Christian Pop-Psychology

My father and I have sometimes been puzzled by popular Christian books that rely on pop-psychology and language that sounds like materialist pop-psychology that has been airbrushed to sound Christian. Thus it was with the book that enthused about the healing effects of hiking, camping, adventuring, horse breaking, and imagining oneself to be William Wallace upon the soul. I’m with Chesterton in supposing that the worst possible reason to do something expressive of human joy, such as climbing a beautiful mountain, is because you would not be able to be joyful otherwise. If I understand correctly (which I may not), the Christian ascetics would more likely say that if you feel like you can’t rejoice in God without also climbing a beautiful mountain it would be worth while to sit in a rather dingy cave until it becomes possible to so rejoice. In the meantime it might actually be harmful to go on adventures of that kind, if one really believes that the physical adventure is necessary to them.

It’s that concept of necessity that makes me think that it’s far easier than we might like to think to make anti-Christian ideas appear Christian. If I understand it correctly (which, again, I may not), Christianity teaches that nothing is necessary to life, and even to joy, except God. It’s possible to be sitting in a prison cell with God, and be joyful. Except we’re all beginners at the spiritual life, and don’t know or love God very well. At least I am. And I suppose you are too, or you’d be too busy helping people and enjoying God to be reading this. Even so there isn’t much necessity. That’s part of what the fast of great lent is about, and Jesus’ command regarding fasts: if a person is fasting and is miserable, loud, and showy about it, then they haven’t caught on yet. They’re just replacing food with attention — why bother? But it’s possible also to be joyfully content with a salad and a cup of water and God. Or with just God. If Christianity is true. I mean, if it’s really, actually, truly true, as the fundamentalists would say — not just if we believe it to be true. If it’s true, and we believe it to be true.

The reason for the appeal of pop-Christian explanations of human desire is that they don’t explain those desires by ignoring them or saying flat out that they’re wrong. In that they’re right: it’s harmful to say that a desire is nothing at all. Say, as in the above example, a person is bored, lonely, apathetic, frustrated with life, and has a desire for adventure. It would be wrong to say that his desire is unreal, and that there’s no real fulfillment of it anywhere. But it’s equally false to say that because his desire is real then its’ fulfillment lies in whatever acceptable partial fulfillment his will directs itself toward. He wants adventure so he starts hunting grizzlies in the frozen north, for instance. And then, because he’s Christian, he thanks God for the opportunity to do so and goes on tour about how that was really God’s plan all along because he now feels better about his life. What if the fulfillment of the desire lay in God? Not in God’s plan that he go out and do something in the world, but simply in God?

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One thought on “Christian Pop-Psychology

  1. A few years ago, BBC produced a series on the “Century of the Self” showing how the application Freud’s theories and their descendants created the cult of self actualization. After watching that series in the last few days, I recognized that the precepts of this cult have permeated our culture to the extent that it even affects our understanding of Christian living. I can even see how it has affected the presentation of Orthodox Christianity. I wonder whether any author could sell his or her book if they rejected this starting point. Our consumer oriented society sells individualism, self actualization and desire satisfaction to the extent that nothing else sells.

    The premises of psychoanalysis and pop psychology have become so much a part of the perceived truth in our society, that Christian writers set sail from that position, either wittingly or unwittingly. Without anchoring ourselves to the father, the scripture and The Truth, we would also sail in those seas.

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