A while ago I read and reviewed a book by Michael Free that sought to integrate the teachings of Jesus with the practice of cognitive behavioural therapy. I have been asked a couple of times about my take on the book, so I decided to post it.
The title, CBT and Christianity, I find to be slightly misleading. Although Free identifies himself as within the broad context of Christianity, this book makes it clear that the subject of Jesus is approached from a humanistic/secular view of the historical Jesus instead of what might be understood to be within the stream of Christianity as it is traditionally understood and experienced. As such, the view taken of who Jesus actually was is presented as similar to one’s view of Buddah, Muhammed, or Joseph Smith. A discussion on the topic of Jesus does not, by default, fall under the umbrella of Christianity. This is especially true in today’s age where almost every reputable scholar/historian believes that the person of Jesus actually existed. In fact, extra-biblical sources so readily attest to this that no scholar worth his salt denies the existence of Jesus of Nazareth. The common academic approach is currently to divorce the “historical” Jesus from the divine aspects of his person and attribute such writings that refer to the divine to the longing desires and confusion of the ancient church fathers as they attempt to redefine his teaching in his absence post crucifixion. The approach taken in discussing Jesus is similar to the one taken by Thomas Jefferson in the 1700’s. Having said that, just because the perspective that the topic is viewed from doesn’t fall within orthodox Christianity does not mean that it is inherently incorrect or does not have insights to share on the topic.
As a current Biblical Studies major, I would have liked to see a bit more variety in the source material cited in regards to the “historical” Jesus. Free appears to rely heavily on a couple of sources (Horsley, Duling and Perrin, Perrin, Funk) which seem to inform the majority of his foundational points regarding the historical Jesus. While Free may have consulted quite a few other sources and pulled from a diverse field of scholarship, that is not immediately apparent in the sources that are cited. Secondly, Free pulls quite a bit of content from the Jesus Seminars of Funk, which I find unfortunate. For a work such as this which attempts to take an objective, academic approach to a topic that, unfortunately, has historically not been approached objectively, referring excessively to the Jesus Seminars detracts from the scholarly reputation. I say this because although the Jesus Seminar movement had a couple reputable scholars, the majority of the involved people were of less than outstanding academic merit. Additionally, this movement, which claimed to approach the topic of Jesus from an objective, historical viewpoint, they were personally approaching the topic from a fairly common understanding of the topic. For the movement to have academic merit it should have included reputable scholars from a wider range of viewpoints such as secular, religious, liberal, conservative, and various faith traditions, etc. The movement itself has also drawn criticism for the weighing method that it uses for its voting process. Overall, I think that relying as heavily as Free does on Funk and the Jesus Seminars takes away a little bit of academic and objective appeal. However, as this book is not primarily focused on arguments for or against the historical Jesus, such things are minor complaints. Again, as I am a theology student at an evangelically aligned institution, my opinion on such matters will be viewed as having a certain bias, although I would argue that such a thing as a perfectly objective opinion does not exist on either side of the debate. While I see several discrepancies in the approach in interpreting the biblical content in its original historical/cultural context, that is not necessarily the point of the book, so I will forgo mentioning them.
Having said all of that, Free does quite a good job of summarizing some of the work that has been done on the topic of Jesus and lays it out in a way that is clear and gives an almost panoramic view of Jesus. I especially enjoyed his section that parses the various teachings of Jesus and breaks them down into applications of logic. He does a very nice job of making a bridge between the application of logic (which I am gathering is widely used in CBT) and the teachings of Jesus. I feel that Free does a good job of pulling together the views of the teachings of Jesus and puts them into a paradigm that is foundational to seeing them of use in a practical way.
Free also did a good job of providing an overview of some of the relevant psychological concepts and terms in such a way as to enable an outsider to the field (me) to understand the basic tenants of the topic.
Having finished the first part of the book, I felt like Free laid a foundation that he can build upon to further his main points.
The second half of the book moved from the conceptual to the practical. Having spent the first section of the book building a set of constructs in the mind of the reader by which to anchor the practical aspects of the premise, Free then explores the various teachings attributed to Jesus and contained in the collective narrative that we have of his life. These teachings are catalogued topically and are discussed in remarkable detail. Free breaks down the content into the meaning that the original audience would have understood, addressed aspects of why the said topic was revolutionary or disruptive to the cultural norm, and demonstrates how the particular teaching has application in the modern context of therapy.
I was impressed by the thoroughness of Free’s content. The amount of narrative content that he addressed and the way that content could be applied was substantial. I feel like one thing that he did really well was to present the material in such a way that a therapist who had no prior knowledge of aspects of the Christian faith or the teachings of Jesus would have (in my opinion) come away with not only a baseline understanding of the biblical content but also a developing tool kit that could be used in sessions with Christian clients. The methodical nature of Free’s writing demonstrated his knowledge of the topic and ability to effectively communicate for instruction purposes.
If I had to list a downside to the book, I would say that I found the book to have an underlying tone that may turn off readers from a broader range of opinions on the historical nature of Jesus. I found this to be true especially in the areas that touched on the field of textual criticism (both higher and lower). For example, Free said at one point that, “These passages may not be useful for the the more scholarly aware clients, but they still have a clear message that is useful fore people prepared to accept all of the Gospel content as relevant for them” (Free, 286). I understand the point that Free was trying to make, and it is a valid point. However, the word choice implies that one cannot be a scholarly aware individual and yet have an opinion that differs from the quoted Funk and colleagues. Especially since Free had just mentioned a couple of pages earlier, when discussing the passages of Jesus knowing the future that, “Many modern commentators do not accept that these are authentic, because the commentators make the assumption that people are unable to predict the future” (Free, 281). Free recognizes that the scholarly opinion of the commentators is influenced by certain presuppositions that they hold. Obviously, these presuppositions do not render their scholarly work invalid, but it does colour their conclusions. In the same way, scholars from a more “traditional” view are going to be developing their conclusions from their own unique paradigm. However, their presuppositions do not invalidate their opinions or relegate them to the ideas of the “uneducated masses”. I feel that some therapists that exist within many traditional settings may be turned off by such an underlying tone. That would be a shame, as I feel like regardless of one’s theological leanings, this book takes a fresh approach to dealing with the teachings of Jesus and applying them in a therapeutic context for the benefit of both the individual client and society in general.
Overall, I enjoyed this book. I found it both intellectually stimulating and yet accessible. It was definitely worth what I paid for it and it introduced me to concepts that I could see myself exploring in personal, professional, and academic scenarios in the future.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy in Christianity- A Book Review