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Psychology of Religion, Carl Jung and more: Interview with J. F Penn

j f penn, social psychology, psychology of religion, carl jung
Credit image of J.F.Penn shot by Mim Saxl, Oxford photographer.

Today’s episode is on the psychology of religion, Carl Jung and more with J.F Penn.

I love the interview and hopefully you will to.

Psychology of Religion Interview with J. F Penn

Connor: Joanna Penn writes nonfiction for authors and is an award nominated New York Times and USA Today bestselling author as J.F. Penn. She's a podcaster and award-winning Entrepreneur. She has a master's in theology from the University of Oxford, Mansfield College and also a postgraduate diploma in psychology from the University of Auckland, which I think is a great bio. Hi Joanna, and welcome to the show. Thanks for being here. Joanna: Thanks for having me, Connor, and this is a great topic. I love talking about psychology, and of course we both write fiction, so I'm thrilled to be here.

Connor: Yeah, great. For people who don't necessarily know you, just introduce yourself and how you got into psychology please. Joanna: Yeah, sure. So I write under two names: Joanna Penn as nonfiction, and I write as J.F. Penn. I write thrillers and dark fantasy. But before that, I used to work in the corporate world. I used to implement accounts payable in large corporates, and so that was sort of my day job for many years. But taking it back even further, as you said, I did a degree in theology at Oxford, and I specialized in the psychology of religion. And, in fact, it's kind of funny because going back even before that was when I did psychology A level, of course, where here in the UK we do A levels which is between the ages of 16 and 18. And I did psychology, and I still remember my teacher, Anthony, and he was just fantastic. I loved the course, and I've always read books about psychology. You know, it's the study of mind and behavior, as you know and the listeners know. So, I mean, it's just crucial to our lives. So as time went on, you know, and I specialized in psychology of religion, and when I did my post-grade diploma in psychology in Auckland, I was going to go into clinical psychology. That was the goal. I was going to get a job as a psychologist. I was ready to retrain because I just loved the study. And I see, you know, you've looked at normal psychology on your podcast, and I was fascinated by brain injuries and the kind of weird stuff that can happen. It was all just so interesting, but when I looked at the reality of the job, the job of a clinical psychologist mainly in New Zealand, which is a very small population, the work was either depression and anxiety (that's pretty much bread and butter for clinical psychology) or working in the prison system. And those were, like, the main jobs. So I was like, okay, I don't really want to do either of these things, but I love the study. And so I kept up my interest in psychology with reading, listening to audio books, and, of course, including it in my fiction because in my ARKANE series my main character, Morgan Sierra is in fact a psychologist, ex-military psychologist. So yeah, that's kind of how I got into it. It's definitely a topic I'm fascinated with and still read about all the time. Connor: Yeah. That's brilliant because I had no idea that you wanted to be a clinical psychologist. Yes, that's really good. Why do you use psychology in your fiction? What makes you want to, like, add it in? Because I think sometimes I think about that I would like to, but sometimes I'm thinking about, well, what if I get it wrong or something like that? Joanna: Yeah. Well, I think for me, writing fiction is about writing what you're interested in. Like, some people say, "Write what you know," but you and I, like, I've had a look at some of your books. I mean, we don't write what we know. You know, I'm not an ex-Israeli military psychologist, you know, going around with a gun. You have a lot of sci-fi and fantasy, don't you? We make things up. That's what we do. But writing fiction, to me, I love the research and turning that research into a story, and being curious, and following your interests. And all the things that you might love to read about you can also write about. Now I know because you are studying psychology, the things that you study for a degree exam, for example, or a job, that might not be quite the fringes of psychology that I'm interested in. So when I started with Morgan Sierra she was at the University of Oxford as well, so I used a lot of my background there, and the places that she goes to, she has a mentor who's at Black Friars. Her mentor is a monk. And I actually had a monk who was one of my tutors. So you can put real things into fiction, but equally you're going to be fictionalizing that. So I think I use it because I want to continue my research, and there are some things I'm so fascinated with, and we'll come back to that in minute. But equally, I want to twist that into a story somehow, and so I think your concern that you might not have it correct, there is a big difference between a nonfiction psychology textbook, and I know you have that kind of writing, but also a story where you can use concepts, but you don't have to be exactly right because nobody is using your work as a textbook. I mean, obviously if you're referring to people and places and ideas then you can easily kind of credit those ideas within your text. You know, one of your characters does some research and comes up with it, but I really like using it because it sparks my imagination into stories. Connor: Okay then. That's really good points. In fiction though, I definitely prefer just to blow things up and just travel the galaxy and just kill things, basically. Joanna: Which you can't do in your psychology textbook. And in fact, it's interesting because we, you know, as writers of more, I guess, thrilling books and having an eyebrow up, a lot people, when they have sort of mass extinction events and stuff like that, and it's, you know... Connor: Yeah, quite dark stuff. Joanna: Yeah, dark stuff that might be considered by some in the psychology world to be on the end of, you know, the more negative side of personality traits. And yeah, I think we would both say that writing our fiction and writing our stories almost helps. It's almost therapy for getting out some of our darker ideas, and then we can just be totally normal in our lives. Connor: Yeah, definitely. Yes. "Crypt of Bone" is one of my favourite books because I think it's the most James Bond-like. Yes, and in writing too. There's certain things you study in the book based on your master's dissertation, which is the psychology of obedience. Why do people do things in the name of God? Can you tell us a bit about that? Because I think it sounds really interesting. Joanna: Yeah, sure. Yes, as you say, I did my dissertation for my master's, and it was in 1997, so this was way before, you know, people published dissertations or anything. So it's not, like, something people can find. But it was based on, again, back in my A level days, we learned about Milgram's, Stanley Milgram's shock experiments which you just couldn't do it anymore because it's got so many ethical problems. But basically it was about obedience to authority figures. So if people don't know that study, essentially there were people in white coats, and this was not necessarily actual doctors, you know. It might have been, you know what psychology experiments are in universities, right? So you might have been the guy with the clipboard wearing a white coat, and then volunteers came in. And the person in the white coat, which was a man, this was back in the 1960s. So a man in a white coat tells the volunteer to shock someone in another room when they get the questions wrong. So they can't see this person, but they talk to them. They know they're a real person. This is not fake. You know, this is before, way before the internet, so, you know, people were believing that what they were doing was hurting another person. And then as they got things wrong, and of course the person on the other side was a plant, and they were getting things wrong, and the volunteer would shock them. And they would shock them all the way up to this danger of death mark on the dial, and the person next door was screaming, and then at one point they went quiet. And the people who were doing the shocking were the...obviously they're the ones in the experiment, but they didn't know what it was really about. Someone in a white coat told them to do something. So someone in authority said, "Do this," and they did it. And I think why this was so shocking is because in the 1960s people were obviously still shocked, and perhaps we still are, about the atrocities of the Second World War. So, you know, why did millions of Jews and Gypsies and gay people, you know, end up in the camps? And why were they killed in such horrific ways? And people said, "I was following orders. So I did things because someone in authority told me to." And this is something that goes across the whole world. And I think I was so affected by that study because I realized that I'm a law abiding person, you know. We're recording this during lockdown in the UK, and I'm obeying the rules and doing the right thing. If someone in authority has told us to behave in a certain way, I mean, it's quite different to killing someone, but it is still, there is an in-built thing in our human brains that says if an authority figure says something, then do it. So that was one thing. And then also, I worked out in the Middle East before university and then also during, and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by an Israeli extremist... So you're much younger than me, but Yitzhak Rabin was the Israeli prime minister. He shook hands with Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in 1993. And I used to work in the Middle East. I was campaigning for peace in the Middle East, and that was the most hopeful moment in the Middle East peace process, and it has never come back. And what happened soon after that is Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli extremist who said God told him to do it. And then I was also looking at the story of Abraham in the Bible who goes to sacrifice his son because God says, "Go and sacrifice your son to me." And so Abraham does take him up to the top of the mountain and is holding a knife. You know, he ties his son down, holds a knife, and then only at the last minute does God provide a ram to sacrifice. But, you know, it's kind of, who knows what could have happened? So those are some of the things around the Milgram shock experiment. And then I also combined that with the God helmet. So known as the God helmet, another psychological study by Dr. Michael Persinger where stimulation of the temporal lobe can make people see visions of God or the supernatural. And many of the saints (in inverted commas) were kind of, maybe had temporal lobe epilepsy. So the whole story of "Crypt of Bone," obviously there's lots of great bones and ossuaries and stuff like that, but the ideas behind it all came from technology and what would happen if you combined a God helmet that could tell people to do things in the name of God and the idea of Milgram. So I'm really glad you like it. Connor: Yeah. Wow, because I always thought that "Crypt of Bone" was always a bit, I don't know, but a bit farfetched because I always wanted to know, like, could that ever happen? I know the God helmet is, like, wow. That's just really, like interesting. Thank you. Joanna: I always include an author's note in the back of all my books where I outline the research behind the story. So that's something that I suggest for authors or for writers in general. I mean, I love that. As a reader I love reading the author's notes. In fact, if there isn't an author's note I get quite upset. So there's something for you. Connor: Yeah, but I like listening to the audio books, which, in your audio books, I don't think there is the author's note. Joanna: No, that's a good point. I don't have them in the audio books, for sure. Connor: Yeah, but I always like to include author's notes in my fiction because of the human branding effect because it gets people to know that you're a real person. Joanna: Absolutely. Connor: Yeah, but then I also like listening to "Stone of Fire." In one of our emails, when you talked about "The Red Book," what is that? Joanna: Yes. So Carl Jung, basically he wrote a lot of books, but the "The Red Book" was essentially Carl Jung's sort of breakdown. And it was closed. It was private. It was a private book owned by his family, his estate. And of course he was a very famous psychologist. People should know that. But essentially "The Red Book" was opened to the public and first published in 2009, which is when I started writing my first novel, "Stone of Fire." And I actually have a copy myself. I bought one of the first editions. Yeah, it's massive. If you stretch out your arm, it's about as big as your arm, and it's huge. It's really heavy, and it's got full color paintings, full color copies of the paintings. So Jung painted these pictures, and he wrote a journal, basically. It's a beautiful book. Have a look online for Carl Jung's "The Red Book." Now in that book is a painting by Carl Jung of a pillar of fire spouting from this stone in a room, and incorporated that into my story also. And I always try and make everything as real as possible. Now, Carl Jung did travel to North Africa, where I set some of the stuff, and also to North America and Clark University where I did set some of the book. And he also counseled the physicist Wolfgang Pauli on his dreams. In fact, Carl Jung's book "Memories, Dreams, Reflections" is probably the one that's most known to psychology students. It's a good place to start. But I find I use a lot of Carl Jung's ideas in my books, and many of us do without necessarily realizing it. So his idea of the shadow is something I keep coming back to. So, you know, where there is light there must also be a shadow. And by integrating that darker side into our lives we can become whole, whereas if we deny that darker side we will never be a whole person. And also he wrote books about spirituality and the occult. And he really blended the clinical side, his clinical practice with the mystical side. And he also wrote a book on "Psychology and Alchemy." He was, like, a stone mason. He had a tower at Bollingen in Switzerland, and he made these kind of totemic objects which he kept in his stone tower. And he was a disciple, I guess you could call it, of Sigmund Freud, but he split with Freud over various ideas. But certainly I find that Carl Jung's work, if you're purely into clinical psychology, it's not so relevant, but if you accept that the study of mind and behavior also has to cover religion, supernatural, occult, the darker side of humans, then you should definitely be reading Carl Jung. Connor: Okay. Yeah, definitely. I know that we were talking before the interview, when you mentioned Carl Jung. Yes, so the reason why I never did it and the reason quite a lot of listeners probably might not have done it, rather, is it because I never did the A levels school or because I did the International Baccalaureate. Yes, in that we don't go into the psycho-dynamic approach, which is a bit weird. Joanna: Yeah, no, I can understand that, and I think it's... But it's good to read around the things that you find fascinating. That's what's nice about psychology. Obviously there are so many kind of subsets of psychology that you can become interested in. I would say that obviously the world is quite different now to how it was during Carl Jung's time, for example. I'm not sure, I mean, there are people who are Jungian psychologists who follow that kind of way, but they don't necessarily have a clinical practice. But I think a lot of people use it has part of their insight into the human condition. I think that would probably be the best way to put it. Connor: Okay, thank you. I'll read up on that. You also mentioned there was the "Psychology and Alchemy" book. Tell us a bit more about that please because alchemy, yeah, it does sound interesting. Joanna: Yeah. Actually, it's a really big book. He's an incredible writer, Carl Jung, and of course we're both writers. So it's important to, you know, he was so prolific, an incredible worker. And, yeah, so "Psychology and Alchemy" is pretty dense, to be honest, I would say. Read the crib notes. It is pretty dense. But at the basic heart of it, alchemy is turning base metal into gold. But you could see that as a chemist, as in doing some kind of chemical reaction, but his study was more about what that means for human development. So if you think that we are all base metal and that we all have our imperfections, you know, we have a character that might not be well formed. Obviously we don't know everything. We might have flaws that we can improve. And then the process of alchemy is turning that into something precious. And so the idea really is for all of us to look at what we have as ourselves. You know, we don't have any choice in who we are, but what we can do is choose to improve ourselves, and that's definitely the side of psychology where I'm interested now whereas I started out being interested in things like brain injury. I'm now really interested in how we can improve ourselves and turn ourselves from, you know, that base metal into something precious. And that something precious might be, you know, becoming the best psychologist that we can be so that we can help other people or becoming the best writer that we can be. And I've actually used some of these principles, some psychological principles, more positive psychology probably in my book "The Successful Author Mindset," which is definitely about sort of facing up to the fears and the doubts and all the issues that we have in our lives as writers, and then how we can overcome them and integrate them into ourselves so that we can help other people, and we can reach readers with our books, and entertain people. So, yeah, I think "Psychology and Alchemy," I wouldn't start there. If you've never read any Carl Jung then definitely start with "Memories, Dreams, Reflections" which is a bit lighter, then there's certainly a lot more. Connor: Okay. That's such a beautiful way to think of people. Thank you for that. We're almost out of time. I could talk to you all day. Where can people find you and your books online? Joanna: Sure. Well, for my fiction, I write as J.F. Penn, and my website is

All my books are in all the usual places. And then my books for authors, like "The Successful Author Mindset" I wrote under Joanna Penn, and my website is:

And, like you, I have podcasts. I have "The Creative Penn" podcast, which is for writers, and my other podcast is called "Books and Travel" where I interview authors about the places behind their books. So yeah, that's where you can find me. Connor: Yeah. I think that what Joanna does is absolutely brilliant. I highly recommend her.

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