Tag Archives: Pentecostal

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.

Commentary: Converting to ‘liturgical,’ or why growing up a Christian in the South was not good

Did you know that authentic faith is expressed by worshiping Jesus in living rooms instead of sanctuaries? By listening to “teachings” by uneducated but anointed men? That was my neo-Pentecostal church.

Or, if you were a male who went to my Independent Missionary Baptist school, did you know that you identified with Jesus by having your hair cut over your ears, and rounded ever so mildly around the top?

Did you know that guidance for basic life decisions comes from mystical experiences? From the neo-Pentecostal version of “seeking the Lord”? From no-mind, trance-like states that “allow” God to speak to you?

Did you know that girls’ skirts should be no shorter than two inches above the knee? That teachers should check this with a ruler?

Did you know that God’s grace is not sufficient — until you have spoken in tongues? His grace was not sufficient during worship services in which we would sing, “Taste and see / that the Lord is good”, of course.

Did you know that impending damnation in the fires of Hell is the only reason to embrace God?

Did you know that seminary training is an obstacle to The Movement of the Holy Spirit?

Did you know that all those things that the Church has believed, taught, and confessed on the basis of the Word of God — throughout the centuries — are irrelevant to what the anointed prophets are saying today? That God changes according to where the donations are going?

Did you know that the primary reason for Bible classes in school was to learn moral principles and precise rules?

By the way — if you agree with the neo-Pentecostal, Latter Rain crowd, then you are spiritual, and if you don’t agree with them, you’re not spiritual. You are spiritual enough to agree with them if you are spiritual, and you are un-spiritual if you do not agree with them because you don’t have spiritual eyes to see. (Dizzying, no?)

Did you know that, later, in neo-Pentecostal schools, children must be lashed for misplacing decimal points?

Did you know that the Holy Spirit was guiding adults to spank kids for misplacing decimal points?

For saying “um” when looking at a flashcard, because that was pretending to know the answer when one did not?

After which, we would sing the song based on “The Fruits of the Spirit” in The Epistle to the Galations. “For the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace…”

For much of my adult life, I have felt like this: if what I went through was love, joy, and peace, then I really don’t want any of it.

Through winding life paths, many doubts, much lingering anxiety and fear related to God and the Bible, and admittedly a couple of decent churches and Christian organizations, I eventually arrived at Trinity Episcopal Church, and some changes began to take place within me.

Liturgical, sacramental Christianity reloaded the words “Jesus,” and “Bible,” and “living faith,” and “Holy Spirit,” and “creation” for me.

Those words are, across the globe today, loaded with all kinds of abstract content, varying from group to group, to the point of nearly being meaningless terms.

My experience of, and participation in, liturgical, sacramental Christianity began to unload the bad content from those words and reload it with good, stable, sturdy content.

Such an experience is lost on those who never knew anything other than liturgical worship — who never witnessed how masses of Pentecostal Christians really worship and believe today — and it is lost on those adult converts who see traditions as impediments to passionate faith, as obstacles to the Gospel message.

And my kind of experience is lost in the current culture wars within the Anglican Communion.

But without liturgical, sacramental worship, I would never have been able to “taste and see that the Lord is good.”

After reading Anglican T.S. Eliot, reading Anglican C.S. Lewis, reading Anglican-turned-Catholic Thomas Howard, experiencing liturgical worship, learning about the symbolic and developmental strengths with Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, and meditating on passages from the Book of Common Prayer, I strongly suspect what, at bottom, I can only hope to be true: that the Lord is really there, and He is really good.

And all those Bible verses buzzing around in my head have been drawn into a new formation.


Pentecostalism and the evaluation of personal experience

In the current edition of Books & Culture, Arlene M. Sanchez Walsh reflects on an afternoon tour she took of Angelus Temple, where the late Pentecostal hero Aimee Semple McPherson ministered. Sanchez, herself a licensed minister in the Pentecostal denomination called International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, writes that “the Pentecostal cult of personality tells us more about who Pentecostals are than it does about the leaders they hold in such high esteem.”

The personality cults abound in Pentecostal and charismatic versions of Christianity. Right now, in Lakeland, Fla., some of my friends and family members are visiting an “outpouring” that is being presided-over by one of the latest personalities to gather a cult following: Todd Bentley, who can be seen on numerous YouTube videos leading crowds into near-hysterical frenzies.

The problem, these days, in our mass culture, is that charismatic personalities (using charismatic in the broadest sense of the term) and intense experiences are considered indications of reality or truth or God’s presence. No one seems to think that senses and perceptions could be manipulated — wittingly or unwittingly — by a leader or by a crowd, in politics as well as religion.

“When a leader has the quality of charisma, he is able to arouse an extraordinary level of trust and devotion from his followers,” wrote Wendy Duncan in her book I Can’t Hear God Anymore: Life in a Dallas Cult. “The charismatic leader attracts people to his ideas and causes them to desire to be in his presence.”

What follows that initial devotion, though, is a movement from one personality to the next, from one “move of God” to the next, from one “outpouring” to the next, from one “revival” to the next. Len Oakes, in his book Prophetic Charisma: The Psychology of Revolutionary Religious Personalities (Syracuse University Press, 1997), wrote, “The followers surrender not to the person of the leader but to the power manifest in him, and they will desert him if his power fails. The followers attain freedom from routine and the commonplace by surrendering to the leader and — through him — to their own emotional depths.”

Following Oakes, it seems to me, based on my own 20 growing-up years in neo-Pentecostal/charismatic churches, that the promise of a new personality, as well as the alleged new move of God that comes with him, is never delivered and eventually fades away, so one is always eagerly looking for that next fix, whether it is a fix that will finally bring healing or guidance, or a fix that will bring a new experience of “emotional depths.”

Consider again Oakes’ phrase “freedom from routine and the commonplace.” It is interesting that a common accusation against institutional churches is that their rituals and their orderliness smack of spiritual deadness. To be sure, as Jaroslav Pelikan said, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” But what are the accusers of institutional churches seeking from the charismatic leader and the latest outpouring, the latest revival? Not truth. Instead, they seek experiences. The accusers of institutional churches never seem to consider that rituals and orderliness might be structured in such a way so that truth could be handed down to generation after generation.

But if a guy has been brought up with television and rock ‘n’ roll, how is he going to see the value in quietness and orderliness and the repetition of old texts unless he has the help of a little teaching or training? He wants sensation. Sensations dictate to him whether or not truth is being communicated. If the sensations come with Jesus’ name attached, then they must be from God, never mind all affronts to historical doctrine and theology, never mind the atmosphere created by music and the mantra-like repetition of phrases.

Perhaps he should consider that church and worship are not about his personal experiences.

The fact that he does not consider such thoughts is evidence enough that Sanchez was right: “the Pentecostal cult of personality tells us more about who Pentecostals are than it does about the leaders they hold in such high esteem.” All they want, as Oakes said, is “freedom from routine and the commonplace” and the resulting experience of “emotional depths.”

-Colin Foote Burch, member, National Book Critics Circle; affiliate member, Religion Newswriters Association

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Constructive, clear-headed insights into the Pentecostal/charismatic movements

Roger E. Olson wrote an outstanding article on the Pentecostal/charismatic movements in the U.S. Having been brought up in a Pentecostal denomination, Olson eventually went to seminary, became a Baptist, and left the Pentecostal movement. His article is about two years old and written for a magazine, but it is still applicable. Originally appearing in The Christian Century, the article is reprinted here thanks to PentecostalFreedom.org.

Kano state government to demolish four churches

KANO, Nigeria — Without discussion or compensation, the Kano state government has unilaterally decided to demolish four churches in this city to make way for roads and a hospital. Two Pentecostal churches and two churches belonging to the Evangelical Church of West Africa (ECWA) will be demolished under the northern Nigerian city’s plan. The Rev. Murtala Marti Dangora, secretary of the Christian Association of Nigeria, Kano state chapter, said the road and hospital construction are a guise for demolishing the churches. “The government has refused to discuss with us about the fate of these churches,” Dangora said. He added that during re-election campaigning earlier this year, Kano Gov. Malam Ibrahim Shekarau promised the Muslim community of Ginginya area that he would demolish an ECWA church there in order to build a hospital.

-Compass Direct News