If men’s magazines are primarily in the entertainment business – girls, gadgets and gigs – then women’s magazines are primarily in the wisdom business – endless nuggets of self-help on everything from hair to him to HRT. Still, whether it’s actually wise to swallow any of the advice proffered or even to read any of it in the first place is quite another question. After all, women who read women’s magazines are, according to research, more depressed after reading them than they were before. Indeed, I have to report that after a couple of Good Housekeepings, aWoman at Home and a Cosmopolitan I wasn’t feeling too chipper myself. The depressive impact of these magazines naturally begs the question of why any woman in her right mind spends money on something that is likely to make her feel bad.
?Of course, this depressing impact may not apply to all magazines but if you’re a woman and concerned about your weight, your wardrobe, your hair, your skin, your ability to cook, to parent or to make love, then the average woman’s magazine is likely to make you feel inadequate about most or all of these. Naturally, the magazines do go on to address the very problems they’ve so ‘graciously’ made you aware of, offering advice on how you could be thinner, dress more fashionably, coiffe more stylishly, cook more imaginatively and make love more pleasurably. However, after 236 pages of something as apparently benign as Good Housekeeping, it’s still hard not to feel that there really is just too much to work on.
Last year, a new title strutted self-confidently onto the highly competitive, densely populated women’s magazine catwalk with the avowed intent of making women’s lives richer. And it purports to do this, not by ignoring the external, but by focusing on the internal.Psychologies, fresh from success in France in an apparently more intellectual version, is today Britain’s fastest growing women’s monthly. It sells just over 110,000 copies per month which already puts it in the same bracket as rather more famous titles like Harper’s, though a long way short of Glamour, the UK’s top-seller at 580,000.
If the title Psychologies and the strap line ‘make sense of your world’ make the magazine sound somewhat cerebral, then the groomed beauty on the front cover and the glossy design leave you in no doubt that it’s a populist mag. In fact, it includes most of the topics you might have come to expect from the women’s mag genre – relationships, fat, fashion and food. Similarly, its overtly psychological explorations are a parade of the usual suspects: self-esteem, selfunderstanding, finding the right person, keeping the right person, becoming the right person, growing in sexual confidence. What is slightly different is that the incessantly jaunty and salacious feel that characterises, say, Cosmo is replaced by a more measured, reflective and gentler tone and an extra level of what might be termed ‘depth’.
Most interesting is the very fact that a magazine dedicated to psychological well-being can attract and sustain a commercially viable audience. And that is perhaps one more piece of evidence, if any more were needed, of the yearning in our culture for emotional health, for wisdom for everyday ordinary living, for wise ways of dealing with the hurts of the past and the challenges of the present.
?Of course, we could see this negatively – here’s one more piece of evidence, if any more were needed, of the emotionally self-indulgent, selfobsessed, navel-gazing of our culture. Indeed, the suspicion of counselling that exists in some church circles relates precisely to this issue. After all, the deadliest sin is not lack of selfesteem but pride and the beginning of wisdom is not a grasp of Gestalt Therapy but fear of the Lord. Certainly, it is very difficult to see, for example, how secular psychological models can credibly sustain assertions about human self-worth without a belief in God. Why am I worth anything? Just because L’Oreal tells me I am? Just because I think I am? Just because you tell me I am? Ultimately, Psychologies is offering something it cannot deliver – emotional health and well-being outside a relationship with Christ. Human beings are valuable because they are created in the image of God, so valuable in fact that Christ gave his life that they might enjoy a loving relationship with Him now and into eternity.
Still, once that’s said, the concerns of a magazine like Psychologies and indeed of most women’s magazines reveal a tremendous desire to do life better. On the whole, this comes across as primarily as a self-focused desire – it is about my peace, my mental health, about me finding the right person to meet my needs, about me doing the right things to keep the right person wanting to stay with me. Nevertheless, the yearning for love and the desire to love well are surely legitimate. Indeed, the reality is that most of us, Christian or not, need help to love well.
Yes, we are new creations in Christ but that doesn’t mean that the damaging relational patterns I picked up as a child have instantly been expunged and no longer have any power to shape how I parent my own children. It doesn’t mean that I will find my worth in Christ and not in the logos I wear, the car I drive, the job I do or the partner I’m married to. The reality is that we, as human beings, are not only sinful but damaged by our own sin and the sins of others. We need healing. We need to grow in wholeness, in our capacity to receive love and in our capacity to give love well.?
God the healer
?In Exodus 15, after the great rescue from Egypt, God says this about himself to His people: “I am your healer”. The word used ‘rapha’ originally referred to the idea of ‘repairing’ something, sewing it back together. Indeed, the people of Israel were damaged goods, damaged by decades of oppression, requiring not just a new land to live in but new ways of living life that would break the patterns of the past. Similarly, Paul’s vision for our humanity is not merely that we will spend eternity with Christ, but that we will be transformed more and more into his likeness, that the fruit of the Spirit will grow in us, that we will be liberated to love, that we will see positive change. And for him, the primary location for this healing and transformation to take place is the community of believers.
So here then is the question: Is your church a community that lives with the expectation that you will grow in emotional liberation? Are we creating a context in which the love of Christ, directly and through his people, is working to help to free us from the sinful patterns of thought and action that militate against our own growth and inhibit our ability to love others? Do we actually know anyone in our Christian communities well enough for that to be a possible outcome?
Recently, I’ve been reading Peter Holmes’ Trinity in Human Community(Paternoster, 2006) which combines astute theological reflection on the nature of the Trinity with a real-life exploration of how we can reflect the community of love that is the Trinity more faithfully in the human community of His church. Peter’s church, Christ Church, Deal, has indeed found creative ways to helpthose who come, Christian and not, towards greater and deeper biblical wholeness which then manifests itself, not in inwardly-oriented, self-obsession but in dynamic, outwardly-oriented responsible loving. Nor in this community of experiment is this dependent on a set of experts, rather it is health-giving because of the way the community as a whole gives itself to one another in the power of Christ.
Peter Holmes seems to have recovered the New Testament call to grow in Christ-likeness in such a way that it leads to numerical growth in the church as well as growth in inner and outer holiness. Historically, this was at the heart of Wesley’s message and mission. For Wesley, “Full sanctification is the great depositum which God had lodged with the people called Methodists; and for the sake of propagating this chiefly He appeared to have raised us up.” Indeed, as Paul Smith put it in his essay, Whatever happened to our Raison d’etre – Taking Another Look at Christian Perfection, Wesley saw “the proclamation of the doctrine as the key to church growth; or rather, when societies declined in numbers Wesley knew where to look for the cause. He wrote: ‘One reason is, Christian Perfection has been little insisted on; and whenever this is not done, be the preachers ever so eloquent, there is little increase in number or grace of the hearers.’
Coming to Jesus?
What impelled Wesley and seems to impel Peter Holmes is not a tinkling psychological gospel of self-awareness and self-improvement, nor a thundering Pharisaic drive to route out every smidgen of suspect behaviour but a grace-fuelled yearning to see people become all that they can be in Christ. And that involves a purposeful process of seeking freedom from the sinful psychological patterns that inhibit freedom, of learning to come to Jesus and allowing his Spirit to heal us. Obviously, we are not going to be absolutely whole this side of heaven (2 Cor 5:4) but we are promised that this wholeness can be a growing part of our experience here (2 Cor 3:18, 2 Cor 5:12-20).
Both Wesley and Holmes share then this New Testament desire not just to see people know Christ but to become like him. Holmes’ community certainly don’t claim to do it all well, or to have found all the answers, but if one of the ways people will know that we are Jesus’ followers is by our love for one another, then Christ Church Deal seems to bear testimony to that reality.
What they may also have done is not only to have addressed the yearnings for wholeness and relational health that are so achingly evident in magazines like Psychologies but shown that the way forward is not necessarily dependent on the wisdom of professional experts working on individuals but on Christ’s love, word and Spirit working through a community of people who want the best for others, not just themselves, and are prepared to live sacrificially to make it real. Paul put it this way: “We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. To this end I labour, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me.” (Colossians 1:28-29) I wonder if I am really ready for such an adventure of risk and vulnerability. But if I am not, what kind of Gospel will we have to offer the readers of magazines like Psychologies and Cosmopolitan?