A Review of “Behind the Masks” by Wayne Oates

oatesThe study of human personality is very old (dating at least as far back as Aristotle). The idea of personality disorders, however, is very young.  The study of personality disorders has undergone over the years a significant change, and continues to change. There is a noticeable absence of literature within the Biblical Counseling community on some of these so-called disorders. While Oates’ work is not a perfect resource for Biblical Counselors, Behind the Masks is a decent help in the absence of other tools.

Wayne Oates was a respected psychologist, with an interest in the integration of religion and behavioral science. He was professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at the University of Louisville School of Medicine, and professor of Psychology of Religion at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He passed in 1999 having earned a prestigious award from the American Psychiatric Association, and having multiple books published. The fact that this volume has remained in print over the years is a testimony of its continued relevance. Since its publication much has been written and debated with regard to the various disorders he writes about, but because Oates focuses on discussing personality disorders in layman terms his work remains compelling and insightful to both the average reader and to practitioners of various sorts.

The book discusses eight different personality disorders. In each chapter Oates describes the disorder, theorizes its etiology, and applies Scripture uniquely to each situation. His goal is to equip pastors, particularly, to “understand and relate constructively to” (12) the people he describes. He focuses on the “distinctly religious expressions of these behaviors” (15), as the book’s subtitle indicates. The goal is to help pastors care well for those under their charge who manifest these dysfunctions. The book concludes with an overall approach to church-based care that focuses on prevention, intervention.

The books usefulness lies largely in the realm of description. Oates writes in order to “demystify the wisdom of the behavioral sciences using…metaphor, story, and word pictures” (14). So, when he speaks about the histrionic person, he calls it the “packaged personality,” describing them as those who market themselves to various people as a means of manipulation for desired personal gain. His goal is always to explain the disorder in a way that is accessible to the average reader, not simply the clinician (though many formal practitioners have used this book over the years). The descriptions are often helpful, especially when applied to religious behavior. Not all the descriptions are helpful. Sometimes Oates falls prey to the standard practice of psychology: assuming more than is proven. He can go off into speculation about childhood and upbringing that seems less helpful and more guesswork. He is also more committed to the medical model of psychology in some areas than is warranted by Scripture. He nowhere speaks of sin, though he may hint at it in some sections. His use of Scripture is commendable and often insightful. On occasion his application is more forced than consistent with context, but overall he does a good job at this and some Biblical Counselors will find aid in his use of relevant passages. Even with its limitations, then, it can be a useful tool for counselors.

Biblical Counseling needs to continue to develop its understanding of the various so-called personality disorders and we desperately need more literature written on it. I am immensely thankful for Cathy Wiseman’s book on Borderline Personality, but there is a need for more. Behind the Masks is a good introduction to the subject and sets up future good works. Biblical Counselors should not adopt everything Oates suggests, but this book can serve as a good place-holder while we wait for more to be written.

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