Morgan Guyton recently posted a piece entitled ‘Why English Majors Make Lousy Fundamentalists,’ which was also crossposted on Jesus Creed. Within it, he begins by arguing that different readings of Scripture ‘may end up boiling down to different personality types.’ As an INFP—‘the personality type of a poet, or an English major, or perhaps a romantic’—Guyton believes that he brings certain instincts to the reading of the Bible that rub ‘fundamentalists’ up the wrong way.

INFPs, Guyton grants, are not unfairly characterized as those who ‘do not like to deal with hard facts and logic’ and ‘don’t understand or believe in the validity of impersonal judgment.’ The first representation certainly makes it easier to account for some of the unannounced yet crucial shifts in his post. The first of these is his conflation of the INFP type with the ‘English major’, a character that frames the rest of Guyton’s analysis in the post. The English major can pull academic privilege over others who lack his training in the reading of literature. Also, as he has associated his personality and sensibilities with that of the English major, the INFP can assume he possesses a sort of natural and peculiar affinity for the reading of Scripture. As God reveals himself in a literary form, and INFPs/English majors have a particular affinity for literature and sensitivity for its quality, they are the ones who should provide the ‘taste test’ of the character of God’s revelation and, by extension, of the sort of God that we find revealed within it:

As an English major, I need for God to be an infinitely better poet than I am, which means that I’m going to be averse to any approach to interpreting the Bible that camps out at a sixth grade level of reading comprehension and assumes God to be straightforward and perfectly clear when he seems to do a far better job of inspiring people with a little subtlety.

A swift swipe of logic to the connections that Guyton draws between English majors, literary reading, and personality type would untangle a significant portion of the knotty mass of his argument. Not all INFPs are English majors and not all INFPs who are English majors are gifted at it. Nor do INFPs have a monopoly on the study of literature: many students of literature have quite different personality types.

We should not accept the fact that INFPs are currently more attracted to the study of English literature as sufficient proof of their greater aptitude in it. The field of literary criticism has undergone a number of significant changes over the last century. INFPs’ supposedly greater likelihood to be English majors may be little more than a result of the fact that they resonate more with the currently prevailing schools and theories of literary criticism and the wider culture of the discipline. A different array of personality types might pursue the subject if these prevailing schools and theories of literary criticism were dislodged and replaced by others. Guyton’s assumptions would then crumble.

I will forgive anyone who feels confused after trying to parse the logic of Guyton’s argument. The rest of his post is a bewildering muddle: he entangles the interpretative supremacy and prerogative of a certain personality type with the eminently sensible notion that we should bring honed literary instincts and tools to the study of the scriptures. Furthermore, he treats the mere invocation of methods of literary analysis as if it validated the inept manner in which they were deployed. ‘He must be a gifted exegete: look at all of the fancy tools in his toolbox!’

Guyton’s post exemplifies the growing popularity of personality typing in many Christian circles (I’ve been surprised to see how widely used Myers-Briggs Type Indicator [MBTI] is in the Church of England, for instance). Rather than presenting a comprehensive response to Guyton’s post, which will soon be forgotten, I want to highlight this particular feature of it. While many of us have written extensively about orientation and identity in the context of sexuality and gender, personality typing has quietly established a new form of identity and orientation discourse. It is high time that we paid closer attention to it.

We should recognize certain analogies between personality typing and many of the other forms of orientation and identity discourse with which we are more familiar. Many Christians have started to treat personality type as a sort of ‘orientation’ within the world whose equality—or contextual superiority—must be recognized and for which various accommodations must be made. The personality type is fixed and integral to who we are as persons. The fundamental impulses, sensibilities, and instincts of the personality type cannot be called into question: they have the status of an untouchable sensitivity. We are tempted to treat our personality type as justification and explanation for our behaviour, rather than discerning appropriate forms of behaviour and desire from their relation to fitting objective ends. We should observe the measure of circularity that can be present here: in using our personality types as justification for our patterns of behaviour we can forget that our personality typing was derived in large measure from those same patterns.

The problem here is not so much with personality typing per se as it is the entitlement, privilege, and weight of identification that is increasingly coming with it. Personality typing such as the MBTI can be amusing and harmless and can even occasionally serve a heuristic purpose, provided that we do not take it too seriously. Although it is a fairly inexact tool—it arbitrarily splits spectrums of behaviour into binary categories and doesn’t adequately account for such things as the inextricable relation between thinking and ‘feeling’—it can occasionally help to illumine significant patterns and tendencies.

Everyone wants to believe that the mere possession of a particular personality type gives them some sort of privileged access to or claim upon reality, society, or set of skills. Keirsey’s Temperament Sorter, closely associated with the MBTI, will assign you an identity on the basis of the result of your personality test. Here everyone’s a winner. It will designate you as an ‘inventor’, a ‘mastermind’, a ‘fieldmarshal’, a ‘champion’, a ‘healer’, or an ‘architect’ on no more sure of a basis than the fact that your personality skews in a particular direction. This is all entirely independent of anything that you have ever achieved or skill you have developed. ‘English major’ may not yet be one of Keirsey’s temperaments, but Guyton employs it as if it were. When I discover that I am an ESFP or an INTJ, I can enjoy a sense of an innate superiority, entirely independent of actual work and achievement, which the world must acknowledge and validate. I am here reminded of Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s remark concerning the piano in Pride and Prejudice: ‘If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient.’

Psychometric tests such as the MBTI promise to reveal deep truths about our personalities. Like the Sorting Hat in the Harry Potter books, through some mysterious alchemy, they will discern our true nature and assign us a named identity accordingly. The scientific basis of the claims of many psychometric tests such as the MBTI is highly dubious and their effectiveness probably has more than a little to do with such things as the Forer effect.

Nevertheless, personality typing can easily become powerfully constitutive of people’s sense of identity, as they start to think of themselves as their personality type in a fairly uncritical manner. The appeal of such tests is quite explicable: they offer a measure of resolution to the existential discomfort of the question ‘who am I?’, a question which is probably pressed upon us with greater urgency than ever before. While such a test may be an improvement on diverting online quizzes promising to reveal which characters I might be in various fictional universes, at least I do not go through life believing that Gandalf-likeness is a crucial key to my identity.

The cult of personality testing threatens to throw our understanding of the person dangerously off balance. I would suggest that it is here that we find its greatest dangers. Personality testing can foster and encourage the myth of the ‘rich internal self’ and the moral obfuscation that can so often accompany it. On the basis of a rudimentary quiz, a test such as the MBTI offers us a flattering image of who we truly are. It assures us that our personalities are healthy and natural. We are heroic figures—‘crafters’, ‘composers’, ‘protectors’, and ‘counselors’—and the world should learn to value us more. We don’t really encounter sin and fallenness in the world of such personality testing; even pathology does not make an appearance.

With its overemphasis upon healthy natural personality, this new pop psychology that is entering our vocabularies can subtly squeeze out Christian language of fallenness, sin, flesh, and separation from God, slowly dulling us to the extent of our brokenness. In addition to this, I fear that our new focus upon ‘personality’ will lead to a neglect of the category of ‘character’. ‘Personality’ is typically understood to be an innate given and a matter of self-expression, operating largely outside of the realm of morality, chiefly measured by its individuality, and possessing its own prerogative. ‘Character’, by contrast, must be formed and is a decidedly moral mode of regarding the individual subject. Rather than telling us that we are naturally and fairly indelibly what is revealed in the patterns of our behaviour, ‘character’ is something that is gradually formed in us as we faithfully devote ourselves to modes of behaviour that do not spring naturally from our personalities.

Guyton’s argument is a good example of the chaos that can result when personality usurps character in the area of scriptural interpretation. Contrary to Guyton’s emphasis upon personality, we become skilful readers of Scripture as the Spirit conforms us to the word he inspired through the dedicated and faithful practice of scriptural study. No one enjoys this skill merely by virtue of an innate aptitude of personality, nor does our possession of a particular personality type entitle us to approach God’s revelation on our own terms. God’s truth transforms its readers, it identifies expressions of our personality types as ‘sin’, and it makes demands of us that call us to act outside of type. It breaks us down and it builds us up again. I will not discover my true self through taking a personality test, but as I am conformed by God’s Spirit to the image of his Son: not as an act of analysis, but through a historical process of transformation. This is the truth in terms of which all other self-understanding must proceed. When viewed in this light, the personality test has a decidedly diminished capacity for determining my identity.

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Posted by Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University in England) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespass beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast and blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria.