalisation of so-called ‘mental illness’. This is an issue with which I have had to deal extensively, both in my own family life and through my ministry, and the more experience I gain, the more I become convinced that there is something seriously wrong in how our society as a whole treats ‘mental illness’. It reminded me of something I wrote a few years ago, discussed in a 6th form General Studies class (students aged 16/17). I thought it would be worth sharing.


I would like to say a few things today relating to religion and mental illness. As you might imagine, I am speaking from a specifically Christian perspective, and I want to criticise something called the ‘medical model’ of understanding mental illness, and argue that a religious understanding is both more accurate, and more therapeutic. However, I should say at the outset that my perspective is NOT mainstream, and I would recommend that in any examinations that you may have to sit, that you provide mainstream answers. This sort of perspective might gain an extra mark or two if you mention it, but I wouldn’t recommend spending a great deal of time developing this line of argument. However, if in your own life – and nearly one in five women are diagnosed as mentally ill at some point in their life, in this country – you or someone you care about is diagnosed as suffering from ‘mental illness’ I think that you may find it helpful to have a look at these notes…

Medical illness is quite well understood. A person is ill when their body is malfunctioning in some identifiable way – either there is some visible, external problem, eg a broken leg, or there is an invisible, internal problem, eg a virus or cancer, which can nevertheless be discerned through tests or X-rays or similar. In each instance, there is something observable which is independent of the social context of the individual being treated. For example, if a person has cancer, then that cancer will develop in certain particular, well understood ways, and the cancer will develop in the same way whether the person is living in London, West Africa or India.

In contemporary Western society, medicine has advanced significantly through the application of the scientific method. Put briefly, the scientific method depends upon the distancing of personal opinions from the subject being studied – this is why you will sometimes hear the claim that science is ‘objective’ and ‘value free’ – and an investigation of the mechanical processes which underlie our physical existence. So, in medicine, we have a very good understanding of the cardio-vascular system (our heart and lungs) and how they operate, and they operate on very clear physical principles.

So, with bodily illness, medicine has very effective means of studying the problems, and developing solutions. Put differently, we might say that it is appropriate to study the break down of normal bodily functioning in this way. The way in which bodily malfunctioning is understood is called the ‘medical model’.

Let us now consider what it means to be mentally ill. There is something called DSM-III which lists what is counted as a mental illness (this is used specifically for schizophrenia):

– Delusions (considered bizarre, grandiose, absurd etc)
– “Deterioration from a previous level of functioning…”
– social isolation or withdrawal, impairment in role functioning, impairment in personal hygiene or grooming…
– “blunted, flat or inappropriate affect” (affect = emotional response)

(Note at this point, that these are markedly NOT independent of the social context.)

Where a person is displaying these characteristics then they are now classed as being ‘mentally ill’ and placed into psychiatric care. Mental illness is understood by the psychiatric profession to be a similar sort of disorder to bodily illness, except that – and this is the punchline – the causes of the disorder are not understood. Where they are (eg where they can be traced to a specific bodily disorder, such as a virus (encephalitis), or Parkinson’s disease) then they are no longer considered a ‘mental illness’ in the same way, and the method of treatment changes.

Where possible, the psychiatric staff will treat the patient through the use of psycho-active drugs, which either serve to change or stabilise the mood of the person, or to dampen the intellectual energy of the person. In this way the ‘symptoms’ of the ‘illness’ can be treated, and the psychiatric profession can continue to research further methods of treatment with the hope that they will eventually discern the underlying cause of the ‘illness’ and then be able to cure it.

It is my view that this approach is fundamentally flawed, from both a philosophical and religious perspective, and that there is no such thing as ‘mental illness’.

I mentioned earlier that the classifications used to assess whether a person is or is not mentally ill are closely tied in with the social context, specifically, with what a particular society considers to be acceptable behaviour. To take the example of ‘hearing voices in the head’ – in some societies this is seen as evidence of divine favour, and the person concerned is given a respected role as an oracle of God. In other societies it is seen as evidence of possession by demons, and the person concerned is executed. In either case – and in our own society – the classification of the person is determined by what the society accepts as ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal’. This is a decision made by the society, and as such it is subject to questions of morality and ethics – and therefore religion.

When Jesus talks about the soul, the word used (in the Greek) is ψυχή – psyche, from which we get our word psychology, which means the understanding of the soul. In western society, the way in which the symptoms currently described as mental illness were treated were through a religious understanding – the person concerned was not right with God. This way of understanding psychology was dominant for two thousand years and forms part of the core of how priests are trained. As you might imagine, it reached quite a sophisticated level, before being supplanted by modern scientific methods. This was not a step forward.

I mentioned earlier that bodily illness functions independently of social context, and that science studies it through distancing the personal opinions of the person doing the studying. Neither of these factors is appropriate for the symptoms listed on the DSM list.

It may be easiest to put across the difference by considering a particular example. Imagine a woman – let us call her Charlotte – who has an affair with a married man. The man leaves his first wife and marries Charlotte. Six months after their marriage, the man dies suddenly. Charlotte becomes depressed. She no longer functions properly within her various social roles, and is not able to maintain her job. She stops looking after herself and becomes emotionally numb. And so on. Charlotte goes to her doctor, and the doctor prescribes a course of anti-depressants, which lift her mood and she returns to her job.

From the perspective of medial science, all that can be done to help Charlotte has been done, and in fact she has been returned to her work so clearly the treatment has been successful. From a religious point of view, this is a disaster.

To begin with, a priest would consider it natural for a person to go through a period of mourning after the death of a loved one, and that the change in behaviour manifested would not need any further explanation. One of the problems faced in our society is that we are not allowed to be unhappy – happiness has become an idol, and therefore suffering has to be suppressed. This is self-defeating.

Secondly, the language which a priest would use about Charlotte would include words such as ‘shock’, ‘grief’, and ‘guilt’. Charlotte has received a shock, and is not able to come to terms with what has happened. A priest would interpret this by looking at the story of her life up to this point, and in particular at the affair. This is a sin – a breach in human relationships and a breach in the relationship with God. And, bearing in mind the quotation from Deuteronomy (“Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you this day, and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn aside….” (the book of Deuteronomy, 11.26-28)), if there is sin, then the life will be blighted – hence the depression. The way forward for the priest would be to talk through the story and establish whether Charlotte had any unacknowledged guilt etc which could then be confessed and absolved. The desired outcome would be for Charlotte to flourish once more – without the help of drugs.

In essence, the language used to describe the phenomena which people display, listed in the DSM criteria, is radically different between psychiatry and religion. They are in effect two different languages, attempting to describe the same phenomena. My perspective is that the religious language is both more accurate and more humane, and that it is more likely to lead to healing and the cure of souls.

Further reading: The Myth of Mental Illness, Thomas Szasz; The Danger of Words, M C O’Drury

I need a holiday

This morning I was 20 minutes late for a service. The first time, hopefully the last. Shows how distracted I have become.

The good thing is that this Friday I shall be going with four friends from university on a two week jaunt, without families, to Beijing and Mongolia. So I may not be able to post much (although if I find an internet cafe I’ll be able to say a little).

Fermented yak’s milk, here I come.

A parable (Matthew 10 40-42)

A long time ago, in a land far away from here, a band of travellers were crossing the wilderness.The group had been travelling for many days. They were tired, hot and thirsty. One day, the band discovered a natural spring, gushing forth fresh, clean, clear water. They slaked their thirst, filling their water bottles, refreshing their camels. And they wished to give thanks to God for the spring, which had eased their pain and strengthened them for their journey. So they built a cairn, a pile of rocks, by the side of the spring, and they said prayers of thanksgiving. The travellers reached their destination, and they told others of the spring that they had found in the wilderness.

Time passed. Other travellers came through the wilderness and came to the spring, to quench their thirst and gain refreshment. They too wished to give thanks and praise to God, so they added more stones to the cairn, and the cairn became a wall, sheltering the spring from the harsh, dry winds of the wilderness.

Time passed. Other travellers came through the wilderness and came to the spring, to quench their thirst and gain refreshment. They too wished to give thanks and praise to God, so they added more stones to the wall, and the wall became a shelter, a small dwelling, sheltering the spring from the harsh, dry winds of the wilderness.

Time passed. Other travellers came through the wilderness and came to the spring, to quench their thirst and gain refreshment. They too wished to give thanks and praise to God, so they added more stones to the shelter, and the shelter became a great building surrounding the spring, keeping back the sand and dust blown in on the harsh, dry winds of the wilderness.

Time passed. Other travellers came through the wilderness and came to the building, for they had heard of this building in the wilderness. They were suitably impressed by the stature of the dwelling, and they too wished to give thanks and praise to God, so they added more stones to the building, and after many years the building became a magnificent stone structure, visible from many miles away. Now travellers came into the wilderness to see this magnificence, and each traveller added a few more stones. And people began to live in the dwelling, and they welcomed travellers and gave them hospitality.

Time passed. A traveller came by after a long journey in the wilderness. This traveller was thirsty, and the thought came to the traveller – is there water somewhere in this place. And the people who lived there said ‘we don’t know’ – but here, let us refresh you with what we have to offer. But that was not enough for the traveller. And so the traveller searched, and he couldn’t find the water. And yet, there was something he could smell, something that drove him to keep searching, and so he continued to search, and to look deeper into the building. And so he went in to the centre and began to dig, and he began to remove stones. And yes, there, underneath the stones, behind all the walls, hidden by the building, unknown to the residents: here was the water of life. So, the traveller drank, and was satisfied.


There is such a tremendous thirst for God in the society in which we live. May we be channels of living water to those who are thirsty, not a magnificent pile of stones barring their way.

I didn’t create this story, but I can no longer track where I first read it. I have embellished the telling a little.

Techie bits

Haloscan commenting and trackback have been added to this blog.

The really annoying thing is that all the previous comments seem to have been removed. This was not something they warned me about, and it’s not the sort of thing to make for happy customers. But then you get what you pay for, and this was free. As I still feel I’m at the beginning of this blogging thing, I think I can live with the loss of comments. Just about.

I’ve also added a blogroll and made one or two other minor behind-the-scenes amendments, including removing the Merseacofe yahoo group from automatic receipt of posts (because it led to a confusion of readership in my mind). All this when I should be writing a sermon about a cup of water….

The fear of God

Our culture is truly impoverished and has lost its way because it has lost the fear of God. Yet it seems to me that many of the Christians who say such things have a mistaken understanding of what that fear is – and, therefore, of how to cultivate that Godly fear which is the beginning of wisdom and understanding.

We can seek God because we are afraid of other people, and we seek their approval, and if their language is of God then we will develop the language of God in order to conform. That is a conforming to the world, and not to the living God.

We can seek God because we are in terror before God, we are afraid of condemnation and being consigned to hell. We wish to save ourselves, to preserve our lives, and so we obey what we perceive to be the commands of God. That is the way of the Pharisee. One of the most consistent messages which Jesus teaches is ‘Do not be afraid’ (some 20 times He says this). The Pharisees in particular were consumed with this individual fear – they were afraid that if they didn’t keep to the Law then God would once more allow Jerusalem to be destroyed (as described in Lamentations) – and that is what Jesus is overcoming. The God of Jesus Christ desires mercy not sacrifice.

We can also seek God because we are in awe of Him. Consider the difference between being poised on the edge of a cliff and thinking at one and the same time ‘wow, what a view’ and ‘I might fall and die’ and ‘I am so small’; or, on the other hand, being pursued by a large wild animal and knowing you are about to be caught and killed and eaten. The former – whilst still genuinely fear – can also be exhilarating, and has the potential for relationship and love. The latter is simply hopeless terror, and underlies Pharisaism. It is precisely the absence of faith, hope and love – and that is what separates it from the Way.

Fear in the sense of ‘terror’ is not the way we are called to relate to God, particularly when that fear is considered on an individualistic basis. That message is not good news. It is like the secret police arriving in the homes of a totalitarian state and saying, ‘if you accept our authority then we will not torture you’. It is a theology which casts Lavrenty Beria in the role of St Paul.

Perfect love casts out fear. And we are called to love, to love one another as He loved us. Beloved, let us love one another… for God is love. And in Him there is no darkness at all.

A missing question

I’ve been following the proceedings of the Anglican Consultative Council, currently meeting in Nottingham (many thanks to titusonenine and thinking anglicans). I’ve read the ECUSA justification of their position, which seemed clear, and the various responses to it. Yet it still seems to me that the most fundamental question keeps being overlooked.

In this question as to whether consecration of a non-celibate homosexual is permissible or not, there seems to be a prior question about whether it is possible for such an amendment to the tradition to be driven by the Holy Spirit. It seems perfectly possible to be opposed to ECUSA on two separate, and profoundly different, grounds: 1. That such a change is possible and in line with how the Holy Spirit might lead us, but that the case in this instance has not been made, and in fact such a change is not consonant with the love of Christ; or, 2. such a change is not possible, and therefore any exploration or consideration of this issue is pointless.

In other words, the underlying question, which keeps getting submerged, is hermeneutical, about the role of Scripture within the household of the faithful. One position sees Scripture as inherently malleable, and not separable from a community of interpretation. The other sees Scripture as fixed, and the role for the community is simply to be obedient.

It seems to me that there is scope for the friendship which ++Rowan called for between ECUSA and those who believe 1., but not between ECUSA and those who believe 2.

For what it’s worth, option 2 seems to me to be profoundly unAnglican, even unChristian, in so far as I understand the faith. “I have many things to say to you which you cannot yet bear… the Spirit will lead you into all truth.”

++Rowan to the ACC

“Did you so live in the experience of the Church, the Body of my Son, that a tormented world saw the possibility of hope and of joy?”

I frequently thank God for giving us Rowan as our Archbishop. If you go to Titusonenine here you’ll find the full text of his opening address to the Anglican Consultative Council meeting going on in Nottingham at the moment (scroll down to the third item). Good stuff – note especially the reference to Girard, a theologian I’m thinking about a lot at the moment, primarily through the medium of James Alison.

Sin City

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality

Last week was a heavy week, in all sorts of ways, most of which can’t be discussed here. My response to too much reality is always to seek refuge in something fantastical, either in a film, a graphic novel or in books (fantasy or SF). Hence my love of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman sequence (big post brewing on that particular subject, coming here soon). Fantasy keeps me sane; it takes me out of myself (ec-stasy); it means that I have some fuel in my tank when I need to take up the burdens of reality once again.

Yesterday was my day off, so I indulged myself fully and went to see TWO films – Sin City, and Batman Begins. I might talk about Batman another time (it was excellent – probably the best Batman adaptation) but for now, a few words about Sin City.

For those of you unfamiliar with Frank Miller, he’s primarily a comic book writer/artist who revolutionised the genre with a remarkable reworking of the Batman mythos in his ‘The Dark Knight Returns’, which came out in the mid/late 80’s. Forget the idea that comic books are for adolescents; Miller is very sharp, and very political.

Now ‘Sin City’ is a sequence of graphic novels (that’s the ‘correct’ term for comics-read-by-adults) drawing on some of the staple noir elements – hard-bitten ex-cons, troubled cops, prostitutes with hearts of gold etc – but putting them through a particular stylisation which makes the contrasts incredibly stark, and which Miller sought to have reflected through a very spare visual vocabulary – lots of heavy black blocking, outline drawing of characters, almost no colour. And Robert Rodriguez has faithfully reproduced that style in his film; it was very effective.

I started reading the Sin City graphic novels a few years ago. I don’t enjoy them as much as his Batman work, because the raw material that he is dealing with is uncompromising and very violent. At this point, there may be the question: is this something that a priest should be reading? (or watching?) Isn’t it anti-Christian in some way? (Heavens, if Harry Potter is considered anti-Christian, then Sin City is enough to make such maiden aunts have heart attacks…. These are the people who want to restore the Levitical purity codes.)

This is something I’ve been musing on a bit recently – it came up in a confirmation class last week. So I thought I’d say a few words about why, despite the occasional qualm, I don’t have a great problem with spending time in Sin City.

To my mind, the issue about any work of art, from a Christian point of view, is whether it is orthodox or not. Now I use orthodox here in a particular way. I don’t mean ‘has it signed up to saying “Jesus Christ is my personal Lord and Saviour”?’ I mean ‘is it informed by the resurrection’? Which I take to mean: are there signs of grace, forgiveness, redemption and hope? Or is it a work characterised by the opposite of the resurrection, which is nihilism, which is characterised by the absence of meaning, the denial of hope, the embrace of corruption and the elevation of inhumanity into a model to be emulated? Is death seen as the final evil, or are there ways in which death is overcome?

For it seems to me that the structures of the world, the principalities and powers (Eph 6) to which we must forever be opposed are built upon the contention that death is the final evil which must be resisted. The resurrection is what demolishes those principalities and powers precisely because it says that we do not need to be quite so afraid of death; that there are things which death cannot touch; and that our life and our hope lie in the resistance, not necessarily the overcoming. (That’s what it means to live eschatologically, in the light of the end time.)

Sin City seems to be a world where – to put it no more strongly – orthodoxy is possible. It is a portrait of a corrupt world, where the principalities and powers are overwhemingly present, and where the suffering that follows is rendered starkly. Yet in the face of these powers, there is redemption and love and self-sacrifice, rendered most obviously in the film through the character-arc of the Bruce Willis character, where any Christian will recognise a copy of the original Story.

“An old man dies, a young girl lives. Fair trade.”

Perhaps it’s the imaginative portrayal of reality in fantasy that makes the reality itself tolerable. The fantasy equips the mind with the tools that enable the reality to be digested, rendered meaningful. Is this not the shield of faith (Eph 6.16) with which we can overcome the world? The link between imagination and faith is intimate, and the nurturing of our imaginations is a Christian task. Just ask Walter Brueggemann.

Two final points.

One. If Christians are not to spend time in Sin City, for fear of being corrupted by the violence and debauchery, then they must also close the pages of the Old Testament. Nothing in Sin City is as shocking as, for example, Ezekiel 16.

Two. Sin City is the abode of those whom society has rejected. The sinners, the outcast, the prostitutes. I have no doubt that Jesus would choose to spend his time in Sin City. There live the ones who recognise Him for who He is.

Those interested in exploring some of the theology underlying this post are directed towards ‘Faith Beyond Resentment’ by James Alison, especially the final chapter, ‘The Boys in the Square’.

New Archbishop of York

John Sentamu has been appointed as Archbishop of York, according to the BBC. +John was my Bishop when I was serving my title in Stepney. I found him to be a very caring man, and very capable. His elevation sends lots of positive signals about who we are as a church. I’m sure he will be a tremendous help to ++Rowan.

Good news!