Loon’s linkage (January ’11)

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Great reads, all of them:

  • Andy Crouch brilliantly ruminates on Apple CEO Steve Jobs’ remarkable ability to “articulate a perfectly secular form hope.”
  • Rachel Held Evans winsomely recounts how trying to love God with her mind put her at odds with an outspoken seminary president.
  • Brett McCracken considers the ways social networking platforms and the “paradox of public intimacy” are impacting church efforts to cultivate community.
  • Kyle Bennett furnishes a compelling essay exploring how “a thorough sensitivity to the Spirit’s presence and work” helps to deepen Christian civility.
  • Nicholas Kristoff makes his case for why guns should be regulated as seriously as cars or toys.
  • Richard Mouw points out how the book of Revelation doesn’t always conform to stereotypes about “apocalyptic literature.”
  • Michael Gerson explains the basis for respecting our fellow citizens, “even when they hold absurd political beliefs.”
  • Ellen Painter Dollar offers a thoughtful critique of the “child-as-project mentality that permeates American parenting today.”
  • Skye Jethani suggests 3 reasons why interfaith cooperation honors God. And yes, he’s writing as an evangelical with strong theological convictions.
  • Ed Stetzer unpacks some of the most common challenges faced by church planters.
  • Christianity Today announces its 2011 Book Awards.
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Jesus is my mental illness

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“It is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick.” –Matthew 9:6

True story. Last night, the instructor for my mental health practice course referenced the fact that people who are diagnosed with a severe mental illness will sometimes wander into churches because “they want to see Jesus.”

Makes sense, I thought. If the sick, afflicted and oppressed were brought before Jesus in the first century, why would they not continue to seek him today? Having worked as a mental health professional in a variety of settings, I have observed such phenomena first hand. Hallucinations and delusions with spiritual content are not uncommon, although the underlying factors are multifarious and complex. In any case, I would hope one could seek an encounter with God without necessarily being deemed psychotic.

Now back to the classroom. After describing a case in which a mental patient claimed to hear God telling him to do this or that, my social work instructor offered the following explanation for why mentally ill persons are often drawn to Jesus, the Bible and places of religious significance. Direct quote: “People are socialized to read the Bible for comfort.

Hold on a second, I wanted to say. Is that really the main reason why people choose to read the Bible? Inherited societal norms? Seriously?

But just like that, the most influential, poetic and bestselling text in all of human literary, archaeological and theological history was reduced to a coping mechanism. Apparently, human beings are not reading the Bible because of any actual comfort, wisdom or good news to be found in its pages. Rather, the Bible merely serves a cultural function akin to double fudge ice cream, video games and Chicken Soup for Soul spinoffs—a childish security blanket the enlightened have now outgrown. According to the skeptics, this explains why the mentally ill look for solace in the escapist fairy tale of God rescuing the world through the sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf.

To be clear, I’m not saying socialization theory is a complete myth either. Despite my instructor’s naïve assumptions regarding the Bible’s multifaceted significance, she is correct in alluding to the myriad of psychological and societal factors impacting human behavior within the social environment. We are each undeniably shaped by our families, life experiences and prevailing cultural norms.

This points to something else about the human race: we are quick to adopt simplistic cause-and-effect formulations whenever something threatens us, be it the scourge of mental disorders or the vast implications of the Bible’s claims. For some, mental illness is too disturbing to be explained by complicated social and environmental factors. It’s much tidier to say that supernatural forces are pulling every string behind the scenes to the point where mental illness and demonic oppression become one and the same. The study of behavioral and psychiatric health is then dismissed as “psychobabble” since we’re more comfortable framing the discussion on a moral level of good and evil while automatically viewing every mental illness as a manifestation of spiritual warfare.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the notions of God, morality and the spiritual realm evoke intense suspicion (especially where Christianity is involved). Belief in a omnipotent Being gets written off as a regressive and unenlightened form of superstition designed to perpetuate discrimination against vulnerable minority groups. In this framework, Scriptural inspiration and devotion to Christ are viewed as socially conditioned coping mechanisms concocted to escape reality or preserve cultural dominance. If my instructor’s assumptions are correct, my Christian faith can be largely attributed to brainwashing by parents who taught me to ingest Bible verses like psychotropic medications. The beauty and richness of the Great Tradition are excluded from the equation.

But what if the mentally ill have it right, desperate for divine rescue, stumbling toward the church hoping to approach the Lord’s Table? What if the ancient texts are indeed the compass pointing to a True North found in the person and work of Christ, the ultimate display of unconditional grace and unmerited acceptance?

And what should be my diagnosis if I, like a vagrant street wanderer, long to see the face of this Jesus and find deep comfort in his words? What if I wish to talk to him aloud or hear his voice in my head? What if I want to touch his cloak or share a drink with him? What if I choose to ground my hope in the Resurrection story and throw my life at his feet? Does this make me mentally sick or spiritually alive?

If following after Christ is a mental illness, then let me be acutely sick. If Jesus is a coping mechanism, may he socialize my soul.

Grief journal (2 months)

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“When we gather now there’s always someone missing, his absence as present as our presence, his silence as loud as our speech.”

–Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son

Vincent died two months ago today. Seems like forever. Feels like yesterday. I think about him all the time, but not often enough. I hate crying, but I wish there were more tears. It’s tough to keep busy, and even harder not to.

I’m functioning far too well. I should be inconsolable. I’m not especially looking for clarity, wisdom or perspective right now. I’d rather be a full-time grouch, sour and abrasive. Why am I not more devastated and immobilized, angry and bitter? Is this all the sorrow I can muster?  We buried him seven weeks ago. He’s not coming back.

So how many kids do you have, Dan Stringer?

I have two. Well, actually I have one, I mean two, depending how you count…

And how are you holding up after the death of your 18-month-old son, Dan Stringer?

Well, at least my other child hasn’t kicked the bucket yet. And how are you doing this fine morning?

I don’t always want to talk about Vincent, but I do. I don’t want to change the subject, but I do. I don’t want things to “normalize,” but I do. I don’t want the pain to stop, but I do. I don’t care what people think or how they attempt to theologize it, but I do. I don’t want people to freak out, but I do– kind of.

Moving forward has it’s merits, but I’d really prefer to stay right here. For now. Until I change my mind. Or not.

How can you help? Hit me with your best proverb, but don’t say a thing. Leave me alone, but fix me while you’re at it. Feel my pain, but don’t let it hurt you. Know my story, but keep it a secret. Be horrified in a composed way, concerned without asking questions. Show that you miss Vincent, but don’t worry about me. Think of him often, but turn off the spotlight. Consider me different so long as I blend in. Handle me with kid gloves. Treat me like I’m unbreakable. Understand me well. Don’t figure me out.

I hope my contradictions irritate you terribly. I hope they don’t bother you at all.

Do I want this loss to define me? Do I want to be known apart from it?

[See also Vincent’s CaringBridge page. Photo by Luminosity.]

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