Churches, Brains, and Change

By LeRoy Lawson


Messy: God Likes It that Way
A. J. Swoboda
Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2012

Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships
Daniel Goleman
New York: Bantam Books, 2006

Memoirs of an Addicted Brain: A Neuroscientist Examines His Former Life on Drugs
Marc Lewis
New York: PublicAffairs, 2012

Gutenberg the Geek
Jeff Jarvis
Kindle Single, 2012

Early in my ministry I took comfort in a joke—probably already stale—that made the rounds in preacher circles. A pastor ran into a former colleague who was now making his living working in a funeral home. When he asked him why he left the pastoral ministry for a profession of embalming dead bodies, the former preacher replied, “You see, when I was a pastor I did a lot of counseling. People would come to me with their problems and I’d listen carefully and give them the best advice I could think of. When they left my office they were, for the most part, fixed. But it wasn’t long before they were right back in the old trouble, making the same mistakes. I really didn’t do them much good. But in this business, when they bring the body to me and I fix it, it stays fixed.”

You understand why that one has stayed with me. Churches are messy. The ministry is messy. Nothing stays fixed. That’s the point of A. J. Swoboda’s Messy: God Likes It That Way.

Swoboda’s writing is messy, also. My old English teachers would either have flunked him or sent his manuscript back for a rewrite. He is a young man, and he writes like one. He also thinks like one. Very little reverence is on display here, whether he’s writing about sex and the Christian, or attending Bible college while living like a pagan, or running a church that doesn’t want to be run, or tackling theological or political issues (like what should be done about the gay issue or keeping the planet green?), or trying to make sense of some of the Bible’s toughest teachings. Here’s one: “Sometimes I worry that we’ve made Hell the place we think people who really annoy us go to. That Hell is a place for people in the other categories that we don’t like or that make us uncomfortable.”

Messy is just too breezy for my taste. That’s why it was good for me to read it.


Looking Deep into the Brain

Clear back in 1996, Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence burst onto the publishing scene. Reading it was one of those “You see, I told you so!” moments for me. I grew up in the IQ era, when educators and pundits and just about everybody else believed you could measure a person’s intelligence by forcing him or her to take an exam. The score you got was the score you had to live with. (When I was in high school, I worked in the office so I got a secret peek at my score. It was bad enough to make me a noisy critic of IQ tests for the rest of my life!)

In my college and university days, I was in the company of many people who could boast of very high IQ scores, but they didn’t seem very smart. Or if they were, they were only smart in spots. Something was missing.

What was missing, Goleman argued, was the emotional component. We don’t just think with our brains, but also with our feelings and our bodies. I paid attention.

Now comes (well, I’m a few years late in getting to it) his Social Intelligence, which picks up where Emotional Intelligence left off. This book is even better, taking advantage of many recent findings from brain science. It makes a strong case for resisting an easy slicing up of humans into intellectual, emotional, social, and spiritual beings. We are who we are. Specifically, we are thinking-feeling beings who were created to connect. Isolate us and we simply can’t reach our full human potential.

To better understand us, Goleman looks deeply into the brain, where the amygdala and the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex (don’t worry—he carefully describes the functions and the role each plays in our decision making). Here you won’t find six easy steps to a better social life; instead he offers scientific insight into how we are made and how the various parts of the brain help us function.

Social Intelligence probably doesn’t belong on your nightstand. You’ll need to think your way through this one.


Addiction Described and Explained

Still on the subject of brains. Memoirs of an Addicted Brain by Marc Lewis leaves you wondering how this man’s brain survived the abuse the young addict heaped on it. Starting at 15 as an ill-adjusted New England boarding school student, Marc ran away from reality first through cough medicine, alcohol, and marijuana. Then he graduated up (or down) to methamphetamine and LSD and heroin at Berkeley in the notorious days of hippiedom. From there he drugged his way through sojourns in Malaysia and India, snorting and drinking and shooting up the world’s most dangerous concoctions.

At times I wanted to hide my eyes while reading. This son of privilege slid on his ugly addictions to the very bottom, stealing and lying and sacrificing everything for his next fix.

Incredibly, when he did hit bottom, he summoned from somewhere the courage to say no. And say no again. And again. Until he climbed back to reality.

This is more than the memoir of an addict, however. It is also the careful explanation of addiction by a developmental psychologist and neuroscientist who knows his subject from the inside out. At each stage of young Lewis’s developing dependency, the mature Dr. Lewis explains how his personal experience reflects that of addicts everywhere, where in the brain each kind of drug does its dirty (and not-so-dirty) work. Where nondruggies shake their heads and wonder how anyone could ever succumb to such temptations, Lewis clearly shows how cravings overpower the nervous system, triggering synaptical misfirings and neuronal overloads.

For people like me who have suffered not-so-silently as loved ones wrestled with their liquid or powdered or encapsulated demons, Addicted Brain is what the doctor ordered to give insight and comfort to the bewildered heart.


It’s Always Been Changing

Jeff Jarvis’s Gutenberg the Geek barely qualifies for this column, being more a long essay (20 pages) than a real book. It’s worth a quick read, though, so I’m including it if for no other reason than I couldn’t resist the title. (Jarvis is good at titles. I had to read his What Would Google Do? for the same reason.)

Jarvis’s métier is Silicon Valley and all that is associated with it. He regularly dispenses advice and information on the latest developments in geekdom, where technonerds hang out. I’m not one of them but would like to be. This world is changing too fast for someone who remembers when dial telephones first appeared in my hometown. I can barely understand the IT guys where I work, but I want to. So when Jarvis speaks in little books like this one, I listen.

Jarvis’s point is simply that the man who gave us the first printed Bible in the 15th century would understand the paradigm-shifting events in computer technology in our times. Gutenberg should be the “patron saint of Silicon Valley, for he used technology to create an industry.” Comparisons with people like the secretive Steve Jobs come to mind when reading how Gutenberg strove to maintain proprietary rights over his newfangled movable type. Eventually, though, he adopted openness as his strategy. The ongoing court battles between titans Apple and Samsung are but the 21st-century version of the 15th-century shootouts to achieve and hang on to technological dominance.

Gutenberg gave us cheap (relatively) Bibles. The Internet gives us even cheaper ones. In both revolutionary eras, the Bible has symbolized continuity and change. Church—take heed.


LeRoy Lawson is international consultant with CMF International and professor of Christian ministries at Emmanuel Christian Seminary, Johnson City, Tennessee. He is also a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor and a member of Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee. 

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