Wednesday, December 30, 2015



Living your Strengths

By Albert L. Winseman,  Donald O. Clifton,  
& Curt Liesveld

A Review by Geoffrey W. Sutton


Many U.S. Universities embraced Gallup’s approach to assessing strengths and discussing how strengths may be used in Higher Education. I attended workshops and conferences organized by the Gallup organization.

 The Authors

Albert L. Winesman, a former pastor in the United Methodist Church, is the global practice leader for the Gallup Organization. Donald O. Clifton (deceased) former chair of the Gallup Organization, was named the Father of Strengths Psychology by the American Psychological Association. Curt Liesveld, formerly a pastor in the Reformed Church in America, is a developmental analyst, consultant, and seminar leader with the Gallup Organization.

My Review

            “If you’re like most people, you have grown up with the ‘weakness prevention’ model (p. ix).” The authors contrast their focus on discovering and developing God-given strengths with         what they perceive as a Christian tradition of focusing on discovering and fixing weaknesses. This book is an application of Gallup’s successful StrengthsFinder assessment instrument and program to the church setting. The authors define strength as “the ability to provide consistent, near-perfect performance in a given activity (p. 3).” Talent can be combined with knowledge and skill to produce a unique pattern of strengths. Talents are those natural tendencies such as the ability to thrive under pressure or recognize the uniqueness of others. Readers can begin their quest by using the ID code that comes with each book to take the 180-item StrengthsFinder online assessment. Those items are associated with 34 areas of strength (e.g., Belief, Connectedness, Developer, Empathy). The assessment report lists and describes the top five areas, which represent a person’s dominant, or Signature Themes.

            Chapter one provides introductory material. Following the basic definition of strength, the authors purport to provide a “theology of strengths.” Unfortunately, the three-page treatise proposes more than it delivers. By quoting only three scriptures, this section can only serve as a stimulus for thinking about such a theology.

            In Chapter 2, readers learn the descriptions of the 34 strengths. Each description covers a little more than a page and includes a paragraph of descriptive information, a list of five insights that suggest how the strength may be recognized, and scriptural quotes related to the strength. Following is an example of one insight for a person with the Developer strength: “You love to see others make progress, and you will notice even the slightest progress (p. 48).” Only New Testament scriptures are cited to illustrate the Developer strength; for instance, Philippians 1:3-6 and 2 Timothy 2:2.

            Readers learn how they can use their talents for growth and service in Chapter 3. The authors encourage people with the Empathy talent to develop it by recognizing their need for experiential worship and employing their sensitivity to help those who have experienced loss and need extra attention. They wisely advise those with empathy to recognize the need to set limits. Chapters 4 and 5 contain brief suggestions on how to recognize the strengths of others within a faith community and how to use the focus on strengths to identify one’s calling.

            The book concludes with A Technical Report on StrengthsFinder. The authors provide what might be seen as an Appendix that contains simplified explanations of information supporting the construct validity of the StrengthsFinder instrument. For example, they reported test-retest reliability of .60 to .80 for most signature themes (no tables provided) and they provided quantitative results showing trivial score differences for such categories as race, sex, and age. An interesting tidbit is tucked away on pages 200-201 that suggests the strengths may be grouped into four categories of Striving, Relating, Impacting, and Thinking. There is no explanation of what strengths are associated with these categories or information on reliability or validity. I was able to obtain a list of strengths associated with the categories from the Gallup Organization but I was unable to obtain any psychometric data regarding these groupings.

            The book is most suitable for educated parishioners who are interested in a reasonably sophisticated instrument that assesses human strengths and positive attributes that can have application in any organization. Readers who work in an educational setting or provide career counseling in their clinical practice may find the book a useful supplement for students and clients. Clinicians and church leaders can profit from an understanding of the language of strengths that may be used by their clients who have participated in the growing number of strength-based programs in colleges and industrial settings. The book is an interesting first attempt to integrate faith with the strengths model.

Interested readers can find more information at Gallup’s website.

Important Note

A more recent edition of the book is available.

Citing this blog post

Sutton, G. W. (2015, December 30). Strengths and Christian Service. [Web log post]. Retrieved from 

Book Reference

Winseman, A. L., Clifton, D. O., & Liesveld, C. (2003). Living your Strengths: Discover your God-given talents, and inspire your congregation and community. Washington, DC: Gallup.

Research on strengths in a Christian sample

When I worked at a Christian university, I joined with my colleagues to carry out a study of strengths, which was subsequently published in the Journal of Psychology and Christianity. The article and can be found at researchgate.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

A Christmas Carol offers lessons in Psychology and Faith Book Review

A Christmas Carol

By Charles Dickens

A Review by Geoffrey W. Sutton

My copy of A Christmas Carol was a gift on Christmas day, 1963. Two Christmases ago I walked the cold, fog-laden, smog drenched streets of Old London with my dad whilst my mother visited with her family. It was a grey day and a grey week. We took turns warming parts of our body by fireplaces here and there. After five years in the U.S. we had returned home to London on the occasion of my maternal grandmother’s death. 

Dickens’ story paints a familiar tale textured by my early memories and enriched today by having watched my favourite rendition of A Christmas Carol (1984) with my wife on Christmas eve.

My interest in reviewing the book is not just for a pleasant walk about the old streets of London but it’s motivated by a sense of appreciation for the poetic and colourful artistry with which Dickens plumbs the hopes and fears of humanity. So, following a quick summary, I’ll share my psychological take.

The Carol

We meet death and Ebeneezer Scrooge on page one. It’s Christmas time and we learn Scrooge’s old business partner, Jacob Marley, is as dead as a door nail. After revealing his humbug callousness toward the poor, Scrooge arrives home to meet the chain-dragging ghost of Marley who rattles the shackles of eternal punishment as he foretells the trinity of spirits that will anoint his Christmas Eve.

As prophesied, the ghosts of Christmases past, present, and future pummel Scrooge until he cries out for mercy. Painful and evocative scenes of joyful and miserable characters offer perspectives that induce fear, terror, and eventually empathy. When the agony is past, Scrooge is reborn as an adult child overflowing with love and compassion. He is redeemed.

Dickens's Psychology

Psychotherapy. Scrooge experienced intensive religiously oriented psychotherapy before Freud and his disciples examined the trinity of spirits engaged in perpetual conflict within troubled minds. Although the early ideas of the psychoanalysts no longer stimulate scientific inquiry, Dickens shares a narrative common to people with keen insights into the mental turmoil fueled by old memories and recent social interactions. 

Psychotherapists savour those moments when a patient discovers a new perspective—one that liberates them from their current pain and offers a view that energizes them for the tasks of life. The psychotherapist spirits expertly guide Ebenezer through memories and scenarios on his way to a new formulation of life.

Psychotherapists often suggest patients read books-- bibliotherapy. Evidence suggests many find reading helps resolve conflicts and find solutions to life's struggles. A Christmas Carol offers a rich look at the importance of friendships and the ability of people to make significant life changes.

Dickens was also keenly aware of the social factors in life that make a difference. The story reminds us of Dickens' own poor childhood in Camden Town where his family went to debtor's prison. Poverty and lack of education (Ignorance and Want) have an effect on people's lives.

Emotions. Psychological science has danced with emotions since its inception. Psychotherapists know the powerful forces of fear and anxiety that drive people away from life and into the cold, lonely, and risk adverse confines that ironically keep them from participating in a rich and exciting life. Dickens artfully illustrates the battle between the forces of anxiety and those of love.

In the story, Dickens also portrays the development of empathy that matches reality. We often develop empathy when we can see a troublesome experience from the perspective of another. Empathy is a key to compassion. And empathy is stimulated by taking on another's perspective.

Empathy also links to forgiveness and compassion. Forgiveness allows us to leave our past behind. We can learn to forgive parents and ourselves. Unfettered from the chains of the past, we can face the present with a fresh and compassionate view of others and ourselves. New perspectives can stimulate positive and negative emotions and can motivate behaviour.

Psychology of Religion

A Christmas Carol conveys the Christian gospel in a most entertaining manner. But Dickens also captures an essence that still informs contemporary inquiries into the Psychology of Religion. In the 1840s as now, people continue to negotiate the natural world by reference to their understanding of the spiritual.

Religions may be considered as organized paths for pilgrims questing for a meaningful life. Saintly pilgrims reveal the joy of following the right path and attract followers along the way. They also embrace those whose life-crises provoke a re-examination of life and what life is all about. A Christmas Carol is indeed a narrative about the meaningful life.

In any era, terror reigns in one part of the world or another. I’ve written about Terror Management Theory elsewhere so I won’t repeat the details here. Nevertheless, Dickens’ keen insight into the role of death as a pervasive source of anxiety that has predictable outcomes affecting faith and behavior, must be acknowledged.

Suffice it to say, Ebenezer was confronted by death in a frightful manner and the death-informed lessons changed his life. Dickens's insights are prescient and deserve to be recognized in that long line of thinkers like Kierkegaard, Otto Rank, and Ernest Becker preceding the formulation of Terror Management Theory.

A Christmas Carol Illustrated Classic on AMAZON

Read more about Spirituality and Virtues in LIVING WELL: 10 Big Ideas
of Faith and a Meaningful Life.



Dickens, C. (1843/1963). A Christmas carol. New York: Macmillan.

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Sunday, December 13, 2015

Denial of Death and the Meaningful Life- Book Review


The Denial of Death  
by Ernest Becker

A Review by Geoffrey W. Sutton

The prospect of death, Dr. Johnson said, wonderfully concentrates the mind. The main thesis of this book is that it does much more than that: the idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity—activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man.
 — Ernest Becker, xvii

I completed a recent reading of this old classic yesterday (13 December, 2015) because I was interested in Becker’s contribution to Terror Management Theory, which I find so helpful in understanding the ways U.S. leaders are publicly responding to terrorist activities.

Becker’s ideas are more than forty years old and many have not withstood the test of time. However, his basic premise that we deny the reality of death in many ways remains valid. And his examples of the ways we carry out heroic quests to deal with our mortality continue to provide a way to analyze the ostentatious projects of billionaire industrialists, outlandish policy statements of politicians, and inflammatory action calls of religious leaders as well as the microprojects of ordinary folks. Culture provides many organized ways for people to gain recognition and thereby bask in at least a slither of potential eternal glow following an otherwise ignominious death. The hope is, at least that one’s family and close friends may keep us alive in their memories.

Part I: The Depth Psychology of Heroism

To contemporary readers, and especially to psychological scientists, the heavy dependence on psychoanalytic theory for explanatory concepts will seem archaic if not off-putting. As a psychologist, it was an informative reminder of the influence Freud and his often rebellious protégées had on societal leaders and academics for decades. At times it appears Freud is a foil for Becker’s ideas but I think this is primarily because one could not reasonably discuss the ideas of others without the Freudian context.

Setting aside the psychoanalytic jargon, Becker adequately makes his point that death as a force for life can be seen in the work of philosophers such as Kierkegaard as well as the early psychoanalysts. What continues to be helpful here and elsewhere is his capacity to view the competing approaches of anxiety offered by psychology and religion—primarily Christianity. So we can find culturally approved ways to live on in creative works that hang in museums or stand in public places or we can be honored with plaques for our service and generosity. But Christianity offers another path. We may be poor and unknown in this world but God sees our good works and will reward us in the hereafter—and most noteworthy, the Christian has eternal life free of the pain common to that felt in our mortal bodies.

I am particularly interested in the psychology of religion so Becker, as a cultural anthropologist, offers me a different perspective. An example relevant to our religious-linked terrorism can be found in Becker’s early words: “…ideological conflicts between cultures are essentially battles between immortality projects, holy wars (xiii).”

Part II: The Failures of Heroism

I’ll confess that as Becker plumbed the depths of psychoanalysis, I found it difficult to keep my focus on his big ideas rather than what I perceive to be the limitations of psychoanalysis. Nevertheless, I perked up at his discussions of neuroses, psychoses, and other varieties of mental illness because it revealed a worldview that has changed remarkably in the past four decades. Although the psychoanalytic worldview continues, it does not drive the bulk of scientific inquiry nor does it characterize the primary methodologies of psychotherapists. But Becker’s analysis reveals how people used to view people with a mental illness.

Those interested in the contemporary issues of LGBT rights will find his discussion of homosexuality particularly enlightening regarding the views held by the medical and psychological establishment for the majority of the 20th Century.

As you might guess from the section title, "mental illness is a failure of heroism," people have lost their ability to succeed within their culture. They have not found a path to victory over life’s battles.

Part III: Retrospect and Conclusion: The Dilemmas of Heroism

Part III consists of one chapter, Psychology and Religion: What is the Heroic Individual? I see Becker offering a competing choice between a psychological view and a religious view. The psychological approach uncovers reality and focuses the patient on coping with the vicissitudes of this life. However, the psychological view is much like a religion where people are gods. It has the elements of a special language and even rituals but the hope is in the adequacy of the patient presumably learned from the psychotherapist. In contrast, the religious view offers what people really need—a belief in a higher power.

I’ll include two quotes to show how Becker sums up his ideas.

What most people usually do is to follow one person’s ideas and then another’s, depending on who looms largest on one’s horizon at the time. The one with the deepest voice, the strongest appearance, the most authority and success, is usually the one who gets our momentary allegiance; and we try to pattern our ideals after him. (p. 255)

Today we know that people try so hard to win converts for their point of view because it is more than merely an outlook on life: it is an immortality formula. (p. 255)


 Today, Becker’s book is a must read for those who wish to trace the origins of the important role of anxiety and terror that stimulated those brilliant graduate students (Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski, and Sheldon Solomon) who formulated Terror Management Theory (TMT) in 1986 and went on to direct or stimulate hundreds of empirical studies. TMT research reveals the reliable finding that death awareness leads to predictable results. People generally respond to mortality cues by finding ways in their culture that offer a meaningful life now and connect a meaningful life to some form of symbolic immortality.

I write as a Christian with a long history as a psychotherapist and psychologist of religion. I find Becker offers a number of insights into the various anxiety management efforts of entire cultures, religious rituals, and the everyday efforts of people who would live on in their social media pages, memoirs, selfies, arts and crafts, and countless other ways.

Becker also offers a warning of sorts to psychotherapists. He’s not the first of course to notice the similarities between priests and psychotherapists. But he does emphasize the similarities of religion and psychotherapy and suggests the limitations of each. Religion offers an other-worldly solution to the problem of existential anxiety but psychotherapy helps people cope with the anxieties of daily life. In my view, effectively treating religious clients ought to be a collaborative effort between clergy and clinician. And clinicians ought to broach religious ideas carefully as they may not conform to scientific realism but they may well serve an important function of buffering clients against their struggles. That is, aside from the theological truths, removing a key element of a person’s faith may leave them without a vital component of their support system.

The Denial of Death was originally copyrighted in 1973. Becker won a Pulitzer Prize for the work in 1974. More about the author can be found at his foundation,

Reference (The version I read).

Becker, E. (1997). The denial of death. New York: Free Press.

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