Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The Black Swan- A Book Review by Sutton




 Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Reviewed by

   Geoffrey W. Sutton

Currently, we are experiencing a Black Swan event. Covid-19, a coronavirus, is raging from nation to nation knowing people down with flu symptoms and sending others to hospitals or to their grave. All of a sudden, when the virus began to spread, world financial markets plunged wiping out trillions of dollars worth of savings and financial assets.

Black Swan events are those unpredictable events that are so unique that they cannot be predicted using traditional statistical modeling. Black Swan events are statistical outliers that most scientists would remove from a dataset to avoid skewed distributions. But you do not need to understand statistics to know, that scientists and business leaders can miss events that are so rare.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb published The Black Swan in 2007 and my academic review was published the next year. The book was as relevant then as it is today and likely will be again. It's hard to prepare for a Black Swan, but we can prepare for some low frequency destructive events.

You might wonder where the name, Black Swan, comes from. It so happens that Europeans thought all swans were white until they encountered a black swan. Black swans were not known to exist until they were seen.

About the Book - The Black Swan

Best selling author, Nassim Taleb, explains the three characteristics of a black swan:

1. It is an outlier that is beyond our expectations;
2. it carries an extreme impact, and because of human nature,
3. people construct a post hoc explanation suggesting it was predictable (pp. xvii-xviii).

In an entertaining and highly articulate prose, punctuated with satire and lucid illustrations, Taleb drills home the problem of faulty reasoning about quantitative data through 19 chapters divided into four parts. He thoughtfully includes a glossary followed by extensive notes (19 pages), a bibliography (28 pages), and an index.

Taleb asserts that part one is mostly about psychology. The potpourri of nine chapters begins
with a personal story illustrating the problems of anticipating future events, including predictions
about human behavior, from almost any time in the history of his native Lebanon.

Three key points about the opacity of history are worth repeating.

1. People act as if they understand what is going on at any given point in time, but the world seems more complicated than presented.
2. Empirical reality is different from the retrospective illusion of clearly organized patterns presented in history books.
3. Leaders appear to overvalue information, especially when they categorize information.

Chapter three provides examples in easy-to-understand language of problems that can be understood in terms of normal distributions (e.g., health and psychological characteristics) and those that are not amenable to such an analysis (e.g., wealth, accidents, probabilities of war, and genocide).

In a few chapters, Taleb illustrates the problem of predicting events based on a fundamental inability to consider all the relevant data. In addition to the aforementioned problems, people believe that existing trends will continue (chapter four) and have a confirmation bias that interferes with the search for the unknown (chapter five).  Other chapters illustrate the faulty ways people develop personal theories of causation in contrast to experimental methods.

Taleb presents part two as a combination of psychology and business. He builds on previous examples to illustrate the problem of prediction. The problems inherent in probability models affect daily life whether considering the odds of cancer treatment or predicting a stock price. We have trouble when we do not know what data to include in a model, include excessive amounts of irrelevant data, or use models suited to current patterns when extreme values represent the truth about reality rather than data to be ignored. He concludes this part with suggestions on how to distinguish between predictions that may lead to positive or low harm outcomes (e.g., publishing a book) versus those areas of life-outcomes where there are considerable downside risks (e.g., homeland security, health risks). He also offers suggestions on how to increase the probability of finding rare opportunities by taking advantage of offers to meet well-connected people who appear able to make things happen, avoiding a focus on that which is precise and local, and being wary of forecasts about the future (read government reports).

Part three includes more of a technical analysis of the problems with the bell curve and constructing
models of probability. Those who recall their statistics courses will appreciate the familiar warnings about variations in statistics in different samples, problems of stability, and inappropriate interpretations of correlations between events. Taleb provides numerous examples of patterns of human behavior that are better explained by fractional exponential increases rather than linear trends. He further notes that the patterns of these phenomena often do not appear within a short period of time.

Part four is but one short chapter. He concludes as he began with a personal view of handling the unknowns of life. Noting that he is hyperconservative about matters that can have significant negative consequences like health and investing in contrast to low harm experiences.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Why Darwin Matters- A Book Review by Sutton




   Michael Shermer

Reviewed by

   Geoffrey W. Sutton

My answer to Shermer's book title framed as a question, Why Darwin Matters?, is that it matters a great deal. Psychological scientists often refer to evolutionary theory in their articles and textbooks thus psychologists, and those in similar professions, need to know the basics of evolutionary theory to understand and critique the way the theory is employed in the understanding of human behavior.

Shermer begins his work with a biographical event.
"I became a creationist shortly after I became a born-again evangelical Christian in high school ..." (p. xx). 
Those interested in the integration of Christian faith and science will find this book a quick and useful review of the major points involved in the evolution-intelligent design (ID) controversy that has primarily involved biologists perhaps because the evolutionary psychology sections of various textbooks within our discipline are beneath the radar screen of ID proponents.

Why Darwin Matters is organized into nine chapters (153 pages) followed by brief end sections for an
epilogue, coda, and an Appendix. Shermer provides an extensive notes section (pp. 169-184) followed by a brief bibliography, acknowledgements,
and an ample index.

The first chapter adumbrates the basic theory of the Origin of Species followed by five principles
(e.g., descent with modification) discovered since Darwin, which the author attributed to
Ernst Mayr. In chapter two, Shermer identifies and responds to five reasons people resist evolution
(e.g., fear that evolution degrades our humanity). "Why do you believe in God?" is the
question leading to a discussion of God qua designer. Shermer cites data from a recent study that identifies the seven strongest predictors of belief in God (e.g., parents' religiosity, lower levels
of education). At this point I wondered if he were suggesting that intelligent people must
reject various beliefs if they do not wish to be considered uneducated.

In chapter four, Shermer presents the Evolution-ID debate as he has come to know the crucial
points that either side makes in the public forum. This section is quite detailed with lists of various lengths, which the author employs to methodically address each thrust and parry. In the next chapter, Shermer presents examples of how science is under attack (read the teaching of evolution in American schools). The prime and proximate example is the Dover Pennsylvania decision handed down December 20, 2005 (since I read the book, the Public Broadcasting System presented the Dover story in a two-hour television program on their NOVA series).

Chapter six contains Shermer's perspective on the Real Agenda of the ID theorists. A key point here is the reference to an article by ID leader, Rob Johnson who wrote of creating a wedge issue out of evolution to lead to further debates about the existence of God and the question of sin.

In chapters seven and eight, Shermer suggests models whereby science and faith might achieve a rapprochement on the matter of evolution. His view is that science cannot contradict religion. He
follows these chapters with a list of problems that yet remain a puzzlement to evolutionary theory
(e.g., where did modern humans evolve?).

Why Darwin Matters is a quick read that will help readers catch up on the basics of the theory of evolution and understand the problems with intelligent design from the perspective of a scientist.

Monday, March 23, 2020

The End of Faith-A Book Review by Sutton





     Sam Harris

Reviewed by

     Geoffrey W. Sutton

The 9/11 Islamic terrorists emblazoned the psychological truism of the path from belief to
behavior on the minds of millions. The world saw the lethiferous power of religious belief. We witnessed the purpose driven death. Sam Harris pummels readers with invidious images of destruction associated with religious belief. We may well dispute many of his conclusions but the ineluctable truth is that beliefs matter. At times acerbic, Harris has prepared a puissant polemic focused primarily upon the terror of Islam with ample scathing visited upon Christianity and Judaism. 

His thesis is that the beliefs of religious people have become unhinged from reason to the point that meaningful conversations cannot take place. 

He asserts that reason is in exile (chapter 1) and that survival requires a return from unproven beliefs to evidenced-based reason when making decisions that affect human life.

In chapters two and three, Harris examines the notion of belief and the manner in which
numerous contradictory beliefs are accumulated from early authority figures. He notes important findings that people are conservative—they do not easily give up beliefs. As beliefs develop into a worldview, a subset deals with matters of religious faith. By way of example, Harris shows the importance of re-examining beliefs that can have powerful consequences on health and well-being. Harris provides two historical examples
of the inquisition and the holocaust to demonstrate the incredible power of malevolent
belief systems to wreak havoc in the lives of hapless victims.

Harris wages war on Islam in chapter four. His major point is that there is a reason we are facing Islamic terrorists rather than people of another faith—the principle of jihad. He acknowledges that apologists for Islam interpret the jihad as a personal struggle but warns of those warriors who believe in a holy war against all non-Muslims, who are by definition infidels or apostate. To further his point, he quotes several several hadithic lines that encourage war on earth and promise eternal rewards for martyrs. He follows
this litany with a list of massacres and pogroms against Jews and quotations from Pew
Research that support an alarmingly high percentage of people in various countries that affirm the justification of suicide bombing in the name of Islam (e.g., Lebanon 73%, Ivory Coast 56%).

In West of Eden (chapter 5), the author challenges the extant American Theocracy, which is
primarily an attack on the two-term presidency of George W. Bush and the values of Christian fundamentalists that he believes were foisted on the general public. This analysis appears a bit dated given the 2008 Presidential election, but might apply to the 2016 election. However, there are clearly laws and political positions related to such issues as abortion, stem cell research, certain substances (e.g., alcohol, marijuana), and same-sex marriage that are likely to persist into the future and which are trigger points for particular clusters of American Christians (e.g., see A House Divided).

Harris wishes to take us beyond religion toward a science of good and evil (chapter 6).
His position appears to turn on defining that which is moral as that which affects happiness
or suffering in others in the present era (rather than an era in which leading religious texts were written). He rejects moral relativism and pragmatism and appeals to moral facts that can inform regarding happiness and pain. He buttresses his moral position with numerous exemplars of immoral behavior wrought by religious leaders. He also exposes the ethical limitations of pacifists who would not use lethal force to protect the innocent when faced with an unscrupulous enemy. Though Harris makes powerful sparring points, which would undoubtedly ring cheers from many audiences, he has not established a groundwork for his metaphysics of morality. In the language of psychology, he has failed to operationally define happiness and suffering in such a way that the concepts have clear criterial attributes. Instead, he has left us with a few strident examples of evil, which do not begin to
limn the contours of the perennial debate.

Experiments in Consciousness (chapter 7) appears to be a foray into a rational basis for
spirituality. Harris explores the notion of the self and the experience of self and otherness found in various mystic traditions. On the whole, Harris does not accomplish much here. His argument lacks a substantive basis that would support his endeavor to bring mystical experience within the realm of neuroscience. Readers familiar with neurotheology and neurophilosophy will note a more nuanced approach to apprehending the emergent phenomenon of mind. He appears aware of this weakness in the Epilogue, which is
worth reading to glimpse his manner of responding to challenges.

Sutton, G. W. (2009). [Review of the book The End of faith: Religion, terror, and the future of reason by S. Harris]. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 28, 280-281.  Academia Link    Research Gate Link 


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Breaking the Spell-A Book Review by Sutton

Breaking the Spell:
Religion as a Natural Phenomenon    


   Daniel C. Dennett

Reviewed by

  Geoffrey S. Sutton

One Sunday I had the occasion to view both spells in action. A Christian scholar was presenting various theological perspectives on the apocalypse when an attorney interrupted with challenges to the speaker’s shifting from literal to metaphorical interpretations and to textual problems with the doctrine of the trinity. At one point, the theologian, notably frustrated with the challenger, raised his hands, and decried that he did not know the answers to all the questions, noting that humans are ‘‘peanut-brained’’ (repeated twice for emphasis), and that anyone who pretended to understand such mysteries was arrogant. 

And that is the problem in discussing religion. It is notably hard to analyze using logic and any questioner is cursed (though I suspect the lawyer had been called worse than "peanut-brained").In this blog, I will summarize and comment on Daniel Dennett's attempt to break two religious spells. Most people on earth are religious or spiritual. And only a small percentage are atheists or "nones." Therefore, the notion that such people are under a spell is worthy of consideration. At the end of the post you will find a link to my academic review (Sutton, 2009).

Dennett organizes Breaking the Spell into three parts, which are not intuitively obvious by glancing at the creative labels for the parts and 11 chapter titles adumbrated in the table of contents. 

The first part, ‘‘Opening Pandora’s Box,’’ focuses on understanding the powerful spellbound effect religion produces. He also addresses how science might study religion, and what theories might account for the existence and persistence of religion. 

    What is religion? Here's Dennett's working definition of religion.
 ‘‘ systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or      agents whose approval is to be sought’’ (p. 9).
    What are the two spells? The spells are two issues that protect religion from objective analysis.
1. There is a taboo against subjecting religion to analysis. Religion is sacred. To raise doubts is to be offensive.
2. Religions cast a spell of fear that keeps people engaged for fear they will suffer severe consequences if they violate the rules or leave.
Dennett wonders what will become of religion. He suggests five hypothesis. I am not sure there bear repeating. Frankly, I am not sure much will change because so many people are religious and any persecution of religious people appears to strengthen rather than weaken their commitment. 

The second part, ‘‘The Evolution of Religion,’’ includes a history of religious practices suggesting a progression from beliefs in local helping-agent gods to more developed
monotheisms and belief systems that ensure survival. He observes the benefits people receive when they believe. For example, religion offers great comfort when loved ones are ill or die. In this section, he refers to Dawkins' (1999) concept of a meme to show how religious beliefs might be transmitted like genes from one generation to the next.

Part three, ‘‘Religion Today,’’ concludes with three chapters discussing the importance of
contemporary religious or spiritual beliefs, matters of morality and meaning in life, and
implications of religion for society. Dennett reminds us of the 9/11 attacks on the US, which I have called the Purpose Driven Death. These attacks make it clear that it is important to study religion--it might be a matter of life and death.

Dennett offers readers a thoughtful view of religion and is quite different in his approach than his more aggressive colleagues (e.g., Dawkins, 2006 and Hitchens, 2007). I do agree that violence in response to beliefs that religious leaders or a god or gods commanded such action is reason enough to take religion seriously. However, as a student of the psychology of religion, I believe there has been considerable work done in this regard by psychologists and my colleagues in sociology and anthropology. Thus, the first spell is not quite as  powerful as it was when people remained in the closet about personal beliefs out of fear for their lives.

As I write this post, years after my published review, the world is managing the terror of Covid-19. Death rates are climbing. And as predicted by Terror Management Theory, people are turning to their religions for support. In fact, many places of religious worship are closed but religion has moved online along with words of comfort and support. There are other theories that offer additional explanations and the models have been tested (e.g., Meaning Maintenance Model).

The idea of the second spell cast by religion itself is worthy of additional consideration. In western cultures I have observed a number of younger people leaving conservative Christian subcultures in favor of more progressive denominations or none at all. A few confided in me that they no longer have faith; however, they remain in the closet out of concern for losing family and friends. Thus, even the second spell has been weakened to some extent when fundamentalist beliefs don't seem to square with observed reality. The concept of "progressive" Christianity is likely a mutation that will survive as it offers a more adaptive stance toward science and culture for the younger generation who will reproduce and pass along the new memes to their children. Meanwhile, the less adaptive fundamentalisms will likely fade with the older generation in western cultures where there is freedom of religion.

Related Posts

The God Delusion

The Case for God

Caught in the Pulpit

The End of Faith

When Religion Becomes Evil

You might also be interested in A House Divided: Sexuality, Morality, and Christian Cultures available on AMAZON.


Dawkins, R. (1999). The selfish gene. New York: Oxford.

Dawkins, R. (2006). The god delusion. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Dennett, D. (2006). Breaking the spell: Religion as a natural phenomenon. New
York: Penguin.

Hitchens, C. (2007). God is not great: How religion poisons everything. New York:

Sutton, G. W. (2007). [Review of the book, God is not great: How religion poisons
everything]. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 26, 372–373.

Sutton, G. W. (2009). [Review of the book: The god delusion by Richard Dawkins].
Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health, 11, 235–239.

Sutton, G. W. (2009). [Review of the book Breaking the spell: Religion as a natural phenomenon by D. C. Dennet].  Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health, 11, 231-234.  Academia Link     Research Gate Link 


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When Religion Becomes Evil- A book review by Sutton

When Religion Becomes Evil:     

Five Warning Signs: 
Revised and Updated

Charles Kimball

Reviewed by

  Geoffrey W. Sutton

In the aftermath of 9/11 and during the onslaught of religion-damning missives from the ‘‘evangelical atheists’’ Dawkins (2006), Hitchens (2007), and Harris (2004), Kimball provides a ‘‘gentle introduction to the critical study of comparative religion’’ (p. vi). In seven chapters, he outlines five critical ways that religion can lead to tragic, even violent outcomes, and offers suggestions that may promote better relationships between people of different religious traditions. In the end, he argues for respect for diverse faiths and traditions. Kimball is uniquely qualified to write this informative work. He is an ordained Baptist minister and a professor of comparative religion at Wake Forest University. He obtained his doctorate from Harvard University in comparative religion where he specialized in Islamic studies.

Kimball helps readers focus on what it good in religion before pointing out the evil. He reminds us of the rich cultural ways people of different religions mark life events and guide acceptable behavior for their adherents. Then he offers the following warning.
‘‘...when their behavior toward others is violent and destructive, when it causes suffering among their neighbors, you can be sure the religion has been corrupted and reform is desperately needed’’ (p. 47).
Kimball's five warnings follow.

1. Absolute Truth Claims. The possibility of evil and violence exists when an interpretation of beliefs requires conformity to the extent that people are held hostage to textual literalism. Often, the zealous focus on preaching their interpretation of truth and ignore those texts that speak of compassion.

2. Blind Obedience. A common example of the potential for destruction is the group led by James Jones, a charismatic leader who preached about nuclear destruction and held faith healing services. Eventually, Jones led his group to Guyana in 1974 where he established Jonestown and functioned as a god to his followers. California congressman, Leo Ryan flew to investigate Jones' group, but he and those with him were murdered. The next day, Jones led his followers in suicide. Protesters were shot. Altogether, 638 adults and 276 children were murder-suicide victims.

3. Establishing the 'Ideal" Time. Kimball gently lays out the problem of hope gone awry. For example, some Christians have preached about the "End Times." When disasters occur, it is easy to refer to texts that talk about disasters happening near the end of the world. When this preaching encourages people to act to advance their idea of God's will in a violent manner, humans can bring about a disaster.

4. The End Justifies Any Means.  Kimball begins this chapter with an example of violent clashes between Hindus and Muslims. Unfortunately, such violence continues. His point here is: "The end goal of protecting or defending a key component of religion is often used to justify any means necessary." (p. 140).

5. Declaring Holy War.  Following the horrific attack on the United States known as 911, president Bush used religious language reminiscent of the biblical devil when he called bin Laden "the evil one" and his followers, "evildoers." The US led a "war on terrorism" to combat bin Laden's "holy war." The topic of war and peace appears important to Kimball as he focuses the chapter on ways to promote peace such as seeking repentance and forgiveness, advocating for human rights, and promoting religious liberty.


I think Kimball offers a reasonable balance to offset the assault of the atheists against "bad faith." People of integrity must confront that which is destructive in their own faiths if we are to live in a peaceful world--at least one free from religious strife and violence. His points seem reasonable and are well supported by more examples than I included here. It's easy to see why this was the "Top Religion Book of the Year" according to Publisher's Weekly.

Related Posts

The God Delusion

The Case for God

Caught in the Pulpit


Dawkins, R. (2006). The god delusion. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.

Harris, S. (2004). The end of faith: Religion, terror, and the future of reason. New
York, NY: W.W. Norton.

Hitchens, C. (2007). God is not great: How religion poisons everything. New York,

NY: Twelve.

Kimball, C. (2008). When religion becomes evil: Five warning signs. New York: HarperCollins.

Sutton, G. W. (2010). [Review of the book When religion becomes evil” Five warning signs: Revised and updated by C. Kimball]. Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health, 12,78-80. doi 10.1080/19349630903495616.  Accepted 09-01-2009.  ResearchGate Link  Academia Link


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God is Not Great-A Book Review by Sutton


   Christopher Hitchens

Reviewed by
   Geoffrey W. Sutton

Hitchens begins his pungent polemic against religion by explaining how he came to question religious teaching as a child (chapter 1). Following a deconversion experience associated with a teacher's simplistic description of reality covered with a simple religious gloss, Hitchens reflects upon perceived oddities in scripture and child-abusing clergy. Next, Hitchens adumbrates his thesis as: 

four irreducible objections to religious faith:
1. that it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos, that because of this original
2. error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism,
3. that it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and
4. that is ultimately grounded on with-thinking. (p. 4)
Hitchens covers familiar grounds in his attack of religious faith with each chapter a blow x blow progression of what he sees as the evils of religion. Here's my quick reference to his chapters.

2. Religious groups have behaved violently toward each other in the name of their faith.
3. An essay on the religious views toward pigs
4. Religious groups have a history of anti-health policies
5. A challenge to metaphysical claims
6. A challenge to intelligent design

Next, are three chapters targeting the faiths of Judaism (7), Christianity (8), and Islam (9).

From my published review (Sutton, )
Next, we encounter five essays (chapters 10-
16) on related matters interrupted by an attack
on the failures of Asian faiths (chapter 14).
Among other things, Hitchens minimizes miracles,
harrumphs on hell, and opines on the onerous
doctrines of religion (primarily Christianity).
The final chapters (17-19) offer readers hope for a better worldview based on reason.

The value of a set of essays like those presented by Hitchens is to identify the strangeness of various religious doctrines and practices considered by various groups of people as essential to their identity as well as their worldview. Indeed, people who identify as spiritual or religious consider those of another tradition to be strange. In getting to know people of another faith, it is possible to genuinely like them, but remain convinced that they are strange or worse, headed to eternal damnation unless they convert.

In a related manner, Hitchens takes aim at beliefs and practices where faith traditions are most vulnerable. So many fundamentalists who insist on living according to their interpretation of literal translations of ancient texts offer a firm basis for rejecting their faith tradition. I suspect this situation will always exist. Fundamentalists are often those who fund religious schools and organizations. Those with more progressive views are muzzled by self-preservation or anxious administrators in need of more and more donations to survive.

Serious religious people can also humbly admit it's true that members of their own religious group often behave in ways reflecting a lack of transformation into people who live virtuous lives worth emulating. Sadly, too few religious adherents demonstrate the classic virtues of humility, wisdom, love, forgiveness, generosity, and so forth. Instead, as Hitchens reminds us, we have too many willing to kill others and force others to submit to their moral and cultural beliefs.

Hitchens also reminds us of the history of opposition to science and good health practices throughout religious history. And of course, such opposition persists as those in my own profession (psychology) have often witnessed. Unfortunately, the manner in which Hitchens preaches is unlikely to evoke reflection. But perhaps that is not his point. Perhaps Hitchens is more about venting his frustration or perhaps bent on evangelizing the youth who would build a utopia on the foundations of reason.

The wave of anti-religious attacks came in the wake of 911. However, then as now, when faced with a threat, people turn to their faith for support. Slowly, religious restrictions have abated throughout the world and those in the West demonstrate more confidence in physicians than priests when it comes to illness and disease. 

Related Posts

The God Delusion

The Case for God

Caught in the Pulpit


   My Page


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Publications (many free downloads)
  Academia   Geoff W Sutton   (PhD)     
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Sunday, March 22, 2020

Strengthquest- A book review by Sutton





   Donald O. Clifton &
   Edward Anderson

Reviewed by
   Geoffrey W. Sutton

I read and reviewed (Sutton, 2007b) the 2004 edition of this book published by Gallup. The authors present their strength-based philosophy, which fits nicely with the concurrent trend in positive psychology (Sutton, 2007a). Others have shown how the strengths approach is compatible with Christianity (e.g., see Sutton, 2007c).
"A strength is the ability to provide consistent, near-perfect performance in a given activity (p. 8)."
The authors explain how talent, qua raw material, can be combined with knowledge and
skill to produce a unique pattern of strengths.

The book and the test have been revised. Overall, I think this approach to identifying personal strengths is a useful starting point in academic and vocational counseling. I also think it is a good reminder for those of us who worked in education and psychotherapy to ensure an adequate focus on the strengths of students and patients. I do not think we can ignore diagnoses, but I do think it is too easy to forget a person's strengths.

In addition to the review, I worked with colleagues on a strengths study, which was published in 2011 (see below).


Sutton, G. W. (2007a). [Review of the book Positive psychology: The scientific and practical explorations of human strengths by C. R. Snyder & S. Lopez]. Journal of Christianity and Psychology, 26, 273-274.   Academia Link    ResearchGate Link

 Sutton, G. W. (2007b). [Review of the book StrengthsQuest: Discover and develop your strengths in academics, career, and beyond by D. Clifton & E. Anderson]. Journal of Christianity and Psychology, 26, 82-83.   Academia Link    ResearchGate Link  

Sutton, G. W. (2007c). Strengths and Christian Service. [Review of the book Living your strengths: Discover your God-given talents, and inspire your congregation and community by A. Winseman, D. Clifton, & C. Liesveld]. Unpublished manuscript available at

Sutton, G. W., Phillips, S., Lehnert, A. B., Bartle, B. W., & Yokomizo, P. (2011). Strengths, academic self-efficacy, admission test scores, and GPA in a Christian university sample. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 30, 28-36.  Academia Link    Research Gate Link

Saturday, March 21, 2020

When God Talks Back - A Book Review by Sutton

When God Talks Back: 
Understanding the American Evangelical   
Relationship with God


     T.M. Luhrmann

Reviewed by 

     Geoffrey W. Sutton

We are His portion and He is our prize,
Drawn to redemption by the grace in His eyes.
If grace is an ocean, we’re all sinking;
So Heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss,
And my heart turns violently inside of my chest.
I don’t have time to maintain these regrets
When I think about the way that He loves us:
John Mark McMillan (2005)

I quoted a portion of the McMillan song because it is one of those subgenres of Christian music dubbed "Jesus is my boyfriend." If you observe Pentecostal youth singing with eyes closed and arms raised and swaying you get a real sense of a love relationship between a young woman and a personified God. The idea of a relationship with God is not new, but the focus on a present intensely personal speaking relationship with God as a widespread Christian movement is distinctive. 

In When God Talks Back, Lurhmann takes on a journey to the Vineyard, which is an international Christian group. John and Carol Wimber became international leaders of the Vineyard movement. Wimber was a talented Missouri musician who experienced a dramatic conversion. Wimber is credited with opening evangelicals to God's presence through his spirit as experienced in Pentecostal and charismatic congregations.

Tanya Lurhmann is an anthropologist at Stanford University. The book, published in 2012, is the result of her field study of the Vineyard movement. She presents a faith-friendly stance as she reports the results of numerous interviews, survey questions, and observations based on participation in church groups and services.

Overview of When God Talks Back

Her first chapter invites readers to join her as she frames her Vineyard experience in the history of the evangelical movement, the rise of Pentecostalism, and the emergence of The Vineyard Fellowship. Through her eyes we view a people who love God in a deeply personal way and seek to hear his personal guidance in every nook and cranny of the Bible. Learning what God “said” is Luhrmann’s puzzle. In addition to learning how to study the Bible, she finds people struggling to learn the discipline of prayer as a conversation. Given practice and examples, believers learn to trust the thoughts that enter their minds as God’s voice and not their own thoughts. Prayer journals are pathways to focus on the interactions between God and believer. Highlighted Bibles full of notes reflect God’s interpretation of his own text. And life situations unfold in nonrandom ways as God speaks into lives. As one man said, “God is always talking to you (59).”

After believers learn to converse with God and recognize his voice, they must learn to interact with him as a person. She draws on evangelical favorite, C.S. Lewis’s chapter in Mere Christianity titled “Let’s Pretend” to illustrate how these believers develop a sense of God’s presence. People ask God what to wear and they speak to God as if he were occupying an empty chair at their table. Experiencing God as real is a marker of spiritual maturity.

Learning that God is love is a process. Luhrmann again reminds readers that this love doctrine is new in the context of a history of fear and worry about the wrath of the Almighty. A part of spiritual development is a reworking of a person’s God-concept so that people learn to trust God. She emphasizes the important role that emotions play in this process of a heart-felt faith experience. Not surprisingly, not all members find their way to God through these local-group led experiences. Many find it hard to pray. Yet encouragement comes from local experts-- people who share their testimonies of what God is doing in their lives.

Luhrmann wonders what people are doing when they pray. Eventually she reaches a conclusion that the intense prayers of the mature charismatic believers are close to the psychological state of absorption. Those high on absorption are highly focused with attentional processes that screen out life’s distractions. People learn to relate to reality from a different perspective. She wonders, are they crazy? She gives us a sense that in the moment people are in the world but not of the world. This absorption experience is close to the clinically challenging world of those who lose contact with a part of experience as in a dissociative state. We also find some reporting what sounds like hallucinations and delusions. People hear God speak in an audible voice. Others share their confrontations with evil spirits. Luhrmann rejects the notion of craziness in favor of transformative experiences that temporarily override the senses.

Perhaps no study would be complete without an examination of theodicy. Luhrmann finds these believers do indeed confront doubts in their faith journey. Some prayers do not lead to expected answers. Bad things happen. But rather than seeking logical answers, they eventually find a satisfactory response in their spiritual experiences and their relationship with God in the context of a faith community. As Luhrmann observes, “Their faith is practical, not philosophical (299).” 

 Luhrmann presents the Evangelical worldview as a third type of epistemology. These Christians do not castigate science but when it comes to faith they do not insist on an evidence-based logical narrative. There is no formal sense of a systematic theology that organizes belief into tidy structures that may be called upon to bolster faith or resist heresy. Neither do these Christians behave like children embracing a fictional narrative utterly divorced from reality. Instead, these Christians have embraced a story of a living God. And they have a worldview that blends the supernatural with everyday experience. This way of knowing is about a relationship. And the relationship is one between an individual believer and God. If you have an interest in the nexus of behavioral science and Christianity, you will find were work interesting.

I think Lurhmann has made a useful contribution to understanding a movement within 20th century Christianity. She actually provides a reasonably good example of how to conduct and report participant-observer research. 

On a technical note, the subtitle referring to "Evangelical" is a bit misleading because The Vineyard is not representative of contemporary evangelical churches. The Vineyard's embrace of many Pentecostal and charismatic beliefs and practices has led to the classification "neocharismatic evangelical Christian." They are considered to be a part of the Third Wave Movement (Stetzer). To clarify, the First Wave is the Pentecostal movement (Stetzer), which garnered attention in the early 1900s when groups of conservative Christians began speaking in tongues and reported instances of healing. Early American leaders were Charles Parham and William Joseph Seymour.  The Second Wave refers to the interdenominational spiritual renewal also known as the Charismatic Movement with origins attributed to Dennis Bennett's Spirit Baptism (Stetzer, 2013).


Lurhmann, T. M. (2012). 
When God talks back: Understanding the American evangelical relationship with God . New York: Vintage.

Sutton, G.W. (2014). [Review of the book When God talks back: Understanding the American evangelical relationship with God by T. M. Luhrmann]. Encounter. Accepted June 16, 2014. ResearchGate Link Academia Link


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