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Following on from the last book summary I wrote (The God-Shaped Brain) this book claims to answer the question: What does brain science have to do with spiritual growth? It is subtitled “Christian Community, Brain Science and Overcoming Spiritual Stagnation”.
These phrases would have been enough to peak my interest, but the recommendation of a friend and leader caused me to immediately hop onto Amazon and make the purchase. (Here is a link if helpful*)
As I have previously explained I have been on a journey to understand discipleship. What works in our modern culture? How do people grow? Why are there some season where it seems I grow and others where it feels like I stagnate?
So I picked up this book with great interest and I wasn’t disappointed. I feel like I might be exploring the topics presented within this book for years to come.
Why Read It?
This book follows a very similar topic to the God-Shaped Brain*, seeking to bring together the topics of brain science and theology. This time the two authors bring unique perspectives, a Psychologist with a degree from Fuller Theological Seminary and a former pastor of spiritual formation at a large US church. What birthed the book were some of the same questions I’ve found myself asking about spiritual growth.
The main point being made in this book is that brain science has in the past decade or two begun to uncover truths about how our brains function that are key to understanding how we both grow, change and develop character. This is a central part of what it means to be a disciple.
When we understand how the brain functions we can then create environments that actually encourage growth. The metaphor of creating healthy soil for people to grow is used throughout.
One of the key discoveries highlighted by the book and given in the title is that our brains, whilst not as clearly divided as some portray, do have different areas which are responsible for different functions. There are the parts responsible for speech, problem solving and logic which tend to be what we consider conscious thought and are often called the left brain. Then there are the parts of the brain responsible for our individual identity, group identity, emotional attunement to others and relational attachment. This is the right brain.
Relating this to the church and thinking about many of it’s popular methods for developing people: there is a realisation that many approaches emphasise the side of the brain responsible for logic, the left. Think of bible studies, education classes and classic preaching. All good things and yet if our environments only attend to the left brain we are literally creating half brained Christians!
This discovery highlights why some environments or in some season of our lives we see faster growth, whilst at other times we feel like things are stagnant and unmoved.
If we want to see our lives transformed and our characters developed we must create environments that help us renew all of our mind – not just bits of it. We need full brained Christianity.
4 main ingredients are highlighted as a way to encourage this in our church environments.
Jim Wilder makes the point “Our brains desire joy more than any other thing” before explaining how the brain is designed to function on joy and it is a key to healthy brain development. One neurological definition of joy is “someone who is glad to be with me” or “being the sparkle in someone’s eye”. It is what happens when a baby sees its mothers face.
Looking to the bible we actually see the theme of both joy and how it relates to face to face interactions throughout.
“The Lord make his face shine upon you”.
God’s face is consistently linked with joy in the bible also.
We probably all know the Psalm:
“In your presence is fullness of joy”
The phrase presence literally means God’s face. So it is saying: In looking into your face is abundant joy.
The book offers some examples and ways to grow joy in our relationships but the main point is to recognise the importance of relational joy for our development.
2. Hesed: Our Relational Glue
We know that Christian communities should be places of love and yet did we realise that love actually enables us to develop and change neurologically?
Hesed is a Hebrew word which is challenging to translate – it often appears as “great love” or “loving kindness” in our bibles.
It is the closest word to try and describe the kind of relational attachments that the brain desires. Counsellors and Psychologists have long discovered the importance of our relational attachments in keeping us healthy.
When we look at times where we have most grown in our faith it is often when we are surrounded by such great loving community. Maybe it was on that mission trip, or in that church camp or as a student living in close quarters with other believers.
Deep relationships are a key part in creating healthy soil for us to grow in. This attachment or hesed is not just about our human relations. It equally applies to our relationship with God.
We need to know God’s loving kindness, his great love for us. That provides us the secure foundation that allows us to grow. Without it we will struggle.
“Developments in modern brain science have made it clear that any model of transformation and character change must be anchored in the development of a love bond with God and His people.”
3. Group Identity
Our brains are designed to respond to an understanding of group identity. It helps us make decisions and it also forms our inner character.
So the clearer we can be in articulating who we are and how we behave the easier it is for people to align with that.
Our brains work to try and fit our current behaviour and attitude into a definition of how “our people” act. So the better we can define what a Christian community does the easier it is for people to modify their behaviour.
Group identity helps the problem of will power we all face. Simply trying harder to do the right thing is difficult. When we have a clear group identity understood in our brain that actually modifies our embedded automatic responses. It is these embedded responses that ultimately form our character. It changes our right brain pre-conscious response before we even get to the logic piece and try to use will power.
If we can change our character through changing these reactions then we can be transformed in our discipleship.
The bible is full of group identity statements:
“Imitate God, therefore, in everything you do, because you are his dear children.”
As churches and communities of Christians we have a wealth of such identity statements that define who we are as a people. Our challenge as culture creators and communicators is to make our identity as clear and memorable for people as possible. Ultimately this means displaying a dynamic and captivating picture of the character of Christ and having that at the center of who we are.
Examples of group identity statements that can help here might be something like this:
“we are a people who return blessing for curse”
4. Healthy Correction
Having formed a community of joy and hesed with a strong understanding of group identity there is one more ingredient that helps people actually grow. We need correction.
The book makes the point that it is often misunderstood that our character is defined by moral truth and choices. Actually our character is formed by a combination of our values and an understanding of how “our people” act. In order to change we must update our values and our record of how our group responds in these sort of situations.
In tackling the topic of correction the authors discuss both toxic shame (defining the person as bad) and healthy shame (the opposite of joy in our relationships). Healthy shame is part of the correction process as we discover our actions have impacted someone else.
Again the importance of building correction upon a loving community is highlighted. Without love as a foundation correction is really difficult.
As an example of healthy correction they give this:
“I love you but believe that you have stopped acting like yourself. Let me remind you how we act in this situation”
I found this book fascinating for a number of reasons. I already feel the urge to re-read it to understand it more deeply and be better positioned to apply it’s learning to my own life and the life of our church. I have read much on discipleship before and yes some of these aspects have come up previously.
However what this book does is provide a coherent understanding as to why these ingredients are important if we want people to grow, both from a theological and neurological perspective.
I have long resisted the idea that learning more information is the path to transformation and have long sought to find a better way. What I see in this book are some keys that both make sense of my own past experiences but also provide a framework for environments that help people grow in their faith.
It’s not offering a simple structure, or an easy 4 step program, and that is what I like about it. It is messy and it is relational and thats what makes it feel authentic.
If you are interested in creating communities where people grow in their faith I’d highly recommend you give this a read. Beyond the 4 keys I’ve highlighted above there are also a bunch of practical tools and even a fascinating chapter on Narcissism.
If you want to take a read here is the link on Amazon.
If you have read it I’d love to know your thoughts too. Let me know below.
* Using this link means I receive commission to support the running of this blog and it costs you nothing.