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Author Malcolm Gladwell relates how he re-found Christianity


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John Burger - published on 08/02/20

Two powerful experiences of witness opened writer's eyes to something that was unquantifiable.

“The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians.” The quote is almost as old as Christianity itself. And yet, it applies not merely to the historical martyrs of the early Church.

There’s a real-life example from only a few years ago — not in some Middle Eastern setting where a slaughter by jihadists led to a new growth in the local Church, but from everyday life in North America.

The writer and speaker Malcolm Gladwell narrates the chain of events in an essay he penned for Relevant, an online Christian magazine for people in their 20s and 30s. Gladwell, who has been a writer for the New Yorker magazine since 1996 and has written several best-selling books, confesses that he dropped away from the Christian faith, but that while he was doing research for his 2013 book David and Goliath, he had an experience that stirred something in his soul.

Three decades earlier, he relates, there was a horrific murder of a young girl in Winnipeg, Canada. The day of her funeral, a reporter asked the grieving parents, Wilma and Cliff Derksen, their thoughts about the murderer, who had not yet been apprehended.

“We would like to know who the person or persons are so we could share, hopefully, a love that seems to be missing in these people’s lives,” Cliff said.

Wilma went next. “Our main concern was to find Candace. We’ve found her.” She went on: “I can’t say at this point I forgive the person,” but the stress was on the phrase at this point. “We have all done something dreadful in our lives, or have felt the urge to.”

Gladwell went to meet the Derksens while researching his book. “I wanted to know where the Derksens found the strength to say those things,” he asked. “Where do two people find the power to forgive in a moment like that?”

What he discovered is not only what the Derksens had, but also something he felt he had unwittingly given up when he left the practice of the faith.

In his book and in the article, Gladwell reflects on the similarities the Derksens had with the Huguenots of the village of Le Chambon, France, which the Nazis occupied during the Second World War. Surprisingly, it didn’t occur to the townsfolk that it was dangerous for them to refuse to do the bidding of the occupiers, or that it was dangerous for them to harbor Jewish refugees. They had “weapons of the spirit,” a phrase Gladwell borrows from documentary filmmaker Pierre Sauvage.

Both the Derksens and the villagers of Le Chambon were witnessing (the Greek word is martyr) to Gladwell their faith in God’s ultimate victory, in spite of the pain and suffering they lived through.

“What I understand now is that I was one of those who did not appreciate the weapons of the spirit,” Gladwell writes. “I have always been someone attracted to the quantifiable and the physical. I hate to admit it. But I don’t think I would have been able to do what the Huguenots did in Le Chambon. I would have counted up the number of soldiers and guns on each side and concluded it was too dangerous. I have always believed in God. I have grasped the logic of Christian faith. What I have had a hard time seeing is God’s power.”

But, he added, “something happened to me when I sat in Wilma Derksen’s garden. It was one thing to read in a history book about people empowered by their faith. But it is quite another to meet an otherwise very ordinary person … who has managed to do something utterly extraordinary.”

Read the rest of Gladwell’s thoughtful essay here.

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