Mind Your Health: a book review

Marchant  is a popular science writer with a PhD in genetics and medical microbiology who has written for New Scientist, Nature, the Guardian, and the Smithonian .  She is rigorously skeptical of alternative therapies and the miraculous; however she isn’t dismissive  of the fact that people are sometimes helped by them. Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind Over Body is her examination of the mind’s  power to influence physical health and well being. She reviews various scientific studies, interviews those who have participated in them, and explores what the brain can or cannot do as far as healing our bodies.

cureMarchant observes a well known phenomena in contemporary medical research: the placebo effect. She cites research which shows that in some instances, a placebo works even if the person knows they are getting the placebo, though it impacts symptoms rather than the disease itself (still valuable for quality of life). She also notes the ‘nocebo effect’ where a person’s health declines because of the belief that something is causing them harm (i.e. believing you were poisoned, or had a curse put on you). Placebos can be a powerful counter medicine to these psychosomatic ailments and empathetic patient care does make a real difference in prognosis.  So Marchant admits some value in alternative medicines:

Therapies such as homeopathy and Reiki contain no active ingredient and show no benefit in rigorous clinical trials. They are based on principles that from a scientific point of view are nonsensical—almost certainly do not work in the way they claim they do. But with long, personal consultations and empathetic care, they are perfectly honed to maximize placebo responses. For that reason they probably do provide real relief, particularly for chronic ailments that conventional medicine is not well equipped to treat (39)

Marchant examines the benefits of combining a placebo with Pavlovian conditioning, the benefits of cognitive therapies in fighting Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, hypnosis in treating Irritable Bowl Syndrome,  and the benefits virtual reality for Pain management. In the latter part of the book she talks about how stress affects health, the benefits of meditation the importance of relationships and  positive outlook for aging well, and how manipulating the vagus nerve through electricity may impact our immunity. Her final chapter examines the role of faith in healing, specifically at Lourdes.

Marchant doesn’t believe in miracles and treats religious ritual like a powerful placebo. She does volunteer at Lourdes and record her observations of a worship service she participated in:

I feel out of place amid all the singing and signing. I’ve never attended a Catholic Mass, and I usually try my hardest to avoid religious ceremonies. I get uneasy about the idea of substituting reason and clear thinking for robes, incantations and mysterious higher powers. But at the same time it is beautiful; a hugely impressive assault on the senses. (266).

Later she writes, “Lourdes didn’t turn me into a believer. But after attending this giant underground service, I’m struck by the physical force that religious belief can have” (227). She sees the power of religion to effect people’s health, for good or ill,  in mechanisms like stress and ritual. She prefers a naturalistic interpretation of how healing occurs—a scientific explanation of how healing took place invalidates it as a miracle (which she doesn’t believe in anyway).

I have participated and benefited from healing prayers, but I am also aware of studies on intercessory prayer that show no significant change, and reveal  faith healers’ success rates as equal to that of a placebo (about 29%).  I don’t share Marchant’s skepticism of the miraculous. I do, however, appreciate her  well-documented look at the science behind the power of the mind to influence physical health. Her bias towards a rigorous look at the evidence is what made me want to read the book. I especially found the studies of the placebo effect in the first part of the book interesting, and this is a fun read. I recommend this for anyone interested in our current understanding of the brain’s ability to effect our body. We are fearfully and wonderfully made. I give this four stars.

Note: I received this book from Random House and Crown Publishers through the Blogging For Books Program in exchange for my honest review.



What Would Dawkins Do?: a book review

Charles Sheldon’s book In His Steps inspired many Christians to ask, “What Would Jesus Do?” if Jesus were in your situation. Author Robbie Dawkins turns that question on its head in his book, Do What Jesus DidWhile Sheldon’s classic novel focused on living out your faith with integrity and modeling your character on the life of Christ, Dawkins has a somewhat different tack. Dawkins urges Christians to actually do what Jesus did–things like healing the sick, speaking prophetic words, casting out demons or raising the dead.  It isn’t that Dawkins doesn’t appreciate how Christ models moral perfection for us to imitate, but he challenges Christians to experience the supernatural character of the Kingdom of God.

Dawkins is the pastor of a Vineyard church in Aurora, Illinois which ministers among the urban poor. In his capacity as pastor (and police chaplain for the city of Aurora) he has witnessed God change the lives of  all kinds of people (including leaders of the notorious Latin Kings gang).  God’s supernatural healing has broken into people’s lives as Dawkins (and other members of his church have prayed). He has seen people delivered from demonic oppression and God has blessed people through prophetic words. In this book, he offers practical advise for entering into supernatural ministry (in the tradition of John Wimber’s Power Evangelism).

Whenever I read a book like this that is chocked full of stories of healing and deliverance,  my first reaction is to be a little skeptical. I didn’t  know of Robbie Dawkins before reading this book and some of his stories are outlandish (as all miracle stories are). However Dawkins doesn’t just include success stories. There are stories of heartbreak and failure as well. In Dawkins’s chapter on raising the dead, he tells a succession of stories about praying for people to be raised from the dead, but none of the people he prays for are raised.  Dawkins talks about this as ‘pushing to failure,’ borrowing a term from the weightlifting world. In other words he says we should train ourselves by praying risky prayers for big things (like raising the dead), and we will grow in our capacity to see God move miraculously. There is a certain amount of practical wisdom in this: if you want to see God move miraculously in the lives of your community, then you should habitually pray for it.

I liked this book and hearing how God is working in Aurora was inspiring.  There are areas of this book I would critique (for example, I am suspicious of the reliance on techniques to effect miracles); yet I appreciated the tenor of this book. I am a quiet charismatic and affirm the reality of healing, deliverance, and prophecy for today. I appreciated Dawkins balanced presentation, though I felt the character/moral aspects of Jesus’ life were under-emphasized.  Dawkins comments several times how ‘if God can use him, he can use anyone.’ This is a humble and true statement about God, but can easily become an excuse for not developing one’s own character.  I think we should pursue holiness with the same tenacity that Dawkins pursues the supernatural.  These  criticisms aside, I give this book 4 stars.

I received this book from Chosen Books in exchange for my honest review.

It’s a Miracle?!?: a book review

Miracles: A Journalist Looks at Modern Day Experiences of God’s Power

I received Miracles in the mail this week and despite being  in the middle of several other books, this one sort  of jumped my book queue.  The topic and tone of this book really resonated with me. I would describe myself as a disgruntled charismatic. There is actually no form of spiritual manifestation which I in principle think cannot or does not happen. I believe in tongues, in prophecy, in healing, in the sometimes strange (to our eyes) nature of the Spirit’s work, but I have also seen too much hype, heard too much hearsay and experienced too many charismatic meetings where the manifestations of the Spirit seemed more like mass hysteria and auto-suggestion than any genuine move of God. So I am a believing skeptic when someone describes miracles in their life.  I want to believe with them that they have seen the hand of God at work, but I also want some sort of foundation for belief in the miracle they describe.

Tim Stafford, in his capacity as a journalist for Christianity Today has interviewed many Christians around the world about their experience of miracles (i.e. healing, various signs). Stafford is clear that miracles by definition do not imply the cessation of the natural order (if we could understand the physics behind miraculous phenomenon, we could describe it); rather miracles are times when God breaks through in surprising ways, often through natural means, but with impeccable timing. Thus when someone prays for healing or for God’s intervention in their life or the lives of others, that healing or answer to prayer should be described, reliably as a miracle even if it could also be described through natural processes. This avoids the ‘god of the gaps’ problem where the supernatural is always what is beyond the natural and not pervading all that is.

I think this is significant and Stafford is even-handed in his description of miracle.s He gives examples of those he sees as trustworthy and those he remains skeptical about (though he doesn’t dismiss those out of hand either). He suggests that we evaluate each miracle on the basis of whether or not the testimony about the miracle is trustworthy and that we remain cautious about repeating miraculous claims which cannot be verified.

I appreciated Stafford’s brief survey of miracles in the Bible. Stafford observes that in the Old Testament miracles never disappear but there could be centuries between their occurrence with no necessary link between the ‘faith of the Israelites’ and miracles. There are examples of faithful witnesses like Jeremiah who didn’t see miracles in his lifetime or those who returned from exile.  The Israelites in the Exodus did not have more faith yet they saw miracles galore.  This does not sever the link between faith and miracles but it does mean that we should not necessarily conclude that ‘the lack of miracles’ means a lack of faith. It may mean that, but it may not and we should not be crass about our pronouncements. When he examines the miracles of the New Testament, Stafford observes a shift from public signs (parting of the Red Sea) to primarily personal miracles which were most significant to those they involved (i.e. healing of individuals and Jesus’ instruction to keep it quiet). These were signs of the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom–signs of the Resurrection (Christ’s and our future resurrection). Stafford concludes that there is nothing in the New Testament to suggest that miracles ceased though they are not described after Acts 19 or in the later books of the New Testament.

Stafford also discusses Miracles in church history, the revival of miracles in Pentecostalism and the global Pentecostal movement (particularly miracles in the two-thirds world). While Stafford does not describe himself as a Charismatic or  Pentecostal Christian, he is gracious with them, even while offering a gentle critique.  He describes at length interviews he had conducted with the late John Wimber. He describes Wimber in positive and glowing terms, even though he clearly had concerns about how Wimber and the early Vineyard movement had a tendency to over-report miracles which it could not verify. He sees a similar tendency with Bill Johnson’s church, Bethel Church, in Redding California, though he does affirm that real healing has happened in both the Vineyard and at Bethel (one of the central examples of healing throughout the book involves a youth from his church who was healed at Bethel).

Stafford discusses if it is possible for scientists in our materialist age and culture to believe in miracles. This isn’t a book that will  convince a true skeptic that miracles happen but he does show that it is at least reasonable for a scientist to remain open-minded about them.  He also talks about what happens when you pray for miracles and they don’t occur (i.e. you pray for healing for your loved one, and they still die).  This can be heart wrenching but Stafford reminds us that in the Bible miracles are never the point, they are signs of God’s presence, care and the in-breaking of His Kingdom. Thus we should pray for miracles on behalf of our loved ones, but regardless of whether they occur we should entrust them to God’s care.

This book  has a lot to say that is  instructive about how  we should be expectant and affirming of miracles and God’s work in our lives, but still thoughtful about when and where they occur. I highly recommend it. Stafford is a thoughtful guide and I think this may be a great book for what Stafford calls a ‘semi-believing doubter’  demonstrating that you can affirm miracles today without being naive. Miracles are rare, but they are real, and real people have witnessed them. Even this disgruntled Charismatic.

I received this book from Bethany House Publishers in exchange for this review.