Review of @ivpacademic’s The God-Shaped Brain: How Changing Your View of God Transforms Your Life

This will not be an easy book to read. Conservative believers will find his view of a non-angry God and his annihilationism most troubling (chapter 16); liberal believers will find Jennings’ advancement of what appears to be young earth creationism (chapter 2) disquieting; and non-believers will likely find themselves unable to get past the blatant theism of Jennings, a doctor in the field of medical science. However, if we are able to displace our prejudices for a minute, we may be able to find something important in Jennings’ work.

Timothy R. Jennings, M.D., is a psychiatrist widely known in the United States. In this book he somewhat builds off the work by Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman along other neuroplasticity theorists to present the thesis that what we think about God will shape us in a variety of ways. If it is the angry god we see, then our view of the world, of one another, and finally of the disappearing god will not be healthy. If we are able to rescue God from the darkness of this and instead return to the “cycle of love,” Jennings assures us of a wholesome (or maybe holy) view of God that will infect us, and mold us into something rather remarkable.

The author makes the distinction usually found in squabbles between conservative and liberal Christians. On one hand is the angry God often portrayed as making his home in the Old Testament while the other God is the New Testament God (66–8). Jennings proposes we get past this little bit of Marcionism by reinterpreting Scripture to change the former into the latter in a consistent manner. For instance, Jennings seemingly defines the entirety of the Canaanite genocides as simply “God has put millions of his children to sleep in the grave.” In other words, regardless of what death is in the Old Testament and the image presented in the Gospels according to what Jesus is saying, it isn’t really death. God doesn’t really kill. He just puts them to sleep. Of course, this would mean Jesus merely slept rather than suffering death, turning the Resurrection into simply waking up.

Essentially, this book is not about neuroplasticity so much as it is a treatise on the benefit of changing the way we think about God along with some practice advice on doing so. Jennings offers numerous stories and anecdotes from his daily office hours along with the applications given at the end of each session and hollow sounding platitudes. For an example of the latter, Jennings contends that if we do not get the miracle we are praying for, then perhaps it is not our lack of faith God finds disturbing, but that we have so much faith we are like Job, or rather the evangelical notion of Job (144). Added to this is Jennings’ atonement and dare I say incarnational theology whereby Christ is turned into an Abelard fantasy who can see through to the truth (164–7) along his rather odd take on Constantine and the Catholic/Protestant divide (174-5).

At the beginning of this review, I suggested we might yet salvage something from Jennings work. Let me talk now not as a theologian who prefers orthodoxy, or as historical critical scholar of Scripture, but as a survivor of dark fundamentalism where the god given to us was the God of evil, the one who relished in the death not only of pagans, but so too Christians who slipped along the way — and our way was very legalistic. I know the shaping of the mind Jennings speaks to, and how this impacts us in very real and frightening ways. And I know what it means to discover pure love, the pure love of God. I hear his message clearly as one where he seeks to turn around the darkness of the god of the imposed will and frightening policeman in the sky. If nothing else, the one struggling with the PTSD of moving from fundamentalism to faith will hear this message and know its truth. I know its truth because I’ve lived it and I am living it now.

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4 Replies to “Review of @ivpacademic’s The God-Shaped Brain: How Changing Your View of God Transforms Your Life”

  1. The god of the cannibal is inevitably a cannibal. Likewise, the god of the angry person is inevitably angry. So, it seems, that God is inevitably made it the image or his or her creator.

  2. It does seem sometimes that gods are reflections of human beings, rather than vice versa. Sometimes I wonder who it might be who looks in the mirror. When we look out into the cosmos on a clear night we see a disordered mass of bright dots, which our minds begin to corral into familiar forms. I wonder why that is. There is clearly some mechanism within our organic bodies that makes an organization out of chaos. Were it not for our odd and natural propensity to organize chaos (and the chaos’s willingness to be organized), we could not produce technology, reliable medicine, or control and predict future states of matter. What was in us that caused us to reach out into the darkness and expect to find something familiar, why should we expect to find anything useful among so much flotsam – something we could assemble into an adze to funnel out a canoe from a tree trunk, or to blend bug guts and minerals to paint the walls of our cave? If it were all an illusion, I wonder, is my body some blobby jellyfish, the complicated tendrils of my intellect wafting and curling into the abyss merely to get food and combine its juices for progeny? I would wonder how those tendrils, finding nothing but a cold, black, abyss would ever even suppose that there might be some kind or generous leviathan, lurking just beyond their reach, who provides daily nutrients, and guides my gelatinous self through the cold shadows. No, I don’t think a million generations of us should ever come up with such a silly idea as a kind or loving leviathan. Even more preposterous would seem a great, noble jellyfish who exemplified qualities that I didn’t have, and whose qualities were such that I couldn’t comprehend them. If that were the case, I would have no choice, but to feebly compare those qualities to things I held familiar, knowing all along that I could never say exactly what I meant when I spoke of this creature. I would say fumbling things like, oh, the leviathan is powerful like a great fish, or unfathomable like the depths of the sea… but whose ever heard of Cnidarian poetry?

  3. God Is Love. God is Grace.
    Pray and ask God to open your eyes and touch you heart with his truth while you open and read his living word. Then the holy spirt will unveil the truth to you and you will see and know the God I know. God allowed sin to enter this world because he wants our love – pure & without demand -. He let’s us choose right from wrong. That is Love/God. Humans can not know what is bad without consiquence. Sin gives us the consiquence not Love/God.

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