Behind the Masks: Personality Disorders in Religious Behavior by Wayne E. Oates

Dr. Oates’ purpose in writing this book was to offer an insight of “disorders” found among people at church and often within our own families. He focused on “disordered behaviors” in religious people. He believed that many individuals have “semblances of sanity” and the goal of church leaders and mentors is to “unmask” these behaviors so that the “image of God” can be seen instead. He stated that he wrote the book to aid parents, teachers, future leaders, and Christian ministers to “defuse name-calling” that “downgrades” Christian brothers and sisters (15).

Dr. Oates gave an overview of various “masks” then provided descriptions of how these masks appeared in our congregations. For instance, he devoted a chapter of his book on “persons on the edge of chaos.” These are the people with “severe personality disorders” like borderline, paranoid, or schizotypal personalities (108). According to Dr. Oates, these people are “stably unstable” who experience “false starts” and “failures” in school, marriage, and work (110). They tended to have “outbursts of intense anger” that are “frequent” and “inappropriate,” and experienced “turbulent shifts of mood” (i.e. from depression to anxiety to irritability then rage) (110). These individuals also committed acts that are “severely impulsive” (spending, sex, overeating, etc.). Since stress aggravates the symptoms of this disorder, Dr. Oates suggestions to ministers and church members on how to help people with Borderline Personality disorder in a church setting- be aware of “impending crises” in the person’s life, such as “beginning and end of a school year,” “anticipation of death from a prolonged illness in a parent or spouse,” and “loss of a job” (116). If a person is emotionally or mentally diminishing, then it is the responsibility of ministers and church members to accompany the person to a doctor.

Another chapter I found insightful was entitled the “Mask of the Packaged Personality,” dedicated to describing the “histrionic” person (30). Dr. Oates shared that this personality type is in need of developing “steadfastness” as a character trait (which is also referred to as personal “fidelity”) (40). The community of believers should reinforce ideals of “faith, hope, and love that endures,” by building and maintaining covenantal relationships with church members. In forming deeper friendships, emotional and spiritual support will be in place during times of losses and disappoints (41).

Although a person with narcissistic personality disorder has an “inflated self-esteem, “lack of empathy for others,” “a grandiose imagination,” and an “arrogant unflappableness,” I found it interesting that narcissistic traits are not all negative. For example, Dr. Oates referred to this character type as “bundles of creativity that need taming” (54). These types of people have a “certain naivete” and “guilelessness” that he considered “rare metal in the human spirit” (55).

Dr. Oates discussed “formation and transformation” in the final chapter. He highlighted Galatians 2:20 in an effort to merge Paul’s purpose in writing the passage with his own purpose in writing the book-that Christ must be formed in the believer. As I read Dr. Oates’ book, I kept thinking about different people I have encountered in my church and I tried to decipher which mask they were “wearing.” This book made me realize that there are ways people can minister to those with personality disorders, and ways in which people with personality disorders can minister to others. I agree with Dr. Oates’ statement, “whatever God has called them to be and become, He does not intend that they be permanent mental patients” (118).

Copyright © 2007 M. Teresa Trascritti

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One comment

  1. Bradley · September 28, 2007

    Hey. I would love to get your thoughts on my last post. It’s a look/critique of Jay Adam’s book Competent to Counsel in light of the influence of his paradigm for counseling.

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