Category Archives: Bible

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.

Now More Than Ever

Well, in light of my hyper-analytical last post, I guess the election has made this as relevant as ever, on all sides, from all perspectives: Try to love your neighbor, and try to love your enemies. “For if you love [only] those who love you, what reward do you have?” And what difference would you make in the world?

A Question About Christian Theology

Why would God tell us to love our enemies if at least some of our enemies are beyond redemption¹ and God has already decided to destroy at least some of them², so by asking us to love them, God therefore is asking us to do something that would be loftier and nobler than what God is willing to do³

¹ This phrase assumes, for the sake of argument, some are predetermined to be beyond redemption (predetermined in this case because of points made in the following notes). Then again, maybe none of “our enemies,” the ones who ultimately really are enemies, are beyond redemption. Furthermore, it might not be clear right now who “our enemies” really are, which might be one reason to love those who appear to be enemies.

² By choosing to save some and to damn others. This point of view, while very present in Christian theology, is difficult because God cannot choose to save some without choosing to not-save others. When One is an all-powerful being*, not-doing must be just as volitional as doing. When all-powerful, choosing not to embrace one sentient being You have created must be just as volitional as choosing to embrace another sentient being You have created.

*or even all-powerful and outside of being

³ This phrase assumes, for the sake of argument, that God does not love those whom He created yet knows ultimately will be His enemies, and additionally, assumes that God has decided to create some to ultimately become His enemies. In other words, God creates some people He does not love or plans to stop loving. So, by calling humans to love their enemies as themselves, God has asked us to do something noble and good that He neither is willing to do nor desiring to do, which you should admit is kind of strange. Again, choosing not to embrace one sentient being You have created must be just as volitional as choosing to embrace another sentient being You have created. Oddly enough, two verses later, Jesus asks, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?” So maybe by asking us to love our enemies, God is asking us to follow His characteristics or part of His nature.

The question seeks a coherent explanation of both the command to love our enemies and the interpretative and systematic traditions which affirm non-universalist positions on predestination and election in which some individuals are intentionally created by God for the purposes of committing sins and thereafter being held accountable for the sins without being given grace and therefore damned. Is there some achievable coherence between God’s decision to create some people to experience His wrath and God’s command to love our enemies?

Read along as Doug Wilson strains out the gnat and swallows the camel

Have you heard of Doug Wilson? He was sparring partner of the late Christopher Hitchens in the documentary Collision, and he is author of Recovering The Lost Tools of Learning.

Homeschoolers Anonymous has published documents that reveal Wilson blamed a girl and her father* a girl’s father for the crime committed against her. Oh, he certainly blames the criminal, too. But apparently there’s something noble about salting wounds. Maybe he picked that up from Hitch.

When you read the post, I think you’ll agree with me that Wilson’s behavior could become a new analogy for straining out the gnat and swallowing the camel, but in Wilson’s community, all authority belongs to those with sweeping powers of blame.

One can only hope for a genuinely sola scriptura environment around that guy. And you know I’m someone who thinks of Tradition and traditions as ways to prevent people from turning the Bible into a hammer. As a friend of mine once said, “When your only tool is a hammer, everything is a nail.” Maybe Wilson has that figured out, just not in the ironic sense my friend intended.

Another thought (updated): Wilson in the hierarchy of authority:

What kind of Lord of the Flies scenario allows a special council to mull how to best punish the father of a victim? To best punish someone for not being a “helicopter parent“?

For that matter, why shouldn’t Wilson be punished for allowing someone under his spiritual authority to misbehave? Maybe Wilson should no longer be allowed to receive the Lord’s Supper—that’s the exact punishment he considered for the father of the victim, and yet Wilson apparently thinks he has spiritual authority in a community in which one of his own students sexually assaulted someone.

By Wilson’s own reasoning, Wilson should be punished for allowing one of his students to sexually assault the girl. The father has authority over the girl; Wilson has spiritual authority over the community. Spiritual authority is greater than earthly authority, right? (I mean, if you doubt that, read Wilson’s own letter!) By Wilson’s own reasoning, Wilson should be in more trouble with his Lord of the Flies council than the father.

*Another Update:

The girl, now an adult, reveals in a blog post that Wilson and his church are even colder than the Homeschoolers Anonymous post revealed, specializing in precise, technical legalism while tossing any pretense of the Bible’s “Fruits of the Spirit” in their dealings with the victim:

“While I’m pretty certain I know exactly what was in the heart of the criminal who took my innocence and broke my spirit, I can’t pretend to know what was in the heart of Doug and the elders when they stood behind him, and I certainly can’t pretend to know the reasoning behind leaving me out in the cold with no support, no love, compassion, or empathy, not even so much as a consoling pat on the back for all I’d been through. But I have my own theory. There’s a couple of ideas about this lack of support I received floating around and I’ve heard them over the years – one of them is that the church leaders didn’t feel they were in a position to reach out to me because my father had expressly told them to stay away from his family and reaching out to me would be disrespecting his position as head of our household, which may be true, except there’s a problem with that theory, one that thickens the plot. In the letter pictured below from Doug Wilson to my father, Doug, writing on behalf of the elders of Christ Church, clearly places a great deal of blame on my father for the abuse I suffered and treats him with a coldness and severity that I find heartbreaking. I truly cannot image being a father who’d just found out his daughter was horrifically abused for years under his roof and then being told his “sin and folly” of not protecting her is equally as distressing as the sins of the criminal who molested his little girl for years. My father was a destroyed man when I came out about my abuse, and what father wouldn’t be? His tears of sadness and broken-ness went on for years, and still to this day he breaks down on occasion and begs my forgiveness for the hurt I suffered, and I always tell him the same thing: It’s not your fault. Because it wasn’t.”

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.

Sunday morning sermon prep

Sermon prep for the congregation: