An Interview with Stephen James, co-author of Does This Dress Make Me Look Fat?

Q. When I was in grad school and hoping to become a famous counselor like Gary Smalley, or maybe even Paul Tournier (!) we talked a lot about theories of human nature as well as therapeutic schools. It was an evangelical seminary, so naturally we were interacting with Scripture along the way. I ended up in a psychodynamic camp because it seemed to me to have the best hope of integrating research findings with biblical data. Tell us about the school or schools of psychology and therapeutic practice that most inform your work and help you make sense of the creational world of relationships.

S: Professionally, I wear so many hats. Pastor/Spiritual Director, Writer, Speaker, Counselor. All of these blend and morph into looking like different things. But I think at the core, whether I’m in my private practice as a therapist or I’m outlining a book, I try and be mindful of and present in my own theological and philosophical and theoretical values.

Christianity is the core of how I understand life, others, God, and myself. I am clear with all of my clients that the foundation of all of who I am and who I endeavor to become rests in who I know Christ to be. This Christian worldview really shapes how I practice the art of therapy. Central to my work as a counselor is that we are image bears of God separated from our creator, each other, and ourselves by the effects of sin (both our own and others). The work of God is reconciliation of us to him and each other through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Philosophically I rely deeply on Kierkegaard and Christian existentialism. Helping others live in the both/and and come to accept their own ambivalence is a lot of the work I do. Life is fundamentally paradoxical (the greatest paradox being the God-man Christ). Helping others to the edge of their emotional, psychological, and spiritual cliffs and waiting with them and helping them to decide if they will take the leap or not—this is the relief that therapy brings. The paradoxes abound:

  • · personal responsibly and God’s sovereignty,
  • · life’s tragedy and God’s love
  • · past, present, and future
  • · our profound individual dignity and depravity
  • · good and evil
  • · head and heart

For many of us, these are the leaps we must make if we are live authentically with freedom, intimacy, and love While like other contemporary counselors I borrow and integrate from many ways of understanding and helping people (family systems, biology, post-Freudian psychoanalysis), therapeutically, I borrow most heavily from two schools; 1) psychodynamic and 2) narrative.

As relational beings, it’s relationship is what harms us and relationship is what will cure us. I rely more on the interpersonal relationship between client and myself than do anything else. The growing awareness and processing of the energy between the two of us—this is the psychodynamic—is much of the “work” of my practice.

Similarly, narrative psychology plays an important role in my practice. As we are shaped by our stories our define us and set us on a trajectory. See my work as helping people reconcile themselves with God by helping them reconcile their past, present, and future.

Q. One of the revelational elements that we Christians stand on is the imago Dei. What does it mean to you to be created in the image of God as male and female?

You’re right, the imago Dei is so important. I think this was lost by evangelicalism for a large part of the last century. That is really sad to me. God chose to image himself through us. Scripture is clear that that imaging was first categorized by humanity (kind) then secondly, but no less importantly, along gender lines (types).

In the New Testament, Paul writes about how the marriage relationship between a man and woman is the best picture of the relationship between Christ and the church that we will ever get. Science is beginning to show us that men and women are significantly different. Many healthcare professionals are projecting that medicine we begin to split into women’s health and men’s health. This shouldn’t surprise us Judeo-Christian thinks, because the Bible has discussed the differences for a long time. But it’s right here that I’ve gotten a lot of push back (especially from some of the “emergent” folk). It seems to me that progressive Christians are afraid of making the same mistakes that the previous generations have made in marginalizing the “other.” I agree that inclusively is something that we as Christians need to do a better job at. We have shrink-wrapped the gospel in many ways because of our exclusivity.

I’ve caught flack for holding a view that says men and women are different in more ways than genital. To not think that is absurd to me. I in no way think that men and women are any less valuable than each other. But, I cannot escape seeing that we are however very different.

Men and women are profoundly different biologically and those differences impact so much of how we interpret, process, and utilize information. We make different meaning along gender lines. The female self and male self are uniquely different and it’s by understanding these differences that we can better understand God. That’s why I don’t understand why my eyes were first open to the power of this when taking a feminist literature class in college. As I came to see the other more clearly I became also more aware on my own gender.

Q: Say more about this.. you say we have a different interpretive grid. Why is this, and what writers help form your own understanding here?

S: Carol Gilligan absolutely. (I especially like her ideas on moral development). In her book In A Different Voice her central claim is that men and women view relationship differently. Current research agrees with Gilligan that there is a difference, but the difference is more complex than even Gilligan suggests. The differences permeate every facet of our biology.

Christianity makes such claims on how the body and soul are intertwined and that one affects another. On average more women are depressed than men. Men are more addicted than women. Is that just biology? As a Christian I have to say no. The body reflects/impacts/effects the soul and vice versa. That’s where my emergent friends ditch me. They want to incorporate a theology of the body into how we understand God but they just want to ignore gender differences. (Unless we're talking about oppression.)

As a Christian who believes God created men and women, I see Gilligan’s arguments about gender differences to move beyond psychology and illuminate a more pervasive theme embedded by God.

For these two books on women and men (Does this Dress? and Yup Nope Maybe), we did a lot of research. We looked a lot at child development research that highlighted the differences between girls and boys. When it came to how as adults interact through dialogue, we especially relied on the work of Georgetown University linguist Deborah Tannen. She has written several books on conversation transaction, but we mostly focused on her research that is discussed in:

· You Just Don't Understand: Men and Women in Conversation
· You’re Wearing That: Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation
· Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work
· Gender and Discourse

Tannen’s work highlights gender-based differences that define and distinguish male and female communication. Tannen asserts that for most women conversation is a way of connecting and negotiating. Thus, Female discussions tend to center on expressions of and responses to feelings. This is what Tannen calls "rapport-talk.” Us guys, on the other hand, use conversation to achieve or maintain social status. We set out to impart knowledge ("report-talk").

What we did with these two books is celebrate the differences and show how they reveal God’s glory in ways the other gender can’t. We also discuss how our limitations along gender lines create broader categories for sin and our need for repentance.

Q: You remarked that, "The female self and male self are uniquely different and it’s by understanding these differences that we can better understand God. " When we see God through the lens of His creation do we run the risk of anthropomorphism, seeing our own reflection in the mirror and building our theology there?

S: Yes for sure. We always risk making God more mortal than God really is. But God even fixes this for us too. How gracious God is to guard us against our propensity to anthropomorphize. It’s in Christ we have a clear picture by which to understand God. The beautiful thing is that in Jesus we also understand ourselves. Jesus is not a metaphor, simile, allusion, innuendo, or euphemism. He’s the real deal.

Every way we understand God is by how we understand other things. In Scripture God is depicted as a mother, a father, a warrior, a fortress, a tower, a shepherd, a redeemer, and a spirit among other things. We can never grasp God, we are left to imagine and interpret God and receive God. One way of knowing God is by understanding his creation—part of that being gender. But that is not the only way. There’s prayer, meditation, suffering, building/creating, protecting. All of this is ultimately metaphor and knowing based on our own individual experiences--one of the most universal experiences of humanity is being a male or female.

And as Christians I don’t know how we can limit that difference to stop at a biological level. Christianity makes such claims on how the body and soul are intertwined and that one affects another. On average more women are depressed than men. Men are more addicted than women. Is that just biology? As a Christian I have to say no. The body reflects/impacts/effects the soul and vice versa. That’s where my emergent friends ditch me. They want to incorporate a theology of the body into how we understand God but they just want to ignore gender differences.

Q: What part does a Trinitarian perspective play in your thinking about the imago and then in your practice, particularly as it involves gender issues?

S: As far as the trinity, I see that in terms of how we are alike. This is a reconciling picture of what brings the differences together.

Scripture paints a picture of a Father God who is personal and purposeful as He relates to His children. These characteristics can serve as a road map for us as parents. God relates to each of us on intensely personal levels. How He works in one person’s life may be very different from what He does with another person. How God engages with Moses in Exodus 3 (as an encourager) is very different from how He engages with Jacob in Genesis 32 (as an adversary and giver of blessing).

Similarly, if we want to do therapy well we need to see the individuals across from us. We need to relate with them according to their uniqueness. Purposeful. Our Father God is also purposeful in His relationship with us. He acts intentionally and carries out His good plans for us. He does not wait for us to come to Him; He makes the first move. Think of God with Adam and Eve in Genesis 3 after they tried to hide. Or with Moses in the burning bush (so much for hiding in the desert). God moves toward us again and again with an invitation for us to move closer to Him. As therapist, our clients will try a retreat, and often it’s our responsibility to pursue their hearts. I firmly believe that behind every hand (or heart) that says, “Get away” is another that says, “Come close.”


God the Son also gives us a good picture of therapist. Let’s consider His roles as a sacrifice and a teacher. Sacrifice. First and foremost, Christ was a perfect offering who suffered and died for our sins so that we can truly live, both now and forever (Ro. 5:6–8, 1 Jn. 4:9–10). He willingly did for us what no one else could or would do. And like Christ, we as therapist are to sacrifice—lovingly and wisely—our own agenda on behalf of our clients. Teacher. Perhaps one of Jesus’ most vivid roles is that of teacher. Throughout the gospel accounts, we see Him illuminating the truth of God for His listeners. Our children need the same from us.

Sometimes teaching involves giving specific instruction. Other times, it may mean we stand back and practice the art of silence so that experience can be the teacher. The father in the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15) provides a rich example of this type of teaching. Surely this man knew his son well enough to know that he would blow his inheritance: Wouldn’t most adolescent boys do something reckless with a wad of cash? Yet the father allowed his son to squander it all. What a wise father, and what a scary, vulnerable place his hands-off approach must have put him in. His son learned a lesson, however; experience taught the prodigal that there’s no place like home.


Two primary works of the Spirit that relate to therapy are convicting and coming alongside us. Convicting. One thing the Spirit does in all of our lives is to convict us of our sin and folly and selfishness (Jn. 16:8)

Sometimes He does that through specific scriptures, words from a wise friend, or a persistent inner voice that urges us to examine our ways. If we are to love our clients like God loves us, there will be times when we must stand before our clients and name their sin, especially when it involves character issues. Too many therapist fail to expose their client’s character defects for fear of harming their self-esteem. I am not talking about verbally shaming, harassing, judging or assaulting a client. This is strikingly similar to how the Holy Spirit deals with us when He convicts us of sin, exposes our foolish self-righteousness, and shows us a better way to live.

Coming alongside. The same Spirit who convicts us also comes alongside us and comforts us. Yet it is hard for many counselors to move from being the ones who convict to being the ones who comfort, to set aside the teaching role and focus on simply being there.

Think of it this way: No kid wants to be taught the proper technique for riding her bike when she has just flipped over the handlebars. She wants a hug and a Band-Aid. And when your son doesn’t make varsity, one of the worst things you can do is to turn the situation into a teaching moment. He needs an arm around his shoulder to help him grieve his disappointment.

The example of the Holy Spirit shows us that there is a time for therapist to convict and a time for us to comfort.

Q: You say, "That’s where my emergent friends ditch me. They want to incorporate a theology of the body into how we understand God but they just want to ignore gender differences. " Do you think this happens in the name of "equality" without recognition of the implications?

I'm thinking of the larger .. largely uncritical.. movement away from difference toward androgyny. I have suspected Jungian psychology here and its concept of anima and animus - in every man there is a woman and in every woman a man, but we deny that side of ourselves and then seek it outside ourselves. I understand the dynamics of denial, sublimation and projection.. but I don't buy this particular framework of gender. Its true that we share some characteristics in common - compassion or sensitivity are not uniquely male or female traits. But I also believe there is a uniquely male mode of feeling and expression, and a uniquely female one. That these are sometimes confused may be more a result of the fall than rooted in the order of creation.

S: In regards to androgyny: Some writers argue that the idea of "two sexes" (male and female) is a misnomer. Dr. Anne Fausto-Sterling, writing in "The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female Are Not Enough," says that western culture is defying nature by maintaining a "two-party sexual system," for "biologically speaking, there are many gradations running from female to male; and depending on how one calls the shots, one can argue that along the spectrum lie at least five sexes--and perhaps even more." (1. Leslie Feinberg, Transgender Warriors, Beacon Press: Boston, Massachusetts, 1996, p. 103.)

The movement to erase gender distinctions is evident in the efforts of transgender activists to remove "Transvestic Fetishism and Gender Identity Disorder" from the DSM-IV. (I’m not stating an opinion here, just a fact about the effects of the movement)

Women and men are different in their genetic and hormonally-driven behavior. This does not mean that one sex is superior or inferior to another. Each gender has different strengths and weaknesses. The sex hormones --primarily estrogen and testosterone--have a significant impact on the behavior of males and females. This is the old truck vs. doll debate. Feminists usually claim this is the result of socialization, but there is growing scientific evidence that boys and girls are greatly influenced by their respective hormones. In the books we site research by child psychologist Michael Lewis. Lewis conducted an experiment with one-year-old boys and girls to see how they would react to being separated from their mother by a barrier. The boys tried to knock the barrier down while the girls cried for help. There is some pretty interesting discussion out their about this.

The idea of male ‘dominance’ is an interesting question. Dr. Steven Goldberg, author of Why Men Rule: A Theory of Male Dominance has some unique ideas. Goldberg bases his conclusions in hormones. He argues that the high level of testosterone in males drives them toward dominance in the world, while the lack of high levels of this hormone in women creates a natural, biological push in the direction of less dominant and more nurturing roles in society. He writes:

"There is not, nor has there ever been, any society that even remotely failed to associate authority and leadership in suprafamilial areas with the male. There are no borderline cases." "...if socialization alone explains why societies are patriarchal, there should be any number of societies in which leadership and authority are associated with women, and one should not have to invoke examples of non-patriarchal societies that exist only in myth and literature." Steven Goldberg, The Inevitability of Patriarchy, Open Court, Peru, Illinois, 1993, p. 15.

Whether I agree or disagree with Goldberg isn’t my point. But what Goldberg is describing here is basically the impact of “The Fall” on men and women. Women will desire their husbands and Men will have power over women. It’s important to note that this is the consequence of sin. This is where I think you made a good point in your question about the difference between Eden and post-fall living. The curses in Genesis 3 are given along first species lines and then gender lines. For Adam and Eve it is clear that these are not punishment but consequences. The curses are not a redesign of creation. But with humanity full of knowledge but not wisdom God acts out of love for his children. He provides a construct that will cause relationship between the sexes to fail so we will need God more. The curses are a new line of code in a corrupted program. They are patches that keep the program running until the new operating system is installed (Christ). OS Jesus.

Q. Some of the reviews out there have taken you to task for statements like this:

“Women are made to reveal beauty. Men are made to view it. This is how beauty can be redeemed. Men are made to delight in the beauty of a woman.”

What do you mean by "women are made to reveal beauty" a by "beauty can be redeemed"? That sounds very much like the Jewish idea of kavanah or some of the writings of Martin Buber.

S: I don’t know about kavanah, (I thought that had more to do with prayer). But that same reviewer critiqued me on only dealing with male/female relationships. Duh. It’s a Christian book published to a Christian market. That is what the book is about — how men and women relate and how our language exposes our hearts. Far too little research has been done on homosexual relationships to draw any real conclusions psychologically and theologically this is such a new part of the debate/conversation that its way outside what most believers are thinking about and it surely don’t affect the average couple marriage and sanctification on a day to day walk.

But I digress . . . I began to address this above. Just look at us biologically. The male primary sex organ is the eyes. For men, much of the sexual cycle starts with seeing. That fact alone shows how we can have a level of understanding and sensitivity of beauty that women don’t. Women have a woman’s capacity to process information on a number of different levels and connections. This gives them insight into how things relate that men easily miss. In this way women are more relational.

How we engage the I/Thou that Buber so eloquently illuminated is what all this is about. How does gender impact those interactions? How do men relate with men, women with women, and men with women? This fascinates me and I believe somehow reveals more of God.

Q. When you say "women are designed to bring out beauty" but "men tend more toward structure and order" (33) it feels like you are opposing structure and order to beauty. Is that your intention? Do you think structure and order might be part of beauty and a different aspect of the creative process?

S: Great critique. In no way is that what I mean. I wrote that poorly. My wife is much more organized than me and I think that is beautiful. What I was trying to say is that men tend to be more linear in how our brain processes information. That gives us an edge in sequencing information. Women process more like a collage. Is there structure in chaos? Absolutely. Is their beauty in structure? No doubt.

Q. The approach of the book is very light and strongly narrative. For an old guy (50) like me, and granted I lean to the academic side, I get impatient as I read waiting for the punch line. Do you think my impatience is a generational thing? What kind of feedback are you getting from male readers in their 30s?

S: We are getting a lot of mixed feedback. Some people really like and relate to the stories. Others want more meat. There are several reasons David and made this story heavy. Two of the most important are.

1) We didn’t want anyone to think that we were some ivory tower academics or preachy Pharisees. We wanted our readers to understand that we are normal guys who mess up everyday like everybody else. There is beauty in our humanity.

2) Secondly, we wanted to play around with the genre of self-help. Can relationship books be entertaining, fun, light, and at the same time offer people a theological worldview that will help them in their walk with Christ.

Q. As I read the book I hear something about the "hide and seek" dynamic that occurs between people .. sometimes called the dance of intimacy. Is this in your mind often as you work with couples?

S: Without a doubt. All of us want to get our needs met without really having to expose our hearts. This distrust of self and others is the core of all marriage problems.

Q. As you look back on the two books, are there other pieces you wish you had added? What might you do differently next time?

S: I haven’t had a chance to read them since they came out. But I would add a section just for single people and the implications of gender and dating. None of this applies to only married couples.

Thanks to Stephen for taking the time, and best wishes on his future as an author!

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• © 2005-2008 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated on April 18, 2008