Does the Bible have anything to say about mental health?
Isabelle Hamley introduces her co-edited book The Bible and Mental Health
Chris Cook and I met a couple of years ago, after Archbishop Justin asked us to put together a conference on the church and mental health, to explore how churches can engage with mental health challenges and foster wellbeing. It didn’t take us long to identify that whilst there are books about faith and mental health, not much was written specifically on the Bible and mental health. Often preachers shy away from some of the difficult passages, or simply do not think they have the skills to tackle mental health as an angle on a text. Both of us had heard horror stories of sufferers who were told that Christians should not have depression, or should just pray. And both of us had met many people for whom therapy and church were simply two, completely separate worlds with little interaction. Yet both of us felt that Scripture has so much to contribute to what it means to be human, that it is full of stories of pain and trauma, and invites us to consider the fullness of human life and God’s participation within it. And so this book was born.
It is an interdisciplinary book, which weaves together Biblical studies, pastoral theology, psychology/psychiatry and practical experience of ministry together. We invited many contributors who each bring a different angle on how to draw on Scripture to speak about mental health; on the difficulties that Scripture presents, and on how we may integrate two worlds that are often kept apart. What we all have in common is our passion for Scripture. The Bible is full of stories, and these stories are full of complex people facing situations as difficult and puzzling as we do today. In the pages of Scripture, we meet others much like us, and are invited into the journey that they take. These journeys are as diverse as there are people; but no experience is outside of God’s invitation to walk with him. Whether it is Elijah’s desperate flight to the desert, terrified by the rulers of the day and overwhelmed by the task ahead of him, the Psalmists’ desperate cries of anguish, demanding to know ‘how long’, the prophet’s articulation of the trauma of displacement and exile, we see a whole gamut of emotions and struggles, and between them, one constant: God’s presence, and God’s care for those who struggle. Of course, Scripture is not a psychology text book. It does not use the categories we use today, does not label those who struggle with specific diagnoses. Sometimes, it is unclear whether what is described is a mental health condition, a physical ailment, or a spiritual problem. But isn’t this just like life? Real life is not compartmentalised, and the people we meet are three dimensional, with complex lives and many different strands to their stories. We hope that the biblical texts we explore in this book will help readers see the affinity with the characters, and the invitation to keep spirituality and mental health together. We also hope it will show church leaders and preachers that there is ample material to read and use in our churches to foster discussion on mental health and wellbeing. Mental ill health and questions around what wellbeing looks like are not new, and they are part of normal human life. To speak about them openly, and cast them as part of our human journey with God, is an essential part in breaking taboos and stigma around mental health challenges. It can also help us have fruitful discussion on what well being means, and how churches and individuals can contribute to wellbeing, and create safe spaces for all of us to talk honestly.
This is not just a book about the Bible as text however, but about how we interact with the Bible in practice. It contains reflections on liturgy, on the role of communities of faith, and on the pitfalls and challenges that Scripture presents. In the context of Covid 19, and the sharp increase in struggles with mental health, it is even more important that Christians reflect both practically and theologically on what it means to walk with those who struggle, and to walk as those who struggle ourselves. The good news is that the book that undergirds much of Christian liturgy, songs, hymns and spirituality has an enormous wealth to offer, giving us both stories to enter and prayers to participate in. We hope that this book will contribute to opening up these stories and prayers for all to consider and ponder, so that they would shape both Christian public discourse and action.
Isabelle Hamley is chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.