A psychologist friend of mine has pointed me in the direction something called narrative therapy. I’m fascinated by the vistas it opens up, and not just for psychological practice.
It’s spurred me to address one of the gaps in my theology (which John has laid his finger on over at Skunk Egg Brick Walnut) — spiritual warfare, demons, demon-possession, that sort of thing.
Crucial to this is the emphasis on ‘extenalising the problem’ in narrative therapy, which is (once again) about how you tell the story…
Imagine that a young boy has been misbehaving.
His parents have started to talk about him as ‘a problem child’ or ‘a bad boy’.
And he’s begun to internalise it, applying it to himself as a self-description: ‘Why am I acting like this? Because I’m a bad boy.’
But what a narrative therapist would suggests is that the problem needs to be ‘externalised’. The patient needs to be detached from the problem. The story needs to be told differently.
Once the story is told differently, you can start dealing with the underlying issues as issues. It means you can treat the symptoms rather than the person.
(Natalie and I are trying to teach ourselves this. When one of us does something dopey, rather than saying ‘I’m an idiot’ we’re working at simply acknowledging: ‘That was a dopey thing to do’. No small task!)
And, as I said, this has got me thinking about demons and spiritual warfare — particularly as this is depicted in the Gospels. People get quite antsy about talking about demon possession and psychology in the same breath.
And I can see why. Either…
- You risk ‘demythologising’ the phenomena reported in the Gospels. You can flatten out the spiritual significance Jesus’ ministry to the demon afflicted. But Jesus is on about more than just self-help! The problem of our victimisation by sin, sickness, death and the devil runs much deeper than psychology can touch (cf. Mark 3.23-27).
- You risk ‘supernaturalising’ them. You can defend the discreteness and integrity of demon possession at the cost of unmooring it from anything familiar from our own experience of the world — I’ve had experience with people with mental illnesses but not (that I know of) with those who’re demon afflicted.
But I wonder if thinking of someone as demon afflicted might help keep the person and the problem separate.
Of course, in doing so it exposes us to the obvious danger of removing the problem from the sphere of human competence altogether. It can leave us feeling totally powerless (which may be appropriate — after all, what power do we really have in the face of something so complex and personally devastating?).
Worse, as a matter of historical fact, this kind of talk may have served a similar function to the unfolding discourse of madness Foucault traces in Madness and Civilization. It may have contributed to social exclusion, fear and paralysis.
But it doesn’t have to function this way, does it?
What if talking about demon possession can actually help externalise the problem?