Category Archives: Bible study

A challenge for evangelical apologists: brain scans and Bible reading

Let me start with a real-world example from regular church-going folks: two adult men, both toward the conservative-evangelical or perhaps fundamentalist end of Protestant, both of whom I’ve known personally for decades, one a full-time pastor, the other a lifelong participant in lay leadership. (Then we’ll get to the scientific study.)

When on separate occasions I pointed out to these men the discrepancies between the two accounts of creation in the Old Testament book of Genesis, they both said, essentially, “Wow, I never noticed that.”

They didn’t say, “Yes, I noticed that, and I’ve read a scholar who can make sense of it.” Nor did they say, “Yes, I noticed that, and I really wrestle with it.”

They had never noticed the discrepancies despite having read the book of Genesis many times over the years. (I’m referring to the two distinct creation stories, with different orders of events, in Genesis 1:1-2:4 and Genesis 2:5-2:25.) In fairness, I never had noticed, either, until around 20 years ago when I tried to start reading more about the Bible.

My surprise was context-dependent: I grew up in churches and schools that believed the Earth was made in six 24-hour periods, and that insisted there were no contradictions in the Bible. Now I had discovered there were two different accounts, back to back, that contradicted each other, without any explanatory connective tissue between the two.

Yes, some people within the Christian and Judaic traditions have speculated about possible purposes behind the two different accounts of creation, but that’s a different matter from not noticing the different accounts.

I think I know why we never noticed, if I may generalize a bit just at the start here: When some people read the Bible, they read with a kind of altered mentality.

Here, I’m referring to my own experience and the experience of the two men I’ve just mentioned. I’m not referring to all Christian experiences of reading the Bible.

At best, we might have been reading with our hearts, which I will leave mostly undefined here because most of my audience will know more or less what I mean (although I will briefly point to the enduring influence of pietism in evangelical churches). Or, at best, consider how humans approach any number of not-strictly-informational experiences of the written word or artistic expressions. Or, again at best, an individual’s encounter with a text co-creates the meaning.

At worst, some people could be reading in a kind of situation-induced trance state. At worst, they could, for reasons we’ll consider with the scientific study below, approach the Bible with a state of mind that is less than analytical or properly critical.

Either way, these Bible readers, like the men I mentioned earlier and my younger self, don’t scrutinize what they read; rather, they sort of listen to it in a completely different way than if they were reading something technical or dryly informational (more about this shortly).

And, if I can make an association between religious reading and religious listening, there might be a scientific measurement for reading-in-an-altered-state, according to a Feb. 16, 2017, article in Nautilus, which read in part:

In 2011, a team of Danish researchers led by Uffe Schjødt, a neuroscientist at Aarhus University, examined the brains of individuals experiencing one of the most extreme demonstrations of charismatic influence—charismatic healing. To do so, the team recruited 18 devoted, young Christians from faiths with a tradition of intercessory prayer (mainly from the Pentecostal Movement), all of whom reported a strong belief in people with special healing powers. They also recruited 18 secular participants, who did not believe in God and were skeptical that prayer could cause healing.

Both groups of participants were instructed to listen to 18 different prayers performed by three different speakers—and told the speakers were either non-Christian, Christian, or Christians known for having healing powers. The speakers were all unremarkable churchgoers randomly assigned six prayers apiece.

The researchers found profound differences in brain activity based on assumptions made about the speaker. In the Christian subjects, activity spiked in analytical areas of the brain in response to the non-Christian speakers, but plummeted when they listened to the speaker they believed was known for healing powers. These changes were not present in the secular group. The researchers drew parallels to similar experiments done on subjects on hypnosis, noting that hypnotism, when it works, was usually preceded by the massive frontal deactivation—in effect, a “handing over” of executive function to the hypnotist. Further, they found that “the more the Christian participants deactivate their executive and social cognitive networks, the higher they rate the speaker’s charisma post-scan.”

We’ll connect that to Bible-reading in a moment. First, the only problem, in my view, with this study is its focus only on Pentecostal Christians and a vaguely defined (at least in Nautilus‘s telling) “secular group.”

Sure, I find the results of the study very easy to believe, having grown up in so-called neo-Pentecostal or charismatic churches—some types of worship shut down analytical faculties, or at least get the analytical part of the to temporarily step aside. Once that state of less-mind is achieved, the congregants can accept an awful lot from a sermon, and become more open to suggestion.

However, many times over the years, in a mainstream newsroom and later in a state university, I’ve noticed how critical thinking skills soften to accept claims from left-leaning politicians. We’re all human here, and we probably experience “massive frontal deactivation” around anything we love, and when we are thinking about anything or anyone we love. Maybe “love is blind” really means “love massively deactivates your frontal lobe.”

For example, I couldn’t believe my ears during the last election: I could easily agree with critiques of Trump, but when it came time to discuss Clinton, well, sometimes, around some people, it was like I was watching a group of Sunday School children imagine Hillary walking on water and multiplying bread and fish for the masses. Why couldn’t critical faculties be applied in all directions? Just because one party was already hated? Yes. Just because one party was already hated. And because one party was already loved, perhaps leading to the massive frontal deactivation discussed in the study above. (At the end, I’ll link to another study that makes a similar suggestion.)

Yes, of course, I’ve noticed the same thing among advocates for right-leaning politicians, too. Cultists come in all political persuasions, as Michael Shermer has noted regarding followers of Ayn Rand.

People hand over “executive function” to many different kinds of influencers, not just those among faith and politics, but those among market brands and trendy ideas, too.

What’s interesting about Bible-reading in this respect is people might alter their mentality when they prepare and settle down to open the Scriptures. They may transition into a different mode. Their expectations of the text have nothing to do with mind as commonly conceived and everything to do with the heart as commonly understood. The “heart versus mind” concept isn’t well-defined in our culture, but it is everywhere, like cultural furniture. I mean, “heart versus mind” or “head versus heart” is not well-defined among everyday people, but a lot of people use it . (Like Wittgenstein said, “Don’t think, but look!”—at how language is being used.)

Of course, we can’t blame the Biblical texts themselves for this. And the way contemporary middle-class people approach church and Scripture is not a verdict on any of the numerous historical, ethical, moral, and metaphysical claims in institutions and books. (If not a verdict, though, sometimes I wonder if it is a reflection of church and Scripture.)

After all, if you are a nonbeliever and you were to go to hear some non-religious person speak, someone you think very highly of, in a place where you were surrounded by people with similar enthusiasm, would your brain scan be pretty much the same as those of the Pentecostal youths who thought they were listening to a minister with healing powers? My money is on yes.

On a related note, see Tali Sharot in this Big Think video (here linked to the 2:26 mark) on research into how people respond to others with whom they agree and with whom they disagree. The research used brain scans to notice what is happening during agreement and disagreement—and it seems similar to the outcome of the Danish research mentioned above.

The big question of our time, of course, is whether neuroscience says or can reveal all that there is to say about being human, or about the essence of humanness.

Philosopher Roger Scruton takes a kind of both-and view that acknowledges both an historically older sense of the self and the contemporary insights offered by neuroscience. If you’re a believer over-troubled by the studies referenced above, it’s worth listening to this interview with Scruton just for a sense of what might be ultimately relevant to tradition religious worldviews.

But maybe the biggest takeaway from all this is an exhortation to sharpen how we read and listen — to anything, to anyone, for any reason.

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Your fast-track to becoming Senior Pastor at thousands of American churches

Fast-track to Senior Pastor at thousands of American churches

And if a few people actually read The New Testament for themselves and ask hard questions, just kick them out for being unspiritual.

Sorry not sorry — I couldn’t resist. My previous post is still pretty much the case, although I had to snap this photo. I was at a bookstore Friday night so my wife and I could look at interior decorating books for our home remodel, and so we could pick out Bibles for two of our daughters who were confirmed yesterday (in a church that requires much, much more than Spark Notes to enter full-time ministry). I forebade the NIV and ESV. But it’s easier to be snarky about two translations than to take the heat for the translations we bought, so consider this entire post to be just silly — as silly as Spark Notes for The New Testament.

Another win for the biblical worldview

Updated below

 
She was just a woman trying to live a biblical life. What went wrong? Just a lack of common sense, or does a “biblical worldview” allow for common sense?

Update:

Is it really so difficult for U.S. Christian leaders to recognize the uselessness of the word “biblical“? The word has become its own glittering generality, a beautiful sounding, emotion-evoking word that has little established, common meaning.

“Biblical” is no longer substantive, and it should not be used. When you watch the video above, and you consider the enormous range of uses for the word “biblical,” you have to come to the conclusion that it is an empty word at best.

That is not to say a point of view cannot be informed by a thorough reading of the Bible and an understanding of interpretative points of view throughout history.

But don’t kid yourself — the people who are damaging others with the use of the word “biblical” are far greater in number than those who can read thoroughly and contextually, and even they could still be wrong.

After all, there is little consensus among interpreters.

Conservatives showed me factual discrepencies in the Bible

Before I began listening to debates between Bart Ehrman and conservative defenders of biblical faith, and before I started (slowly, still) reading Ehrman’s Jesus, Interrupted, I read a paper by a New Testament scholar at the conservative Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry.

Rodney Whitaker’s paper, “The Moon of Our Darkness,” was a defense of the Bible as the guide for the Christian’s life. And, the paper offered me the first time I can clearly recall being confronted with a factual discrepency in the biblical record.

Also before I started investing time in Ehrman’s debates and writings, I read C.S. Lewis on Scripture by Michael J. Christensen. That book, which attempts to use Lewis’s perspective to navigate contemporary controversies about the Bible, began with several examples of factual discrepencies in the Scriptures.

Through decades of Christian schools and church attendance, I never heard any of these discrepencies addressed. In fact, I heard, on a few occasions, ministers and teachers suggest their weren’t any discrepencies or contradictions, and they even suggested people who don’t believe the Bible because of contradictions couldn’t point out any.

And so for the better part of 30 years, I believe the Bible contained no factual discrepencies.

Now, as a 42-year-old who went to conservative Christian schools from kindergarten to 12th grade (with only the exception of part of 2nd grade), I want to try to understand a different point of view, and I want to consider its validity or lack thereof.

Part of that process has included considering what Bart Ehrman has to say.

Unfortunately, I think the narrative people took away from this blog is more simplistic: that I just picked up Ehrman and thought he settled everything.

Tim Keller, not aware of my background, once said to me in a blog post, “If you are going to recommend [Ehrman’s] views as the basis for making faith and life choices, you should at least read a couple of books by Bruce Metzger, Ehrman’s mentor.”

Uh, I’ve been basing my faith and life choices on American, Bible-believing fundamentalism. That’s why I should read Metzger.

So Ehrman, who himself has a fundamentalist background, has raised some questions that are interesting to me and relevant to me because I’ve seen how sweepingly literalist interpretations of the Scriptures were applied within social situations, schools, and churches — and the results typically varied between ugly and harsh.

But even the reputedly enlightened Reformed crowd seems to care very little about the way sweepingly literalist interpretations are applied in America each day.

Among some Reformed circles, you can easily become too liberal, but you can’t become too conservative.

Many fundamentalist, Reformed, and evangelical leaders don’t seem to care about addressing discrepencies because they’d rather have their congregations snowed and compliant than well-informed. Besides, admitting actual, plain-sense contradictions could get messy.

Furthermore, those leaders are caught in their own contradiction: God inspired everything in the Bible for a specific purpose, but wait, the factual discrepencies result from conventions of ancient near East literature so the discrepencies don’t matter.

If God had a specific purpose for inspiring an historical record, couldn’t he do it correctly? Couldn’t He do it as precisely as He set so many biological and chemical processes in place? Of course He could.

And, if He wanted the canon to contain certain stories, why include details that will be contradicted later? He could tell a meaningful story without including unnecessary details.

To draw on the Christensen book again:

“There are historical problems. For example, how did Judas kill himself? Matthew 27:3 records that he threw his money at the feet of the priests and went out and hung himself. Acts 1:18 records that Judas bought a field with the money he received and there fell headlong on the ground, his body bursting open and his intestines spilling out. [[Burch’s note: he couldn’t have thrown the money at the feet of the priests and then bought a field with it, even if the stories of Judas’ death could be patched together.]]

“There are genealogical problems. The genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1 does not agree with the genealogy of Jesus in Luke 3. Neither does the genealogy of Genesis 4 square with that of Genesis 5.

“There are factual problems. According to Matthew there was one angel at Jesus’ empty tomb. Mark says it was a young man sitting down. Luke says two men stood by the women and proclaimed the resurrection. And John says two angels sat where the body of Jesus had lain, and appeared only to Mary Magdalene.

“There are numerical problems. 2 Samuel 10:18 records that David slew the men of 700 Syrian chariots. 1 Chronicles 19:18, a parallel account, records that David slew the men of 7,000 Syrian chariots.

“There are major and minor inconsistencies. Who commanded King David to take a census of Israel — the Lord or Satan? 2 Samuel 24:1 claims ‘the Lord.’ 1 Chronicles 21:1 claims ‘Satan.’ Whom did the voice from heaven address at the baptism of Jesus? Matthew 3:16 reads, ‘THIS is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’ Luke 3:22 reads, ‘THOU art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.’”

I realize most people, myself included, haven’t read the Bible in a “horizontal” way, comparing parallel accounts and such.

However, in light of the above excerpt from Christensen’s book, why would God use particular details if He was also going to provide contradictory details? He could have provided differing accounts in which details did not conflict.

In other words, two different eyewitness accounts of any type of incident could rely on two different sets of details — instead of having conflicting information going head-to-head.

I’m still having trouble with the idea that something is factually inaccurate yet truthful — at least in the context of saying God inspired certain writings.

A Thought About God

I realize this is not from a new book:

God does not cease to be a mystery in the event of revelation. The self-revealing God never becomes a controllable object or a manipulable possession.”

From Daniel Migliore’s Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology