Monday, July 22, 2019

Metaphors to Live By - Reading the Bible Again




A Review of Marcus Borg’s 

Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: 

Taking the Bible Seriously but Not literally.

            My earliest memory of a conflict between the Bible and the observable world happened sometime in late childhood when I learned that the moon was not a light as it plainly said in my King James Version of Genesis 1:16. It was downhill from there. Like many of my friends, we learned a near literal interpretation of the Bible from parents with a limited education and churches where teachers shared a blend of fundamentalism and evangelicalism. Their application of select biblical laws, commandments, and rules to contemporary life seemed strangely arbitrary and unnecessarily restrictive. I should like to think Marcus Borg’s, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, would have saved me considerable puzzlement—and likely some distress. I’ll say more later but first, a summary of Reading the Bible Again for the First Time.

*****
            Borg establishes the conflict in the preface. Christians are faced with two very different ways of reading the sacred text, that is, The Holy Bible. Many of us learned the “literal-factual” way. Borg offers us a “historical-metaphorical” way. The two different ways of reading the text divide Christians not just in churches but in the public arena of American politics.

            Borg divides his highly readable volume into three parts. In Part One, he provides a foundation for reading the Bible in this new way. We learn a little history of the Bible, which of course was not read by ordinary folks until people learned to read and the text became widely available. A near literalism combined with church doctrines was taught for centuries with a focus on salvation from sin and living a moral life so, in the end, you had heaven to gain. Now Borg introduces readers to the alternative view that our sacred text reveals a variety of ways people understood God and their relationship to God., Borg closes Part One by explaining what he means by the “historical-metaphorical” way of reading the Bible. Readers need to understand the historical context to appreciate how ancient Hebrews expressed their faith, but we would be left with a rather dead text if we ignored the beauty of the metaphors in play from Genesis to Revelation. In Borg’s words: “Metaphor is linguistic art or verbal art” (Location 569).

            In Part Two we learn how the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament for Christians) comes alive when we don’t have to worry about the days or sequences of creation, which of 613 laws ought to be kept, or how to make sense of the horrible ways ancient people destroyed each other in the name of God. Here, I cannot do justice to Borg’s text in a typical review because he gives numerous examples of how contemporary readers can learn that the problems of yesteryear continue to trouble us today. Then, as now, ordinary people suffered from economic exploitation by taxes and the possession of land, political oppression by kings and emperors, and religious legitimation—a nation’s leaders dictate what God ordains. Along the way, we gain insights into how to read poetry and the wisdom literature such as is found in the proverbs. We also learn how prophets challenged kings. And we glimpse how people celebrated their relationship with God.

            If you are familiar with the Bible, you won’t be surprised to learn that Part Three is about the New Testament. In three chapters, Borg summarizes how the Gospels, letters of Paul, and The Revelation can also be read in their historical context along with an appreciation of the rich metaphors that can transcend 20 centuries. He reminds us that Jesus, his followers, and all, or almost all, the writers were Jewish men thus, we learn of the importance of understanding the problem of first century Jews under the sandal of the Roman Empire and the necessity of appreciating the influence of Jewish traditions on the stories of Jesus and the metaphors of the writers. Borg is not rigid as he interprets the text. I suppose some might believe if they had enough faith, they could walk on water, but the story as metaphor suggests more than one meaning. We might learn that people with spiritual sight learn to calm their inner fears or cope with the struggles of life. I should say, these interpretations are my own thoughts as a psychologist reading Borg’s discussion of God vs. the traditional theme of angry seas, which in the gospel story were calmed by Jesus.

            Paul is a problematic author for many a modern Christian—especially American women who don’t find much support in doctrines of submission, silence, and guidance on what to wear (or not wear). As others have said, we can take the edge off Paul a bit if we realize some of the texts limiting women’s roles were likely not written by Paul. And, Paul wrote most of his letters as a reply to specific questions that arose in the various Christian communities he founded or supported during his travels. We gain a bit more insight into Paul’s theology when we unpack his recurring themes of freedom and transformation developed from his Damascus Road experience. The way of becoming a new person, like the way lived out by Jesus, is a path of dying to an old way and rising to embrace a new way. In his day and now, people like Paul may be transformed following an encounter with Jesus.

            Fittingly, the Revelation is at the end of the Bible, at the end of Borg’s book, and for many, a mysterious End Times story. Long ago I learned that wall charts describing the end of life as we know it lacked credibility. I suppose those complex flow charts are in someone’s attic gathering dust. But I digress. Borg offers nonscholars a brief history of the difficulty of life under the Roman Empire of the first century—a time when those under Roman domination were to worship Caesar as god. Borg provides an orderly and masterful summary of Revelation along with guidance to help readers appreciate the how the vivid images relate to Hebrew history and life under Roman rule. Borg’s interpretation is in sharp contrast to futuristic interpretations that continue to scare some contemporary Christian youth while comforting the elderly with the confidence that they are on the winning side in the massive end-of-world bloody war over evil.

            In the Epilogue, Borg reiterates his point about the Bible containing different voices and encourages us to see the ancient conflicts between kings and prophets—between elite leaders who use their positions to oppress and exploit ordinary people and the voices of those who speak against injustice. He also encourages readers to think of Christianity as being about more than a list of beliefs and practices. Christianity is about relationships—relating to God and others with passion and compassion.

*****
            I suppose Reading the Bible Again is for any Christian who finds that the clergy and teachers in their faith tradition seem disconnected from their life experience in the way they preach, teach, or blog about living in our complex world. For different reasons, many of us discovered that near literal interpretations of the Bible don’t make sense. Each generation of Christian youth since the 1960s has different reasons for challenging simplistic applications or applications that seem cruel and contradictory if we are to believe God is a loving and caring being.

            In the 1960s, those raised in American holiness traditions discovered the arbitrariness of rules against dancing, mixed swimming, long hair on men, tattoos, make-up, movies, jewelry, women wearing pants instead of dresses, and many other quotable prohibitions from some part of God’s Word. Not surprisingly, some, left Christianity behind. Others moved on to churches that were more concerned with doing good than trying to live according to rules made for ancient Israelite tribes or for the Jews and gentiles in early Christian communities.

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            Somewhere along the way to the 21st century, educated youth learned to appreciate the scientific explanations for the origin of amazing landscapes and the diversity of life on the planet. We learned so much about birth and death and we benefit from advances in medicine. Slowly, scientists offered more and more explanations relevant to daily life. And many of those scientists happened to be women. Perhaps making matters worse for those insisting on near literal interpretations of the Bible were advances in the behavioral sciences, which upended thinking about mental health, sexuality, and people who experienced hallucinations and delusions. Christians turned away from clergy to find answers to life problems in the offices of physicians, psychologists, and a host of other professionals who offered evidence-based treatments for infertility, contagious diseases, anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, and more.

            Moreover, in recent decades, a cacophony of evangelical voices seem at odds with one another over biblical perspectives on the role of women in the church and society, birth control, sex education, the nature of marriage, parenting, abortion, same-sex relationships, and the allocation of church and social resources to help the poor of one’s own nation as well as the world. Of recent concern has been the strident rhetoric used by politically active American Christians to condemn those who do not share their political views.

            I think there may be another value of this book to all those who work with Christians who find themselves distressed because of some application of the Bible to their life. They may feel guilty, angry with God, or conflicted over biblical teaching regarding some past or planned act. On the one hand, such people may find helpful guidance from their local clergy. On the other hand, they may consult a mental health professional hoping to find a different opinion. Caution is in order here because a person’s faith can be a significant part of personal identity. However, clinicians of any faith or no faith will likely find Borg’s work instructive for understanding Christians.

            Reading the Bible Again is for all those who wish there was another way to embrace the sacred text of their childhood without compromising the facts about the natural world, their intelligence, and respect for all people regardless of their natal sex. Borg doesn’t have all the answers, but he does offer an alternative way of respecting the Bible again and, more importantly, reconnecting with the God who has inspired people for thousands of years to champion the causes of the downtrodden, sick, poor, and social outcasts.

*****
            Borg stated there are only two ways to read the texts. And I think he’s right. The near literalist view continues to dominate conservative evangelical churches and the postings of their adherents on social media sites. Those educated evangelicals who try to mix some literalism with some metaphors end up with an unsatisfactory concoction, which can only lead to intelligent young people throwing up their metaphorical hands and walking away.

            The time has come to follow Jesus’ lead. Like his rule about the Sabbath Day, old rules were meant for an ancient society, the Sabbath was made for man. If you try to put new wine into old wine skins, they will burst. Being free in Christ means finding out what it means to love God by loving others in one’s sphere of life. Christians live out Paul’s theme of dying to oneself and rising again when engaged in life-enhancing pursuits for the wellbeing of those around us.

            As Borg’s subtitle reads, Christians can “take the Bible seriously but not literally.”

Reference

Borg, M.J. (2001). Reading the bible again for the first time: taking the bible seriously but not literally (ePub ed.). New York: HarperCollins.

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Saturday, March 9, 2019

London: A Biography - Book Review

London: A Biography

By Peter Ackroyd

Reviewed by

Geoffrey W. Sutton





London: A Biography is not a biography in the usual sense of the term. True, Ackroyd is an excellent writer who is adept at weaving together bits of archaeology with a historical note and a dollop of quotes from a novelist. I did enjoy the book, but it was not what I expected.


As a Londoner, I hoped to discover new insights into the nether regions of the past and present. That hope was realised. In fact, I am looking for some of the books Ackroyd mentioned in his closing essay.



I suppose any biographer has to pick and choose among the many events in a long life that tell an interesting story. The author has chosen well. Would I have chosen differently? Yes. I would like more about science and history with fewer quotations from literary sources. I read about so many churches, but I did not learn much about the interaction of the people with their churches. I read about a few royals and captains of industry, but most of the time I was reading about those who struggled to survive. I almost expected to see family names when he took us down dour lanes for a dip in the cloudy culture of those hamlets south of the Thames.

Reference

Ackroyd, P. (2009).  London: A biography. New York: Anchor.


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Tuesday, February 5, 2019

They Shall Not Grow Old




They Shall Not Grow Old is a profoundly moving tribute to the soldiers of World War I. Peter Jackson (Director; coproducer with Clare Olssen) and his team combine enhanced archival films, photos, audio recordings, and artwork to bring us face to face with the adolescents and young men living and dying along the Western Front.

On the brief skeleton of the sequence of the war years, this documentary tells an extraordinary tale of ordinairy men from the farms, factories, and shops of Great Britain to the muddy graves of the ragged pattern of muddy trenches along the Western Front. Humour and games offer parenthetical relief from the abysmal struggle.

The colourisation and 3D conversion along with other technological modifications help us glimpse the soldier's world of 100 years ago. Many of us have read about the war and seen the old black and white clips bounce by at unnatural speeds. The marvel of technology helps us get closer to real people living and dying on orders from above. We wonder with the story tellers what it's like to live unwashed for days, smell the unberable stench of death, and cope with the raging thunder of artillery.

Whatever one thinks of war, the film is worth seeing to better understand this troubling period when millions died. Jackson worked with the extensive materials in the archives of the Imperial War Museum. Thus, the focus is on the British soldier. Although the film mentions other allies, it is worth remembering that millions of men and women from many nations were in combat zones in Europe and other places around the globe. Perhaps we can get a glimpse of what it might have been like for others from this in-depth look at these young British lads.

In the epilogue, Jackson mentions his grandfather and other connections to the war. That's what brings it home for me as both my grandfathers were in France. Considering the millions who died and survived with or without impairments, there are likely many millions currently alive who have grandparents who can pass along stories of their fathers, mothers, and uncles. Now is the time to remember the men and women of 1914-1918 and to keep a vigilant watch over the decisions our politicians make when it comes to starting or entering a war.




CAUTION: This film contains graphic and disturbing content and may not be suitable for all viewers.


Movie site They Shall Not Grow Old 2018.

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Thursday, December 13, 2018

Inheritance A Legacy of Hatred and the Journey to Change It


Inheritance
A Legacy of Hatred and the
Journey to Change It

By James Moll, Director

This 2006 documentary tells the story of two women with very different “inheritances” from Amon Goeth, the Nazi commandant of the Plaszow Concentration Camp in Poland. Goeth was known for his brutal murders of thousands of Jews.

Monika Hertwig is the daughter of Amon Goeth and Ruth Kalder. She gradually learned bits and pieces about her father’s horrific treatment of the Jews. It would be a mistake to overlook the role of her mother who had an affair with Goeth and a troubled relationship with Monika. The Spielberg film, Schindler’s List (1993), appears at a pivotal moment in Monika’s efforts to come to grips with her family history and her own identity.

Monika learns of a Jew, Helen Jonas-Rosenweig, who was a kitchen slave in her father’s manor house. Helen survived the holocaust with assistance from Oskar Schindler, whom she describes as a different kind of Nazi. Helen is in the United States and responds to Monika’s request to meet. A powerful emotional meeting makes the documentary a memorable experience unlike other holocaust stories.

The focus of the film is on Monika. However, we also learn the now familiar story of so many lost lives during the holocaust. In addition to the death of family members, Goeth shot Helen’s boyfriend. She eventually married a survivor but tragically lost him to suicide.

I recommend this film for its portrayal of real people trying to live in the present and achieve some sort of reconciliation with their past. The impact of one man’s evil on just these two people after some 60 years is incredible without considering the thousands of other lives he destroyed.

I watched the film streamed from Amazon prime.

The film is 75 minutes and was released on DVD 6 January 2009



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Friday, November 23, 2018

Fear: Trump in the White House - Review











Fear: Trump in the White House

By

  Bob Woodward

Reviewed by

   Geoffrey W. Sutton


After reading Woodward’s Fear, I am wondering about the contribution of this book to its cover-stated category, Political Science. Like behavioral scientists who analyze interviews, the anonymity of the participants is protected. Like readers of behavioral science interviews, we are dependent on the author and his team for accuracy. Unfortunately, like readers of scientific journals, we do not know the accuracy of the memories of those who provided the interview content to Woodward. Neither do we know how well Woodward was able to detect lies and biases in those who provided the content on which this book was based.

Woodward’s purpose is summarized at the end of the prologue.

The reality was that the United States in 2017 was tethered to the words and actions of an emotionally overwrought, mercurial, and unpredictable leader. Members of his staff had joined to purposefully block some of what they believed were the president’s most dangerous impulses. It was a nervous breakdown of the executive power of the most powerful country in the world.

What follows is that story.

                        Bob Woodward, Prologue

For the most part, Woodward takes us on a chronological tour of the interactions among members of Trump’s White House team­—sometimes with, and sometimes without Trump present. It’s no surprise to learn that strongly opinionated people—mostly men—would fight amongst themselves to persuade a president to do their bidding or form alliances to defeat opponents. What is surprising is the extent to which Trump’s team members go to interfere with his decisions or control his unscripted public speeches and prolific tweets. Woodward makes a repeated point that Trump demands loyalty. The demand for loyalty is nothing new in leaders. The ways team members undermine Trump’s authority and display conflicting loyalties makes for an interesting read. Accurate descriptions of human behavior in political arenas certainly fall in the realm of political science. But we are not treated to comparisons with other teams or a guiding theory that might explain what’s unique about this team.

What is different about the Trump White House is Trump himself. Trump's made a point. He’s not like Obama, either Bush, or either Clinton. Woodward’s words in the prologue describe Trump’s personality traits as “emotionally overwrought, mercurial, and unpredictable.” We do get various scenarios revealing intense emotional displays and changes in mood; however, it seems staff close to Trump have learned to predict his behavior to a degree that they act to distract him, influence his language, control his schedule, and team with others to prevent predictable actions. My point is, after hearing Trump’s repeated rhetoric, seeing his tweets, and reading this book, Trump’s actions seem to take on a degree of predictability. Criticize Trump and you will get a torrent of personalized criticism in return, display disloyalty and you will be fired. Take a position opposed to Trump and your intelligence or strength will be challenged in the language coarse men use everywhere.

On the final page, Woodward tells the story of Dowd’s (Trump’s lawyer) resignation. We learn Dowd’s view of Trump’s tragic flaw. And we are left to wonder what the storyteller believes about his president.

But in the man and his presidency Dowd had seen the tragic flaw. In the political back-and-forth, the evasions, the denials, the tweeting, the obscuring, crying “Fake news,” the indignation, Trump had one overriding problem that Dowd knew but could not bring himself to say to the president: “You’re a fucking liar.” (page 357)

As with any careful analysis, the author has provided copious notes with the noteworthy absence of anonymity for some primary sources. In the end, we are left with an experienced reporter’s view of a president fighting battles on many fronts—his advisors, Congress, the mainstream media, attorneys, and foreign leaders. We don't know who will win. We can be sure that along the way, different opponents will declare themselves the winner. Meanwhile, American voters are left to battle for semi-control over who gets in the White House in 2020. Perhaps fear is the best lead title word for the book. But other emotions come to mind.

Reference

Woodward, B. (2018). Fear: Trump in the White House. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Moral Teaching of Paul --A Book Review

THE MORAL TEACHING 

OF PAUL

SELECTED ISSUES

3RD EDITION

     BY

VICTOR PAUL FURNISH

Reviewed by

Geoffrey W. Sutton


The Moral Teaching of Paul is one of the books I cited in A House Divided. This third edition comes some 30 years after the first edition and aims to expand our understanding of the sociocultural context of Paul's Ministry related to contemporary moral issues.

Before discussing the moral topics, Furnish reminds readers in Chapter 1 about Paul's authorship, which at this point appears firm for Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galations, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. Disputed works include Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy. The disputed works have been variusly dated in a range from the 70s to the early second century. The importance of identifying Paul's works is a matter of emphasis thus, Furnish focuses attention on the undisputed texts to understand Paul's moral theology.

Furnish advises readers of the problem with a Sacred Cow view of the biblical texts. Such a view leaves readers bound to Paul's words because they are really the words of God given to all people for all time. Furnish argues that the biblical authors addressed situations in their sociohistorical context. Furnish realizes he must deal with those who quote 2 Timothy 3: 16-17. He makes the point, as others have, that the verse about inspired scripture probably referred to the Jewish texts since there was no New Testament at the time Paul wrote. The other point rests on an understanding of the concept, inspiration. As is commonly known, some view inspiration as the very words of God but others interpret the term in various ways (see Chapter 1 for more details).

Following the groundwork in Chapter 1, Furnish begins to address the moral topics that capture our attention. Chapter 2 deals with Sex, Marriage, and Divorce. There is no surprise to see Paul's view of sex as limited to the marriage relationship. Furnish offers background points about marriage during the Roman period. The purpose of marriage was to establish a housefhold where children could be raised and elderly parents receive care. Approved marriages were important to the transfer of property to future generations. Girls married in the age range of 12 to 15 and men married by age 25. Furnish notes Paul's reason for marriage as "good" to meet sexual needs. Paul avoids the reason others have given of marrying to procreate (Gen 1:28).

Divorce was easy to obtain during Roman times, according to Furnish. Adultery was the usual cause of a divorce. Furnish notes Jesus' restrictive stance on divorce and guides readers into a consideration of other reasons beyond infidelity by considering circumstances as does Paul in some of his reasoning.

Chapter 3 is titled, "Homosexuality?" Furnish makes the point early on that there were no ancient words for homosexuality in the biblical languages. Furnish departs from a discussion of Paul's works to provide context from the Jewish laws about same-sex sex. He then proceeds to a discussion of Jewish and Roman cultures in the first century. For Jews, same-sex sex was unnatural and unlawful. He refers to Greek culture and the presence of same-sex relationships. Some practices by people of the time involving sex with boys were condemned by other writers and Furnish thinks these condemned practices may be what Paul had in mind. He offers quotes from ancient extrabiblical texts to make his point about the condemnaiton of exploitation. Furnish closes the chapter by addressing current concerns about same-sex unions. He reminds readers of the limits of what the biblical texts say and do not say when it comes to contemporary notions of sexual orientation and relationships.

In Chapter 4, Furnish addresses Paul's view of "Women in the Church." As in previous chapters, Furnish provides the sociohistorical context applicable to the texts that appear to limit the role of women in ministry. He includes quotes depicting the inferiority of a woman's human nature e.g., seeing women as easily deceived and having poor reasoning powers. Next, Furnish examines the sometimes confusing array of teachings from Paul's letters. On the one hand, there are texts restricting what women can do but on the other hand, there are texts documenting the important role of women in early church ministries--including Paul's work.

The final chapter (5) addresses the moral challenge of "The Church in the World." We see that Paul expects Christians to live as citizens, which suggests an active role in social life. We also see guidance on how to behave; that is, Paul refers to such virtues as love, gentleness, kindness, and so on. Furnish makes a point that Christians are called to honorable conduct without connecting good works to the conversion of unbelievers to Christianity.

Furnish's analysis of Paul's teachings in the context of Jewish and Roman cultures provides a useful backdrop to consider contemporary interpretations of several hot-button issues that continue to divide contemporary Christians. Thus, Furnish's book remains relevant as Christians sincerely seek to appreciate what the Apostle Paul wrote, the traditions of the church, and how one ought to think about contemporary moral issues. The book will likely not be helpful to those who adhere to an interpretation of Pauline texts that does not permit a nuanced view based on cultural contexts and understanding old words and phrases in the ancient languages of scripture. The Moral Teaching of Paul will likely be useful for those in a variety of Christian ministries and students in Christian colleges and seminaries.

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References

Furnish, V. P. (2009). The Moral Teaching of Paul: Selected Issues, 3rd Ed. Nashville: Abingdon.

Sutton, G. W. (2016). A House Divided: Sexuality, Morality, and Christian Cultures. Eugene, OR: Pickwick.





Thursday, May 10, 2018

Psychopaths and Leadership - Wisdom of Psychopaths


The Wisdom of
Psychopaths

By Kevin Dutton

Review by

Geoffrey W. Sutton




My mother was sixty-five when she retired. Each month she faithfully wrote a check for $20.00 to Rev. Televangelist whom she loved to watch on her aging blond console TV. She had his special version red leather, red letter edition, of the Holy Bible beside her favorite 1970s orangey fabric chair. Each month she received his newsletter, which she read to learn of God’s blessing on his ministries. She and many others were sending those showers of blessing on him and all who dwelt beneath the roof of his fabulous mansion. After moving to Rev. Televangelist’s community of followers, the scandalous news brought the house down. And she was manifestly depressed.

My encounters with psychopaths began during the early years of my clinical practice. I learned the most during supervision by clinical forensic psychologist, Julianne Lockwood, professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico. Since then I read a lot of books, attended many seminars, and met a lot of folks with psychopathic traits. And I empathized with many victims—of all ages. Psychopathic traits enable leaders to suceed when they harness select characteristics useful in various professions such as law and medicine as well as careers in business, the military, and religion.

Kevin Dutton is a psychological scientist. He provides readers with an insider’s look at the personality traits that enable those we call psychopaths to wreak such havoc in other people’s lives. Sometimes we may be confused when we attempt to size-up a leader who seems a bit too ruthless. Dutton gives us examples of the variation between valued leadership traits and those of the psychopath:

Leader                                    Psychopath
Charismatic                             Superficial charm
Self-confident                         grandiosity
Action oriented                       thrill-seeking

As psychologists, we examine behavioral models that often describe patterns of behavior in a range of values. Sometimes a modest range of select behavior patterns can be of high value in certain circumstances. For example, when under threat, we need leaders who are able to manage a great deal of stress without the interference of emotions that would prevent them from making life and death decisions. Those same leaders might look quite calloused and insensitive in another situation.

 As a society, we can only tolerate such leaders when we are convinced they accept authority and demonstrate loyalty and a strong inclination to avoid harming those in the group they lead. Leaders can lead us astray. Dutton identifies seven core traits, which he artfully calls the Seven Deadly Wins—here’s the list:

Ruthlessness
Charm
Focus
Mental toughness
Fearlessness
Mindfulness
Action

If you have any interest in the psychology of psychopathy, I recommend the book as a good introduction. Dutton is a good writer and he makes sense of several interesting studies. You can find my academic review as a free download.

Sutton, G. W. (2014). [Review of the book The Wisdom of psychopaths: What saints, spies, and serial killers can teach us about success by Kevin Dutton]. Journal of Christianity and Psychology, 35, 281-282. Also published in Vol 33, 265-266. Accepted June 2013 ResearchGate Link  Academia Link



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