Christian Books

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Care of Souls by David G. Benner

Care of Souls: Revisioning Christian Nurture and Counsel
David G. Benner
Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998
252 pages

Rating: 8 out of 10

Quick Summary: Dr. David G. Benner, a Christian clinical psychologist, has researched and written on many topics relating to the Christian faith and psychology (more revues of his books will follow).  In reading Care of Souls, it is obvious that this work is a culmination of his many years of scholarship, teaching, and clinical work.  The primary audiences for this book are pastors and Christian mental health workers.
  In part 1, he examines the history and development of soul care and sets the direction for recovering Christian soul care in our current therapeutic context.  In part 2, he discusses practical aspects of giving and receiving Christian soul care such as dialogue, dreams, etc. 

Evangelical Assessment: Benner’s book is intentionally integrative.  He sees the soul as the meeting place of both the spiritual and psychological, therefore there is much overlap in these two disciplines and insights can be shared.  Depending where one is at on the Evangelical spectrum, you may either approach this book with open arms or suspicion. 
Most would agree with Benner’s statement of the goal of Christian soul care, “… the overarching goal of Christian soul care may be thought of as character formation – the formation of the character of Christ within his people” (32).  Also, he emphasizes the role of Christian community in this character formation.
In upholding the primacy of Scripture for Evangelicals, there are times when I found myself thinking that what Benner says is true, but it could have been presented with a more scriptural foundation.  For instance, his argument for a holistic view of personhood is biblically and theologically shallow at best. 
In having said this, I did find that this book is generally grounded in Scripture, the work of Jesus Christ, and Christian history, but the biblical and theological are not always obvious or explicit, which will concern some Evangelicals who read it.  Still, this is an insightful book and can move us toward the recovery of a distinctively Christian approach to soul care.

Who might this book interest? Pastors and Christian mental health care workers should read this book.  Professionals in helping people need to approach their work from a more explicitly Christian frame of reference, and Benner’s work can help us with this task.  For his stated audiences, as well as for any Christian who experiences vivid dreams and regularly recalls them, his chapter on dreams may be worth the price of the book for you.

Author’s bio: Dr. David G. Benner is many things: a clinical psychologist, university professor, author, lecturer, spiritual director, and retreat leader.  He has an MA and PhD in clinical psychology from York University, and has done postdoctoral work at the Chicago Institute of Psychoanalysis.  Over the course of his long career, he has worked in many clinical and academic settings.  Currently, Dr. Benner is the Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Spirituality at Richmont Graduate University in Atlanta, Georgia.  His many years as a clinician and academic as well as his experience as a spiritual director and retreat leader provide a strong psychological and spiritual basis for this work.  For more information, please Dr. Benner’s website:

Contents: David Benner’s book is very good on a historical and theoretical level, but at times, lacking in the Biblical and practical realm of Christian nurture and counsel.  He identifies the audience for this book as “pastors and Christian mental health professionals” (13).  I do believe that both may benefit from reading it, but the dense prose may discourage many into quitting before reaping the benefits.  Why “Soul Care”?  Benner says, “The soul is the meeting point of the psychological and the spiritual” (14).  He envisions a revitalization of Christian counsel and spirituality.  He summarizes this by stating, “The key to these possibilities is the recovery of the rich tradition of historic Christian soul care, enriched by the best insights of modern therapeutic psychology” (15).  I appreciate his goal.
            How does Benner pursue this path?  He begins in Part 1 by helping us to understand soul care.  In chapter 1, he asks, “What is soul care?” (21)  His answer, “In summary, therefore, we can define soul care as the support and restoration of the well-being of persons in their depth and totality, with a particular concern for their inner life” (23).  He then continues to trace the history of soul care through the Greeks, Jews, and into Christianity beginning with Jesus.  He gives many examples from Christianity such as: Evagrius Ponticus and John Cassian from the Desert Fathers, St. Dorotheos from the Greek Orthodox, and Luther and Zwingli from the Reformation.  The four primary elements of soul care are: healing, sustaining, reconciling, and guiding (31).  He draws six tentative conclusions from this chapter.  These are: Christian soul care is something we do for each other, not to ourselves; it operates within a moral context; it is concerned about community not just individuals; it is normally provided through the medium of dialogue within the context of a relationship; it does not focus on some narrow spiritual aspect of personality but addresses the whole person; and it is much too important to be restricted to the clergy or any other single group of people (32-34). 
            Chapter 2 speaks of, “The Rise of Therapeutic Soul Care” (35).  Benner notes the road from the care of souls to the cure of minds, was paved with the lack of Catholic and Protestant soul care.  Generally, modern pastoral counseling has uncritically followed the lead of the “current psychological fads” (39).  He says, “However, while therapeutic psychology has much to offer Christian soul care, it is not the great hope of the church, nor is its basic message the same as the gospel” (40).  I appreciate this common, but sometimes overlooked distinction from Benner.  He continues the discussion by noting that for many people therapeutic soul care has become a religion.  In the entire work, a key insight for me was Benner’s recognition of the connection between psychological and spiritual experience.  He says, “Our relationship with God is mediated by the same psychological processes and mechanisms as those that mediate relationships with other people.  Consequently, the illumination of those processes and mechanisms has the potential to provide great help in understanding and facilitating a person’s spiritual response” (48).  I think that this has important applications in one’s psychological and spiritual functioning and relationships.  Therapeutic soul care has made significant advances that may be incorporated into Christian soul care without distorting the basic message of Christian soul care.
            Chapter 3 discusses “The Boundaries of the Soul” (51).  He argues from theological, psychological, and medical sources for the unity of the person.  He refers to this as the “Somatopsychospiritual” (62).  We are a unity of body, mind, and soul.  I agree with his basic premise in this chapter.  As a person, even if Scripture does identify different aspects or parts of our person, the person is still a unified whole.  Yet, Scripture does make distinctions, and also, I think that diagnostically distinguishing the parts of the whole can at times be helpful.  While issues will affect the total person, it may be more difficult to treat the total person if specific areas cannot be isolated for treatment.  For the sake of his argument, this is an important point.  It would weaken the connection between the spiritual and psychological if he did not argue for this holism.
            Chapter 4 examines the relationship of psychology and religion and then looks at several psychological understandings of spirituality.  While there has existed a love-hate relationship between religion and psychology, the two need each other.  He says, “Psychology, according to Tillich, seeks to understand the structure of being while theology seeks to understand its meaning” (69).  Benner sees the potential for a mutually beneficial relationship.  Keeping in mind the relationship of our psychospiritual functioning in relationship to God, others, and ourselves, Benner provides a further statement, “What we seem to need, therefore, is a view of spirituality that situates such experience within the overall framework of psychospiritual functions and processes of personality” (70).  He then examines Analytic psychology, We-psychology, Existential psychology, and Contemplative psychology in relation to spirituality.  Benner concludes, “This review of several of the systems of psychology that address spirituality demonstrates that spirituality does not need to stand outside the domain of psychology” (86).  Psychology does not have to exclude spirituality.  It can be incorporated into psychology, and some psychological theories have incorporated it.
            Chapter 5 works to define and explain “Christian spirituality” (87).  He distinguishes Nonreligious spirituality, Religious spirituality, and Christian spirituality.  Drawing on the history of Christian spirituality, he continues with various ways Christians experience God.  These are considered “in relationship to two bipolar scales: kataphatic/apophatic scale and a speculative/affective scale” (91).  Kataphatic uses the imagination and images (91).  Apophatic utilizes an emptying technique of meditation (92).  Speculative approaches encounter God with the mind (92).  Affective approaches encounter God in experience (93).  So, what is Christian spirituality?  Benner provides several distinctive characteristics: Christian spirituality begins with a response of the call of Spirit to spirit; is rooted in a commitment to Jesus and a transformational approach to life; is nurtured by the means of grace; involves a deep knowing of Jesus and, through him, the Father and the Spirit; requires a deep knowing of oneself; leads to the realization of the unique self whom God ordained we should be; is uniquely developed within the context of suffering; is manifest by a sharing of the goodness of God’s love with others and in care for his creation; and finally, expresses that goodness in celebration in Christian community (95).  Benner concludes, “In summary, it should be apparent that Christian spirituality relates to all of life and should affect all of life” (107).
             Chapter 6 considers “The Psychospiritual Focus of Soul Care” (109).  Based on the unity of the person, Benner asserts, “No problem of the inner person is either spiritual or psychological; all problems are psychospiritual” (110).  Because of the key insight that I mentioned earlier, I think that this chapter holds a high degree of importance for understanding the spiritual and psychological and recognizing which we are dealing with in a given counseling context.  How are we to discern the spiritual in the psychological?  There are several ways: the quest for identity; the quest for relatedness; the quest for happiness; the quest for success; the quest for perfection; the quest for truth and justice; the quest for beauty; the quest for stimulation; and the quest for mystery.  These provide valuable clues of the spiritual within the psychological.  Since these occur within the same psychological structures and mechanisms, we also need to discern the psychological within the spiritual.  Benner says, “Christians often hide behind God-talk” (125).  They may be experiencing depression, anxiety, or a number of other psychological problems that are hidden behind spiritual terms.  Lastly, Benner provides some characteristics of psychospiritual health: a movement from egocentricity and self-preoccupation to self-sacrificing love; a movement from willfulness to willingness; and increasing personal freedom from guilt, anxiety, bondage and to growth (126-127).
            Part 2 of the book covers giving and receiving soul care.  In chapter 7, Benner continues the soul care discussion with “Dialogue in Soul Care” (131).  He defines dialogue, “Dialogue can, therefore, be thought of as conversational and engagement that expands understanding of self, others, and the world” (132).  Referring to the philosopher, Martin Buber, Benner says, “According to Buber, all real living exists in meeting others, and the place where we meet them is in dialogue” (137).  Martin Buber’s book, I-Thou, has been incredibly influential in philosophy and psychology.  Buber argues that “true dialogue can only occur in a relationship between equals” (137).  I would like to explore in what sense he means, “equals.”  By virtue of our personhood, all people are of equal value and worth.  It seems that either Buber or Benner may be speaking in terms of social class.  For Benner to make such an important point of it, I wish that he had attempted to more closely define what he was addressing.  Benner then mentions the contributions of the various psychotherapies to soul care.  Freud contributed the importance of nonverbal communication and listening with openness to the phenomenological experience of the other (138).  Rogers contributed the three necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic change: empathy, respect, and congruence (139).  Harry Stack Sullivan debunks “the myth of objectivity in clinical interviews” (140).  Benner summarizes these contributions to the therapeutic conversation, “the manifest content of the conversation, the phenomenological experience of the other, the latent content of the conversation, and one’s own phenomenological experience” (140).  According to Benner, therapeutic soul care has its limitations in terms of Buber’s dialogue between equals.  Next, Benner considers “Pastoral Conversation” (143).  He points out the opportunity for dialogue within the unique moral context of pastoral conversation.  Finally, he points to the need for soul care as a genuine dialogue between two people (148).  What prevents a genuine encounter?  Benner mentions several things that may prevent this: an overly rational approach; an intellectualization may limit dialogue; a lack of knowing one’s self; a lack of courage and fear of intimacy; and finally, a need for control (149-151).  In concluding this chapter, Benner provides eight practical suggestions for providers of soul care: dialogue is facilitated by personal preparation; it is also facilitated by setting aside all desires except love; it should be the inner experience of the one receiving care; listen for the imbedded spiritual significance of whatever is being discussed; listen with respect; attend to your own experience in the dialogue; invite moral reflection on the matters under discussion; and lastly, don’t be afraid of judicious advice, suggestions, or offerings of direction (152-155).
            Chapter 8 discusses “Dreams, the Unconscious, and the Language of the Soul.”  For me, this was an interesting discussion.  While I hardly ever remember my dreams, my wife has very clear and vivid dreams, and sometimes, they have even included a prophetic element to them.  Scripturally, this is appropriate.  Prophetic dreams are commonplace in Scripture.  They also reveal our inmost thoughts (Dan. 2.30).  So, there is an aspect of them revealing our unconscious mind (158).  Thus, there is a relationship between the unconscious and Christian spirituality, but many Christians view this subjective, experiential view with great suspicion.  Benner continues by discussing “The Unconscious and Wholeness” (161).  He states, “One of the most important things we have learned from depth psychology is that there can be no wholeness apart from the redemption of the unconscious” (161).  A healthy relationship between the conscious and unconscious is necessary for spiritual and psychological health.  This is another interesting insight for me.  In a Christian way, we need to integrate our personality.  How can dream work be incorporated into soul care?  Benner suggests that regular journaling that focuses on the inner life is the first step.  Incorporating the insights of depth psychology and Christian spirituality, Benner suggests eight principles of working with dreams (165).  There are: welcome dreams as a gift from God; recognize that some dreams are more profitable for dream work than others; recognize that, with the help of God, the dreamer is the one best able to discern the significance of the dream; view the dream as offering questions rather than answers, advice, or prophetic revelations; view dreams as parables; pay particular attention to repetitions; recognize that people and objects in dreams usually are best understood as representing parts of self; and undertake dream work within a context of Christian disciplines and community (165-172).  Then, Benner continues by suggesting some techniques for dream work.  The basic techniques are: immediately upon awakening after significant dreams, write a dream report; at the earliest possible good time for reflection, give the dream a title and identify its theme, dominant affects, and the major questions that it raises; and make opportunities for prayer, Scripture study, and reflection on questions suggested by the dream (174-177).  The advanced techniques are: pay careful attention to the details of the dream and write down your associations to each major symbol; identify and pay particular attention to your dream ego; and conduct an imaginary conversation with the dream ego (178-183).  I find myself curious and really wanting to experiment with dream work.  I come from a Christian tradition that would not readily accept dreams as an important source for moving toward health, but it seems that there is more than thoughts, behaviors, and emotions that we need to consider in psychological and spiritual nature, and it is often not addressed.
            Chapter 9 discusses various “Forms of Christian soul care” (185).  These various kinds are: family soul care, mutual soul care, pastoral care, lay counseling, Christian counseling, pastoral counseling, spiritual direction, Christian psychotherapy, and intensive soul care (187-200).  This is where I first discovered the distinction between counseling and psychotherapy.  Counseling being more short-term and solution oriented, while psychotherapy being more long-term and oriented toward resolving root issues.  Also, the idea to read Bernard Tyrrell’s Christotherapy II came from Benner’s discussion of intensive soul care.  Benner holds Tyrrell’s as a well-developed model of intensive soul care.
            Chapter 10 looks at the “Challenges of Christian Soul Care” (205).  What are the qualifications of those who provide soul care?  He suggests seven characteristics of those who care for souls: possess a deep and genuine love for people; be people who are trustworthy and who are capable of trusting others; be spiritually and psychologically mature; characterized by genuineness, honesty, interpersonal accessibility, internal congruence, and candor; have a deep faith that light will overcome darkness; be characterized by wisdom and humility (206-212).  What are the demands of soul care?  These are: truthfulness, personal growth, and its practitioners not seek gratification of their personal needs within soul care relationships (212-214).  What are the challenges of soul care?  Those who provide soul care must: guard against the erosion of the personal in such care; develop an integrated inner core; continuously renew their own inner psychospiritual resources; not allow professionalism to dilute a sense of Christian vocation; rediscover the formative and transforming power of story; recover the uniquely Christian resources of soul care; and avoid sacrificing being on the altar of doing (215-222). 
            Lastly, Chapter 11 discusses receiving soul care.  Who needs soul care?  His answer is everyone (223), yet he does go on to specify specific groups.  Those who seek: to provide soul care themselves; freedom from inner bondage; greater depths of psychospiritual maturity and vitality; and assistance in developing a moral perspective on their life (224-226).  Next, he provides some general principles for those seeking soul care: those who provide soul care should themselves have an experience of receiving the form of care they provide; they should also experience a form of care that complements the primary focus of that which they provide; the greater the sphere of one’s influence over others, the greater the need for a form and intensity of soul care that ensures deep and genuine knowing of both self and God; the presence of significant distress indicates a need to select a form of soul care with a therapeutic focus; a desire for spiritual growth suggests that one consider a relationship of spiritual direction; prior experiences with one form of soul care should suggest consideration of another form when the need next arises; and generally, one should not simultaneously engage in multiple therapeutic soul care relationships (226-228).  Concerning choosing a soul guide, an initial interview is helpful.  It is important for the guide to be able to state a theoretical approach for the type of care that they provide.  Also, the one seeking soul care should develop a general sense of whether or not they could receive soul care from this person.  How should we prepare for soul care?  Self-reflection is helpful to prepare for soul care.  Self-reflection may be aided by solitude, contemplative prayer, journal writing, and writing an autobiography (231-232).  We may identify our characteristic patterns of self-deception with rationalizations, denial, and projections (232).  We may reflect on our symptoms of obsessions, addictions, anxieties, depression, and anger (233).  In addition, we may reflect on our spiritual health and note areas of weakness, deficiency, or pathology (234).  Finally, we should reflect on our relationships (235). 

Theology: Dr. Benner works from an Evangelical theology.  His training is in psychology, and he recognizes that he is not a professional theologian or Bible scholar.  At times, one may wish that he was more biblically and theologically informed, but he generally does an adequate job of representing a distinctively Evangelical theology.  He is more competent in discussing Christian soul care historically and theoretically than biblically and theologically.
            As noted above, this book is integrative.  In the context of the soul, he seeks to integrate Christian soul care with the best insights of therapeutic psychology.  There are times that his integration is more psychological than scriptural.  Admittedly, this is always the challenge with a clinically trained psychologist in this type of work.  I do think that Benner is grounded in Scripture and the Gospel, but at times, one wishes that it was more explicit and obvious, especially when the goal of the book is to recover a distinctively Christian approach to the care of souls.
            Here is one positive and one negative thing.  He does incorporate the importance of the Christian community in soul care.  The role of the Holy Spirit only gets a brief mention.  The church is to be that Christian community which provides the context for soul care.  The Holy Spirit provides the empowerment, guidance, and illumination for that work.
Research: Most of Dr. Benner’s research is sufficient.  As noted, he is stronger in the psychological than the biblical and theological.  I have another observation concerning his research.  I think that he perpetuates a common misunderstanding of Martin Buber.  Many who have not thoroughly studied Buber believe that he contrasts I-Thou and I-It relationships while in actuality he does not.  He sees them as a unity.  While I am not a scholar of Martin Buber, I have read enough scholarly works to become frustrated with this persistent misrepresentation of Buber’s work.

Writing: Dr. Benner is writing to a professional audience.  Initially, I had a difficult time entering into reading this book.  I have referred to it as “dense prose” which I think is accurate, but admittedly, it is an academic book and written for specific audiences of professionals.  In light of this, I think that he does a good job of explaining some very lofty, theoretical concepts.  I would have liked to have had more illustrations and personal anecdotes, but I realize that this may not be consistent with writing this type of work.

Application: Pastors and Christian mental health care workers should read this book.  Professionals in helping people need to approach their work from a more explicitly Christian frame of reference and Benner’s work can help us with this task.

1 comment:

  1. I would encourage you to visit David G. Benner's website and read his bio and his blog article "All in the Family." Also his very much promoted connection with Fr. Rohr. Benner's alleged "evangelical" theology is only apparent, as is very evident in his own words at these sites.


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