This is a short research paper I did the first semester at Liberty University for my graduate degree in industrial/organizational psychology. As a former atheist/agnostic, and as someone who still “wrestles with God by the River” (Gen. 32), I find it hard balancing potential presuppositions of scientific theories and the potential presuppositions of faith. Should the two subjects be completely separated? To what degree? And, as the following paper will speak to, how helpful (or unhelpful?) can “religious ideas” be to someone who doesn’t believe in them? I hope this is interesting and beneficial to you!
It is possible for a mental health therapist to integrate Christianity and psychology through Scripture while counseling non-believers. A common issue Christian counselors have when integrating faith and psychology is knowing how to apply integration principles when counseling someone who does not believe in Christianity. Is it even appropriate to do so? Regardless of one’s religious convictions, storytelling can be used to counsel clients on a subconscious level. Scripture is a great source for storytelling. The research in this paper reflected the truth of that theory in the case of clients, including veterans, substance abuse patients, and college students. The research of neuroscientists shows that one’s brain reacts to stories as if the individual is experiencing the actions and emotions in real life (Landrum et al., 2019). Clients can take stories from Scripture and other sources, enter the stories, and change their worldview, characteristics, and outlook on life by seeing themselves in the characters (Davis et al., 2021). The results show that psychologists who wish to integrate their faith can use Scripture to counsel non-believing clients through storytelling. Psychologists need permission to discuss spiritual matters with a client. However, it is appropriate to explore the legalities and ethics regarding the necessity to get permission from a non-believing client if the Bible is used to tell stories as opposed to giving “spiritual counseling.” Other research should be conducted to examine how Scriptural stories compare to other types of stories when counseling non-believers and when it can be appropriate to use Scripture.
Integration and Storytelling: Scripture Can Improve the Mental Health of Non-Believers
Modern psychology has been predominately influenced by non-religious individuals from its conception. However, in recent years, many non-religious psychologists have begun to see a level of value in some religious environments because theology and psychology share an interest in issues like human suffering, human fulfillment, human development, and social justice (Hodge et al., 2020). Also, there have been more Christians entering the profession in the last few decades who bring to light the shared interests in theology and psychology. That camaraderie has produced confidence for Christian psychologists to be open regarding their research connecting theological principles and psychological principles.
Still, many Christian psychologists struggle to formulate how much faith and science should be integrated. There is a spectrum of philosophies concerning that dilemma. Some Christian psychologists choose to completely separate the two fields and essentially ignore the overlap. Others choose to use the science only when it seems to align with a particular interpretation of the Christian Scriptures. Such counselors put Scripture ahead of empirical evidence (Lelek, 2021). However, there are some Christian psychologists who integrate the two fields and believe that both the book of God’s works and the book of God’s Word can and should be used simultaneously as allies (Entwistle, 2015, p. 250). A struggle comes with knowing how to apply the integration principles of allies in a counseling environment that does not always have Christian clients.
When Christian psychologists want to use Scripture with a client as a form of spiritual counseling, they must get written permission. However, non-believing clients are not likely to want spiritual counseling or give permission. However, there are other ways to use Scripture as a tool. This article will explore the idea of worldviews, examine how Scripture uses stories, and speak to the research regarding how metaphors, imagination, and storytelling can help clients on a subconscious level. A non-religious client will not see Scripture as true historical events, but the individual can see the truth in the stories of Scripture. Integrating Scripture in professional mental health therapy is possible. Christian psychologists sometimes counsel non-believers, and they can improve the mental health of non-Christians by integrating Scripture in the form of storytelling.
Worldview, Counseling, and the Non-Believer
The subject of worldviews often gets lost while Christian psychologists debate the subject of integration. On a conscious level, Christian counselors know that, in most places, they will not be counseling Christians only. There are great conversations about the Christian worldview because of what Eric Johnson suggests is the self-inflicted injury of separating Scripture and Christianity too much from psychology (Johnson, 2021). However, there is not much research on how to apply integration principles with a Jewish, Muslim, agnostic, atheist, or any other worldview. Everyone has a worldview. Worldviews ask the big questions in life concerning the beginning of creation, the purpose of being, morality, and final destination. Worldviews shape how one sees things like science, philosophy, politics, and religion (Entwistle, 2015, pp. 67-69). The post-modern age is increasingly entering a pluralistic ideology concerning religion. It is not true to say that all of the unchurched are atheists. There is great complexity concerning each individual and their view of spirituality. Spirituality is somewhat fluid in this culture and is on a spectrum (Taves et al., 2018). Instead of just focusing on what religion one holds, a better question is concerning one’s worldview. Just like each Christian psychologist has a place in the sphere of integration, each client will have a unique place in the sphere of worldviews.
The mental health of believers was compared with the mental health of non-believers in an examination of 22 studies on the issue (Park et al., 2019). In 15 studies, the believers had slightly better mental health. In 5 studies, there was not much difference between believers and non-believers. In 2 studies, the non-believers had marginally better mental health than believers. The research concluded that it seems the believers have slightly better mental health but not to the degree that is often assumed. There are two things the Christian psychologist can learn from that research. First, the mental health of believers is a marginal difference, so one should not assume too much or too little while comparing the Christian’s mental health with a non-believer. Second, the study should show the Christian psychologist that, while the difference is marginal, there is a greater likelihood that non-religious people will need their services. The integrationist needs to be prepared to counsel non-religious clients without unethically forcing the opportunity into an evangelistic effort. Let God work through psychology in His own ways and in His own time.
The Importance of Storytelling in Scripture
Albert Ellis believed psychology should reflect more on self-indulgence and pleasure than it should on selflessness and altruism (McMinn, 2011, p.19). That view leans towards an atheistic and humanist presupposition that many modernist psychologists had in the 20th century. It should be noted that post-modern non-believers think quite differently than Ellis. Still, even Albert Ellis admits that the Bible has done more good as a “self-help book” than almost any therapist has in history (McMinn, 2011, pp. 121-122). Another humanist, Abraham Maslow, unwittingly built his hierarchy of needs off of biblical principles (McMinn, 2011, p.52). That makes sense because psychology has its roots in ancient wisdom and philosophy.
Christian psychologists have noticed in the last 140 years that non-believers have a harder time feeling like the Bible is a professional tool in modern psychology because it does not address everything needed in mental health (Johnson et al., pp. 32-33). However, a tool must not necessarily do everything in order to do something. There are principles in the stories of Scripture that can apply on some level to almost any situation. Integration can be beneficial to Christians and non-believers alike through Scriptural narrative. Stories can hold certain truths whether one believes the stories are fictional or nonfictional. Stories enter one’s subconscious mind and rewire presuppositions and feelings that can be harder to address on a purely conscious level. Not only is there a scientific basis for that reality, but there is also a Scriptural foundation regarding the benefit and necessity of storytelling as well.
All of King David’s life, he inquired of God. He was not perfect, but he always ended up seeking God’s wisdom and grace in all things. However, in 2nd Samuel chapter 11, King David stops inquiring of God and starts to inquire about a married woman whose husband was in a war that David should have been leading (Holy Bible, English Standard Version, 2001, 2nd Samuel 11:3-27). David brought the husband home, got him drunk, and asked him to spend time with his wife, but the soldier refused. David then sent him back to war with his own death letter, and when David received word that the soldier died, he was calloused and apathetic. He married the soldier’s widow.
In the next chapter, David received a visit from the prophet Nathan (Holy Bible, ESV, 2001, 2nd Samuel 12:1-15). Nathan told David a story of a rich man and a poor man. The rich man had all he could ever want but stole everything the poor man had and loved. It was after David entered that story that his anger demanded justice for the poor man. Nathan explained to David that he is the rich man in the story. His calloused heart broke, and he finally realized things about himself that he might not have seen otherwise.
Jesus was a counselor and teacher who used stories. Most of His sermons were parables and allegories. Paul and the rest of the New Testament writers often used metaphors. An appropriate example is Paul’s symbolism of the different parts of the body (Holy Bible, ESV, 2001, 1 Corinthians 12:14-31). It would be wise for the Christian, especially a preacher or a psychologist, to ask why Jesus, Paul, and the prophets of old primarily used narrative to teach principles. Not only can Scripture be used to tell life-changing stories, but a large part of Scripture is parable, metaphor, and allegory.
Scripture teaches that human imagination is a primary tool to change the soul. Imagination can be used to shape, influence, and redirect Christians and their worldviews. However, that truth is not limited to Christians. God created humankind with the ability to learn the meaningful things of life through imagination (Greggo, 2016). Greggo mentions C.S. Lewis’ theory that reason is the human organ of truth, but imagination (the sub-conscious mind) is the organ of meaning. What is in one’s imagination is not always the truth, but imagination always has the capability to enhance understanding and wisdom. It is through metaphor, stories, parables, allegories, and principles that one can connect the dots between truth and meaningful application. If an integrationist wants to know how to use Scripture to counsel people who do not believe the Bible to be true, she can take the examples of almost every teacher in the Bible and use the stories, not for evangelism, but as an organ of meaning.
Psychological Evidence for Storytelling, Metaphors, and Allegory in Counseling
Humans have always used stories and metaphors to communicate, teach, and grow. Everyone creates their own narratives through the sequence of events, settings, protagonists, and antagonists (Landrum et al., 2019). The human brain can hear the stories of others and learn from them without having to experience the same pitfalls in the same ways. The intersubjectivity of stories allows for a degree of empathy, memorability, and relatability (Landrum et al., 2019). In a sense, clients already see their lives as a narrative. So, it stands to reason that applying their narratives to other narratives can be beneficial.
Relational Frame Theory (RFT) and Arbitrarily Applicable Relational Response (AARR) speak to how the human brain recognizes stimuli in an item, person, or action and relates the feeling to other items, people, and actions and those stimuli (Davis et al., 2021). That is how the human brain understands symbolism and metaphor. The brain creates its own narrative and compares it to other characters when an individual hears a story. There is a connection between the experiences, morality, and personality of narrative characters in the story with the experiences, morality, and personality of the narrative of the specific individual. Clients can take stories and, on some level, change their worldview, characteristics, and outlook on life by manipulating the story to influence how they feel concerning their own well-being.
One example of storytelling as a counseling tool can be seen in a study overseen by NYU (Ali et al., 2019). Veterans read Shakespearean literature and sometimes acted out specific monologues to see how stories can help rewire their fundamental ideas and reactions. Connected-Based Predictive Modeling shows when someone is daydreaming or using their imagination. Studies were shown concluding that when one is in a state of imagination that self-reflection and rewiring can occur. Literature and acting influenced the subconscious mind of the veterans who had trauma. They were trained to see the world a particular way but were able to change that by putting themselves in the position of the characters in Shakespeare’s stories. Through Connected-Based Predictive Modeling, the program was found to be an effective tool for the veterans. The same principle can be applied regarding Scripture as a tool for therapy.
Another example concerns a study on substance abuse disorders (Correia et al., 2018). A survey was taken by individuals with substance abuse disorders who watched movies and saw art. The desire of the survey was to gather whether or not the individuals felt that certain forms of art and stories helped to give them hope and encouragement. Through cinema, the clients said they were able to better recognize their own narratives, see ways of hope, and have a positive attitude regarding change. The study shows that cinema and other methods, including Scriptural stories, can help change people and give hope to those with various disorders.
There is sufficient empirical evidence to suggest that it is worthwhile for a Christian counselor to use stories, literature, metaphor, allegory, and other methods to reach clients through their imagination and subconscious mind. Scientific surveys were taken, neurological connections were found, and changes were made as a result of clients entering into various narratives.
This article examined the need for Christian psychologists to take both science and theology seriously as opposed to intentionally leaning one way or another. While it is not possible to perfectly leave one’s biases at the door, it is possible for a Christian counselor to be intentional about his/her reverence for both fields of study. The important factor is for the integrationist to be humble while interpreting both science and theology.
For practitioners who wish to integrate faith and psychology, it is important to know that there are clients who do not hold their Christian worldview. There are clients who will be part of other religions, other spiritual identities, and no religion at all. The mental health of those clients is as important as the mental health of the Christian client because they are also made in the image of God. Respect must be given to them, and permission must be given from them concerning their spiritual counseling and guidance.
However, it is both possible and profitable for the Christian psychologist to use Scripture in the form of storytelling to promote the mental health of non-believers. The non-religious person will not believe Scripture is literally true, so it should not be used as an evangelistic tool to convert the client. That said, there can be truth in stories that are not seen as literal. Even from their worldview, the Bible is a great tool for a type of narrative therapy.
The Scriptural evidence for storytelling as a learning and counseling tool is overwhelming. This article examined the story of Nathan and David, the analogies of Paul, the parables of Jesus, and the examples of storytelling in Scripture. Reason leads to truth, but imagination leads to understanding, wisdom, and meaning. The proposition was made that a great portion of biblical principles was taught through metaphor, allegory, and storytelling. Since that is true, it should be no surprise to the Christian counselor that storytelling is a “God-approved” way of learning and growing.
The psychological evidence for storytelling as a tool for mental health came in the form of scientific surveys, measurable change, and neurological stimuli. There were two examples used to prove the potential for character improvement. First, there was the example of veterans who rewired their schema and worked through trauma by means of Shakespearean literature. Second, there was the example of substance abuse clients taking scientific surveys following cinema stories. Both examples showed measurable evidence of the power of storytelling.
It is evident that storytelling through Scripture would be a great scientific method of treatment for both Christian and non-Christian clients. Integrationists should feel comfortable and responsible for using Scripture to guide non-believers as long as it is done with the right motives and ethics in mind. It is appropriate to have future research to understand legalities and ethics concerning client permission for Bible use. It is a fact that permission is needed for spiritual counseling, but if the Bible is used as a tool for storytelling instead of spiritual counseling, would permission still be needed? It is also recommended that research be done to explore if and how Scripture is a better source of storytelling than other forms of art and literature.
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Correia, A. F., & Barbosa, S. (2018). Cinema, aesthetics and narrative: Cinema as therapy in substance use disorders. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 60, 63–71. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aip.2018.07.001
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