Singing Your Own Songs in Harmony with Voices from the Past

A response to the Christian Psychology of Larry Crabb Gary W. Moon

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Table of contents

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Introduction

I must begin with a commendation to both Kanz and Maier. Their essay was built around the clearly articulated goals of providing an overview of the life and writings of Larry Crabb and making a case for him being an exemplar of Christian psychology. They have accomplished these goals and their provision of an annotated bibliography of Crabb’s 25-and-counting books, is a gift to the field. Their scholarship and appreciation of Larry Crabb are wonderfully apparent. My first response is, “Thank you.”

My second response will take a bit longer.

I’ve known about the writing of Larry Crabb for more than three decades; and I’ve had the good fortune of knowing the person the majority of those years. At my first introduction to his ideas, I didn’t like them very much and put his books away. And later, my first correspondence with Larry made me so angry I stayed away from him altogether. But he has apologized and all is good now. Perhaps I should explain.

When I began a Ph.D. program in clinical psychology at a school known for the integration of that discipline with Christian thought, there were only three known approaches to harmonizing those disciplines: “Levels of Explanation;” “Biblical counseling,” and the focus of my program, “Integration.” At that time I had not realized that these approaches represented responses to what had happened within the discipline of psychology three-quarters of a century earlier. That is when “modern psychology” began to pack its bags to move across campus, leaving its place near the disciplines of philosophy and religion to move closer to its new family, the physical sciences.

But with this transition, modern psychology left behind a focus on invisible things like soul and spirit. It took a while, but there was a response from Christians in the field.

The “integration” approach was the response I thought was going to save the day. It would be a route for becoming a licensed mental health professional, respected by the APA, ACA and licensure boards, while also allowing a practitioner to be an out of the closet Christian. My fellow students and professors had heard of Larry Crabb, but there was some fear of bringing his books into the classroom or even putting them on your bookshelf. A psychologist writing about basic and effective principles for Biblical counseling, might just mess it up for the rest of us. So I diagnosed him as a slightly more appealing version of a nouthetic counselor and mentally wrote out a treatment plan, but stayed away.

Almost a decade later, degree and licensure in hand, and thousands of hours of clinical practice under my belt, I began to look around for someone who knew better approaches for integrating faith and practice than simply basting a secular ham with sacred glaze. I had become much more open to hearing from more explicit integrators, especially if they possessed the humility to admit feeling as if the clients in practice rooms were in need of “professional help.” And at a personal level I began to wonder why it was the saints and devotion masters who had written about the ideas that were healing my soul? And why was it not “okay” to bring those ideas into my work with others?

Then one day in the early 1990’s I got the idea to write a letter to fifteen individuals who were known for writing about what I could only think of as “clinical theology.” I asked each to join an advisory board for an institute, The Institute of Clinical Theology, that we would form together to look into the situation of modern psychology ignoring contributions from its soul care past. Fourteen of those I wrote, replied, “yes,” to my request. One person said, “no.” It was Larry. I think I mentioned that we got off on the wrong foot.

But in the years to come, he more than made up for this initial lapse of judgment, and we have had scores of wonderful conversations. I knew that we were on better ground when he invited me to attend a very special birthday party. I’ll not mention his age at the time.

At the party, an Elvis impersonator had been hired to entertain the birthday boy, Larry. The impersonator was good. But when he put the microphone in front of Larry’s lips, expecting a laugh at his host’s expense, the imitator got instead quite a shock. Larry began to do Elvis much better than the impersonator. In fact, there were moments when he did Elvis better than Elvis. Larry finished the concert while the hired singer sat in Larry’s former chair and watched the show, wearing admiration on his face, along with a slightly red glow of embarrassment.

I learned an important lesson that night about Larry the Christian psychologist. For him to pull off such an unexpected stunt like that took three things: a lot of talent, a lot of moxy, and a keen ear for when there is something good but slightly off key. And those are exactly the three things that have made Larry Crabb an exemplar in the field of Christian psychology: talent, moxy and an ear for knowing when other voices are not in perfect harmony with the past.

The Importance of Larry Crabb’s Voice

Training and Talent           

It is difficult to ignore Larry’s training and talent. At the very young age of 26 he earned a PhD in clinical psychology from one of the most prestigious academic programs in the country. While I had initially overlooked his contributions for bringing the terms “biblical counseling” to the integration movement; I had only studied about a noteworthy empirical psychologist like Ray Cattell. Larry had studied with him. No one, I discovered, could accuse Larry of leaning on the Bible because he didn’t know enough about the discipline of psychology.

And later, when, I had the privilege of working with Larry Crabb and David Benner in founding The Conversations Journal: A Forum for Authentic Transformation, I got an up close view of the keen mind, razor sharp insights and dazzling communication skills of Larry Crabb. The three of us sometimes mused that as a group we had the minimum amount of theological diversity to be truly ecumenical and the maximum amount that was tolerable. While Larry may have been the conservative theological anchor in the room, there was no debating that his intellect soared high.

I also found out at that time that Larry continued to write his books by hand. His word processor had lead on one end, yellow paint in the middle and a rubber delete feature on the other end. Like an artist with canvas and paint, he liked the physical connection to the images he was crafting. And he also seemed to create best with the smell of coffee grounds and the taste of latte. But don’t be fooled by the primitive word processor, it was driven by one of the fastest CPU’s I’ve ever witnessed.

Moxy

Moxy is a good description for how Larry operated. There are more descriptive words I could use, but my mother may read this. What else do you call it when a person is willing to use words that simultaneously offend psychologists, professional counselors, conservative Christians, liberal Christians and spiritual directors? And what do you call a person who seems nonplussed by the importance of both licensure and ordination? Or a Reformed thinker who got kicked out of a reformed seminary ironically named “Grace,” for showing too much kindness to thinkers like Freud? Especially if that person’s livelihood depends on, to a large extent, having psychologists, counselors, conservative Christians, and spiritual directors buy and recommend his books. I’d still have to go with “moxy.” But there may be a better descriptor. Larry is a natural reformer.

Statistically speaking, it seems that God has deemed it important to sprinkle in a few reformers, like yeast, into the dough of his creation. Reformers do not have an easy life. Often, they feel very alone. These are the individuals who are not confined by the normal boundaries that keep others fenced in the confines of academic disciplines or religions denominations. These are the rare people who dive so deep into the domains of knowledge that they get beneath the demarcations in their search for truth. And when they find it, they come back to the surface to share it with the rest of us. Many see the discoveries of these reformers as threats to their kingdoms. Others experience deep appreciation and set out to live their lives in a radically different way because of what has been offered. Larry is one of those who dives deeply and is willing to speak the words that have been found there. That takes a lot of moxy.

Harmony with Voices from the Past

Reformers who have an impact that jumps across generations have a keen ear for both cacophony and symphony. They know when notes are off. They know when they blend to produce something much more than a sum of the parts. In personal correspondence with Kanz and Maier (2015), Larry wrote these words concerning his early days as a practitioner of modern clinical psychology: “…What professionals called ‘psychotherapy’ could better be understood as passionate, wisdom-based conversations.” And as Kanz and Maier offer, this understanding has persisted in Larry’s writing and thinking.

Larry has followed his own words in a search for wisdom-based answers for life’s problems and pain, especially in the area of relationships. During his career he has followed that path from modern psychology through the pages of Scripture and back to the ancient domain of spiritual formation and direction. While not dismissing wisdom from modern psychology, he has heard and harmonized with voices from other disciplines and across the ages.

Willard and Crabb

One of the reasons I like the thought and work of Larry Crabb so much is because there are so many places where his contributions harmonize with another person who worked to provide a truly Christian psychology, Dallas Willard. Like Dallas, Larry also: 1) is highly trained in one academic discipline, but better known for writing in another; 2) has a high view of Scripture and peppers most published paragraphs with Biblical references; 3) is very familiar with personal pain; 4) looks to the past while writing to modern audiences; 5) is driven to find wise answers to the most foundational questions concerning how to live well; 6) sees the church as a living laboratory for learning how to live well; 7) has spent a career waging war against the ideas of modernism; and 8) stayed grounded by a few driving and consistent concerns.

I did not mention that each is known for a marvelous baritone voice, but I will focus below on four of the key ideas that, in my opinion, unite the work of Dallas Willard and Larry Crabb and lay a solid foundation for a truly Christian psychology.

Robust Metaphysical Realism: Invisible Things are also Real: As Kanz and Maier observe, understanding and interacting with the Trinity is very important to the work of Larry Crabb. He sees the word “perichoresis” or the Trinity’s ongoing dance of other centered love, as being a model for human relationships with each other and with God and as something that actually exists. Foundational to the thought of Dallas Willard is a belief in a robust metaphysical realism (Willard, 1997). Both believe that invisible things like the Trinity and the Kingdom of God are part of reality as much and more so than are lab rats, salivating dogs and even electrochemical reactions in the brain.

Epistemic Realism: It is Possible to Learn from and Interact with Invisible Reality: While Willard’s work in the area of epistemic realism is more obvious and is meticulously conveyed in his books, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding how God Changes Lives (Willard, 1988), and Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God (Willard, 1984/2012), Crabb’s belief in the ability to interact with and draw knowledge from invisible reality, and his willingness to write about this is remarkable. His book 66 Love Letters (Crabb, 2009) is quite literally, a running conversation between Larry and the Divine, which also invites the reader into the story of God. At the heart of so much of the writings of both Willard and Crabb is the belief that the pathway to true happiness and blessing is found in living life in a restored relationship with the living and communicating Trinity and that our best opportunity for putting the good news of Jesus into practice (living interactively with the Trinity here and now) is found in our current relationships.

Christian Anthropology: We are Designed for Just Such Interaction: Both Crabb (1987/2013) and Willard (2002) like to teach about the person using models of concentric circles. While the number of circles drawn may have been different, both used such flat maps to convey aspects of the person that would be included in modern psychology: cognitive, physical/behavioral, and affective/emotional, as well as the aspect of volition. And they both described the interactive nature of these aspects as well as the importance of the unconscious mind as well. But more importantly to the development of a Christian psychology, both Crabb and Willard believed in the importance of aspects of the person largely ignored by modern psychology; invisible, immeasurable aspects of the person such as soul, spirit and the deepest longings of the heart.

Knowledge Produces Authentic Transformation: As Kanz and Maier underscore, Crabb’s primary motivation for writing Effective Biblical Counseling (Crabb, 1977) was his determination to “understand a biblical theology of how change occurs.” And he came to view the primary goal of Christian living as a growth in maturity, which involves immediate obedience to God and long-range growth of character.

Like Crabb, Willard also believed that obedience is the “engine” that pulls the train of transformation and maturity of character. And he believed that authentic transformation happens in the normal events of life as we center our minds on Christ, yield to the actions of the Holy Spirit and take on new habits of character through planned and practiced spiritual disciplines. That is, to be living in an eternal sort of way through the experience of a transforming friendship with the Trinity. And that is, by knowing God (John 17.3). And if the knowing is real, it should produce real and measurable change within the individual (Willard, 2009).

Real and measurable change; now this is a desirable outcome on which both Christian psychology and modern psychology can agree.

Summary

This has been a remarkably positive critique. I believe that it is deserved. If pressed I could and have (in conversation with Larry) offered a few ideas for things that could be improved upon. It is my subjective opinion that Larry underestimates the importance of his own training in modern psychology as well as the importance of his own intuitive skills in teaching others his approach to counseling and spiritual direction. I believe to most effectively teach others the insights and experiential skills he offers would require years of systematic study as opposed to a single class or retreat.

And speaking of “spiritual direction,” I wish Larry would call his training schools by a different name. Not because what is taught is not in that broad domain but because it is so different from what is usually associated with spiritual direction. Larry offers remarkable “schools of Biblical wisdom,” which draw from the domains of Christian psychology, Biblical counseling and historic models of soul care. That is a mouthful, but I do believe different nomenclature would help to clarify any potential confusion with the current climate of spiritual direction training.

And, if I’m being completely honest, I wish Crabb were 50% more excited about classical spiritual exercises and 50% less excited about reformed theology. I have tried and failed to get him more on board by pointing out that Jesus was a frequent participant in spiritual disciplines. And I’ve tried to at least plant the seed in Larry’s mind that it is unlikely that Jesus would adopt a plan for withholding his best thinking for 1,500 years before releasing it.

But that is the 1%. The 99% is that I believe Crabb is an exemplar of Christian psychology and I applaud and affirm that his foundations for writing are also crucial pillars to a Christian approach to psychology: obedience to Christ, perichoretic life with the Trinity, understanding and following the deepest desires of one’s heart, learning to mortify the “flesh” (bendiness not body) while vivifying the spirit, including Biblical truth and wisdom as anchor points for understanding the person and pathway to deep happiness, and the importance of diving deeply enough to find unifying truth.

References

Crabb, L. Jr. (1977). Effective biblical counseling. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Crabb, L. Jr. (1987/2013). Understanding people: Why we long for Relationship. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Crabb, L. Jr. (2009). 66 love letters. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

Crabb, L. Jr. (2009). Real Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

Crabb, L. Jr. (2015). Personal correspondence between Larry Crabb, Jason E. Kanz and Bryan N. Maier. September 17.

Willard, D. (1988). The spirit of the disciplines. San Francisco: Harper.

Willard, D. (1997). The divine conspiracy: Rediscovering our hidden life in God San Francisco: Harper.

Willard, D. (2002). Renovation of the heart: Putting on the character of Christ. Colorado Springs: NavPress.

Willard, D. (2009). Knowing Christ today: Why we can trust spiritual knowledge. New York: HarperCollins.

Willard, D. (1984/2012). Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God. Downers Grove, IL. IVP Books.

Gary W. Moon, Martin Institute and Dallas Willard Center Westmont College