I had a long talk with a woman last week. She grew up in what I will call left-brained Christianity and she is tired of it. She was raised in churches that prized doctrinal correctness and biblical knowledge and had very strict standards for behavior – typical American conservative evangelical churches. They have emphasized the holiness of God, His glory and supremacy. But she has also seen the dark side of left-brained Christianity. One church she was a part of used “truth” as a hammer to keep people in line and obedient. She is very tired of a Christianity that is defined by what it is against, of the protest and anti-everything tendencies she sees in some churches.
So, she is now exploring a more right-brained Christianity. It’s about relationship and acceptance, emphasizing the love of God and the importance of a relationship with him. She has liked some of what she has heard from the so-called emergent church, though she still has enough doctrinal grounding to know that she can’t walk that path as far as Rob Bell or Brian McLaren go. But she is attracted to a more relational faith, one that encourages and uplifts instead of simply focusing on condemnation and judgment.
I watched a sermon preached by Andy Stanley recently (called, “The Separation of Church and Hate”) and he described a journey of faith much like the one that this woman is going on. He described a growing dissatisfaction with the protests of his younger years, coming to believe that the church is often more about making a point than making a difference. He decided that if he was going to make a difference, he had to do more than picket and preach. He had to engage people – even those with lifestyles he abhorred and beliefs he disagreed with. He drew a distinction between the way of Jesus and the way of the Pharisees and said that our churches often seem to follow the way of the Pharisees more than we do the way of the Lord.
All right, folks, calm down. I know these are caricatures and like all caricatures, not entirely fair. Even the most conservative church is more than just “against stuff.” I am certainly not endorsing everything Andy Stanley said. But I have come to believe that many of the conflicts we are seeing in the church today boil down to a struggle between left-brained Christianity and right-brained.
Left-Brain; Right Brain
The human brain has two hemispheres, and there is evidence that they work in different ways. There is not unanimous agreement with regard to the left-brain, right-brain separation; some believe the distinctions are taken way too far. I am not expert enough to judge all that is involved in this debate, but I am an observer of people and I think that, in general, the distinctions attributed to the left and right sides of the brain describe a very important division in human personalities. So, I will use the right-brain, left-brain terminology to describe this phenomenon, which creates divergent streams of faith.
Those who are “left-brained” tend to be logical and sequential. They love things to be systematic, especially their theology. They like things to be patterned, structured and under control. They tend to see distinctions between people and belief-systems. They tend to eschew emotions and try to operate on the basic of logic. Since they see distinctions they tend to divide things up into categories and divisions. They prefer clear lines of authority and structure. Left-brained Christians love clear distinctions of truth and error, good and bad, right and wrong. Emotional and experiential Christianity is disdained among the left-brained.
Most of the bloggers I know are left-brained. So are most Southern Baptists today. We have divided ourselves into conservatives and moderates, Calvinists and non-Calvinists, Baptist Identity vs “Bigger Tent” Baptists. Left-brained Christians tend to disdain those who are right-brained as doctrinally weak, emotionally-driven and wishy-washy.
For the left-brained, faith is primarily a truth-based exercise. I study the Bible, come to understand truths about God, consider them and am blessed as my thinking becomes more truth-based and Christlike. That is not an insult. I believe that. I think that God’s work begins with the “renewing of the mind” and proceeds from there. But for the extreme left-brained, this is not just where it starts, this is where it ends.
Right-brained Christianity is on the rise. Right-brained people are experiential, artistic, and emotional. They tend to be intuitive and spontaneous and are less receptive to authoritarian structures. They are comfortable with unanswered questions and elusive mysteries. They focus more on the love of God and the importance of a relationship with him than about doctrinal issues.
They want their Christianity to be less systematic and more experiential. Some have actually gone to the point of rejecting doctrine and truth as categories (emergents) while others have just said that they want to emphasize a relationship with Christ over doctrine and rules. They enjoy connectedness and tend to look at similarities instead of differences. They want a Christianity that is more about “us” than it is about “us vs them.”
Are You Right-brained or Left-brained?
I took a test on the internet. It was not a surprise, but I tend toward the left-brained. I love my systematic theology. But I also have a lot of right-brained qualities (Maybe that is why I’ve always threw right-handed but batted and golfed left-handed?). I love experiential, spontaneous, enthusiastic worship. My favorite part of the convention this year was the Pastor’s Conference worship led by Vance Pitman’s musicians – probably the wildest music we have had at an SBC. Maybe that is why I have been attracted toward the “BIFF” thing. I understand our left-brained tendencies to systematize, discern and draw distinctions, but I have enough of the right-brain thing to want to bring the sides together.
What about you? If you are wondering, here is a link to an online test which will give you a left-brain, right-brain score. But I can tell you, if you are drawn to take a test which gives you a score that tells you which you are, it wouldn’t be a gamble for me to lay money on you testing out as a left-brained person.
And let’s face it, bloggers are predominantly left-brained. Left-brain folks are all about words and arguments. Right-brained folks would tend to see blogging as a waste of time and go off to join an interpretive dance worship class.
I am convinced that much of the discussion about culture today is rooted in the left-brain, right-brain thing. It may be less about traditionalist vs contemporary as it is about rational/doctrinal vs experiential/emotional Christianity. Is postmodernism (partially, at least) a preference of the right brain over the left?
These two streams of Christianity tend to shoot bows and arrows at each other. The King of All Left-Brains (Johnny Mac) has written several books on charismatics, emergents and pragmatists, which demonstrate a high level of disdain for right-brained faith. And books by Rob Bell and Brian McLaren can barely conceal their disdain for the left-brained Christianity of American fundamentalism.
But is there a middle ground? I think (I hope, at least) that we all will reject the denial of biblical truth by right-brain extremists. In a search for a relational and experiential faith you cannot leave the historic truths of the gospel behind. In this writer’s opinion, Bell and his ilk do not represent a stream of Christianity but denial of it.
But is there room in our left-brained, doctrinally-sound, expositionally-based faith for those who think first from the right side? Can we meld the left-side and the right-side into a whole-brain Christianity?
I’m not sure, but I have some perspectives I would like to share with you on this. Then, you take the ball and run with it and we will have a lively left-brained discussion. Maybe a few right-brainers can join in with some poetry or something.
1) God created the brain with TWO hemispheres!
Our God is a God of amazing balance, and he created our brains with two sides. If those who advocate the left-side, right-side thing have any validity, then the only way we can have truly authentic Christianity is if we find a way to bring the two sides together.
In doing this, we would be recognizing the predominant sides of God’s nature. He is holy and righteous and cannot tolerate sin. He is also loving and merciful and desires a relationship with his creatures. We all know that both sides are significant, but we tend to lean to one side or the other depending on our tendencies. Left-brained folks focus on the holiness of God and the process of redemption. We consider the love of God, but sometimes only in reference to the holiness of God. The right-brainers revel in the love of God, but could have a tendency to avoid considering the holiness of God in such a way that it renders justification almost meaningless.
But God gave us brains with two sides. Could it be that the best Christianity would be one that seeks to involve both sides?
2) The Left-brains are right.
Christianity is grounded in history and truth and a relationship with God begins with the renewing of our minds. We cannot ignore doctrine, truth and the exposition of God’s Word without harm to the church and to the saints. Whatever compromise would be reached between the lefties and the righties cannot go to that place that some emergent leaders want to go, in which we abandon truth and the facts of the gospel in the name of cultural relevance and relational Christianity.
There are myriad scriptures that warn us that false teachers would come to lead us astray. We need John MacArthur and others anchoring us to biblical truth.
3) The Right-brains are right.
But I think the righties have a point as well. Christianity is not an intellectual, or even doctrinal enterprise. It is meant to be experienced and enjoyed. I have a dear friend who gets a little nervous every time someone uses the Blackaby terminology of a “personal love-relationship with Jesus.” Lefties get a little squeamish at such language.
But, we need to remember that our faith is in fact a relationship – a love relationship – with a real God who is really real, for real! Yes, lefties, you are right that we cannot base truth on our own experiences, but by the same token, our experience of Christ is real.
Those of us who can tend to celebrate an egg-headed, theologically-oriented faith need to listen to the right brain a little. Jesus is not just a teacher from the past, he is a Risen and Living Lord! He lives, and yes, he lives in my heart (or wherever it is that I am indwelled).
My current working theory is that our faith is born in the left brain and finds full fruit in the right. We have a historical faith based on the reality of the virgin birth, the miracles of Jesus, his death and his historical resurrection. Does it matter if all this happened historically and is true? Our faith is grounded in those facts and meaningless without them. But God saves us to bring us into a personal relationship with him, to enjoy him and revel in his presence. If you try to skip the left and head straight to the right, you have an empty, squishy faith. If you start and stop on the right, you can develop a stilted faith that fails to experience all the joy of a relationship with Jesus.
4) Recognize that who you are is PART of what God wants the church to be.
I am currently teaching through 1 Corinthians 12 on Sunday nights – lots of verses that make us left-brainers squirm. But the main teaching there is clear: Christians are not all alike and it is our diverse gifts that make us a functioning body. Perhaps the right-brainers can realize that us lefties are not all brainy theology-heads. And perhaps we lefties can open our hearts to the experience of that wonderful “personal love-relationship with Jesus.”
Like Popeye, “I yam what I yam, and that’s all that I yam.” But I need to remember that what I am is not all that the church is. I am an eye, or an elbow, (or if a few bloggers are to be believed – a heel). But I am just one part of what the Body of Christ is meant to be.
5) The full Gospel must travel through both sides.
The gospel is the story of redemption in which God’s grace extends to hell-deserving sinners, rescuing us from the just punishment of our sins and bringing us to reconciliation with God. Man, I love to preach that. I wish every Friday were Good Friday.
But the woman I began this post talking about wants something more than just the story of sin, guilt and forgiveness. She wants to hear about how Jesus fixes her brokenness, how he heals the hurts that have haunted her life. She is more than willing to admit her sin but she doesn’t want the gospel to stop there. She wants a gospel that not only satisfies the needs of her left brain, but provides relationship, joy and hope to her right brain.
6) The Bible provides a template for this discussion.
Romans 14 is all about how Christians who disagree on issues of conscience should treat each other (issues of food and drink, sabbath-keeping, other such issues). Some Christians say “no” on certain issues of conscience and some Christians say, “yes”. Those who say no should not condemn as licentious those who say yes and those who say yes should not disdain as legalistic those who say no. We should accept one another in Christ in spite of our differences.
That can be applied here. Left-brainers should accept right-brainers without condemning them as false for their experiential faith. Right-brainers should not condemn left-brainers as theological automatons.
It’s not that hard. Assume that what you are is okay, but it is not ALL OF okay. Others can be different and disagree and still love Jesus as much as you do.
7) Both sides must beware their dangerous tendencies.
I’ve touched on this, but let me state it clearly. Those of us who are left-brained have a tendency to be overly divisive. Look at the brouhaha over Mohler’s comments. The pro-Mohler and anti-Mohler contingents agree about homosexuality about 90% of the way. But us left-brainers autopsied that exchange for about a month – and there will probably be more articles on it this week.
I’m not saying that’s wrong – I think homosexuality is the key moral issue of our day. But I am pointing out that we have a tendency to magnify our differences and divide when we shouldn’t. Baptist Calvinists and Baptist non-Calvinists have more in common than our blog discussions would indicate. I logged a lot of minutes disagreeing with Baptist Identity adherents with whom I agreed on almost everything except some of the minor points of Baptism and secondary interpretations of the Great Commission.
On the other hand, the right brainers need to realize that a faith without discernment is dangerous in this world. I once went scuba diving off the Palm Beach coast and did not realize that the “green” fluid filling my mask was blood (red is the first color you lose under water). I kept clearing my mask the whole time I was on the floor of the ocean in shark-infested waters.
That is exactly what you are doing if you walk without theological and doctrinal discernment in this lie-filled world.
Both sides have strengths and weaknesses and we do well if we build on our strengths, but also realize the dangers of our tendencies.
Now, Your Turn
My guess is that right now, the left-brained Christians can’t wait to begin ripping into this. Right-brainers, if they bothered to read it, want to get everyone to join in a group hug. tend to think I am way off base (and perhaps have abandoned the faith, etc). If any right-brained Christians have wandered by, they want to give me a hug.
I present this as a theory, so I look forward to the discussion.