What Does Preaching Do to Your Brain?
When I first picked up Rewiring Your Preaching: How the Brain Processes Sermons (InterVarsity Press), by Richard H. Cox, I was a drawn immediately to its title. In today's day and age, where virtually every scholarly endeavor attempts to pour its topic into the new wineskin of neuroscience, my concern was that this book would fall short of the title's claim. The premise that preaching is somehow fundamentally different from all other forms of oral communication is one that the majority of people might find curious. But it could certainly resonate with many people of faith. Could it be that there is something "sacred" about active preaching? Does the brain have a unique area or cortical region that helps it make sense of religious teaching? Is it possible that pastors could use the findings of neuroscience to somehow alter their preaching and, in doing so, get the people in the pews to grasp the theological truths they are trying to communicate?
The brain scientist in me instinctively pushed back, and I found myself approaching Cox's thesis with an element of doubt. As I read through the book, however, I gained an appreciation for what the author was trying to do, the integrative process he was engaged in, the limitations of the scientific claims being made, and the eagerness of publishers to take the brain angle.
The author is a well-known and highly regarded academic and clergyman. He brings a unique perspective to this material and a refreshing sensibility. At times the text is an awkward combination of medicine and psychology, and at other times an insightful fusion of neuroscience and theology. As a result I found myself being pushed and pulled through the different chapters.
In short, the book is a collection of 14 relatively short chapters, each with a few brief introductory comments, and an epilogue. The chapters address the kinds of issues that would interest most pastors and preachers. These include the manner in which the brain processes information, builds context, motivates for action, and develops new thinking and behavioral patterns. Cox also hits on many theological principles that are important to a proper and orthodox understanding of human nature and the human condition. Pain, healing, and the interaction between soul, mind, and body are dealt with in a fairly straightforward fashion suitable for an educated reader with limited knowledge of the biology of the brain. But even though the book covers a significant amount of theological ground, I imagine many pastors would like to see it go a bit deeper.
Is Preaching Unique?
This is the kind of book most pastors will pick up and devour. It provides a bit of scientific seasoning to the basic recipe they tend to follow for effective preaching.
As for scientific and scholarly rigor—how it brings neuroscience to bear on the topic of teaching and preaching—here where the book hits the target, but misses the bull's-eye. This is a good introduction to the impact that neurological functioning can have on the way that we think, learn, and develop. Much of the biological and neuroscientific information is presented fairly straightforwardly. In some spots it tends to stray a bit too far into speculation, and its packaged chapters don't build on each other as well as they could if more room were included for additional studies or further development of the theological principles.