ark Maddix, Professor of Practical Theology at Point Loma Nazarene University, and Dean Blevins, Professor of Practical Theology and Christian Discipleship at Nazarene Theological Seminary, bring together ten other authors from diverse backgrounds, including Christian educators, psychologists, and theologians, to consider how the field of neuroscience informs our understanding of formation.
After Laura Barwegen and Dean Blevins introduce neuroscience and the technology that allows us to study brains, the next eight chapters summarize current research trends and put them into conversation with Christian formation. Major topics include neuroplasticity, anthropology, and mirror neurons. Those who lead Christian education and formation ministries—pastors, teachers, Bible study leaders, youth and children’s ministry leaders—will all find helpful information and ideas to improve their practices of community formation.
Much of the book revolves around the idea of neuroplasticity, which “describes the way the brain’s nerve cells [neurons] . . . change their structures and their connections with each other due to different stimuli” (45-46). Since the 1998 discovery by scientists that adult brains are still malleable, a flurry of scientific research into neuroplasticity has started to influence other fields, such as education, theology, and ethics.
In chapter five, Karen Choi considers studies on meditation and mindfulness and concludes that the dynamic process of scriptural meditation can change our brains so that the “content, strength, and centrality” of our beliefs is positively affected (60).
In chapter eight, Dean Blevins considers how worshipping together shapes our lives as the practices in which we engage become “almost autonomic” (101). When life becomes chaotic, this allows our brains to more naturally engage in practices of Christian worship—singing, praying, meditating on Scripture, etc. Neuroplasticity allows Christian leaders a way to understand how the people in our congregations are being formed and molded over the years as they continue to seek God.
Another major theme that this volume explores is anthropology. Can we reduce the human experience to biological processes such as the “firing” of our neurons (ontological reductionism)? Or perhaps we are two separate parts, a soul and body, with the former simply being a shell from whichthe latter must be released (radical dualism).
The views of the authors in this volume fall somewhere in between the two. Most advocate for nonreductive dualism, a monist view of humans that understands humans to have only one substance, the physical, but believes there is a spiritual aspect of what it means to be human that cannot be ignored.
In chapter 7, Brad Strawn and Warren Brown show how this anthropology directs us to pay attention to our context, because “the nature of the body and its actions in the world influence the nature of the mind” (89). In Christian education, this means we must situate our learning through stories, pay attention to relationships, and consider the physical space of Christian formation. All of these contextual matters affect learning if we take a nonreductive dualist stance. Other anthropologies will lead to other pedagogies with which Christian leaders must wrestle.
The final major theme focuses on the mirror neuron system (MNS). In the 1990s, a team of scientists discovered that monkeys’ brains activated in a similar way both when they performed certain actions and when they viewed other animals or humans performing similar actions. This soon led to the discovery of mirror neurons in humans, which explains why stories, examples, and observations can shape us so profoundly. When we see actions and hear stories to which we can relate, our MNS activates.
In chapter six, Timothy Paul Westbrook urges readers to grapple with how mirror neurons should change the way we teach in intercultural settings, where there might be few shared experiences. Westbrook argues that the classroom must shift their teaching methods so that everybody’s MNS can activate and help make sense of events.
In chapter eight, Blevins discusses how mirror neurons affect our experience in our communal gatherings. When we are in a worship service, viewing others’ physical and emotional responses activates our own MNS as we remember past worshipful experiences. This knowledge can help us facilitate spiritual formation as we craft our communal practices to encourage greater involvement of our whole beings.
Overall, I was intrigued by the premise of this book and was left pondering how these insights might change the way I preach, teach, and engage in community formation. There are many other chapters that touch on these themes and others, including chapters on childhood (ch. 9) and adult development (ch. 10), neuroscience and spirituality (ch. 11), and teaching to those with neurodevelopmental learning disorders (ch. 12). The discussion questions at the end of each chapter are helpful tools to bring the findings of neuroscience into conversation with your own ministry. At times, the book is more geared toward Christian educators (college professors, educators at Christian schools) than pastors and other church leaders.
Readers might also find some redundancies as different authors explain the same concepts. Nonetheless, this book can be a helpful resource for pastors and other church leaders as they seek to more faithfully and effectively shape a community. Maddix and Blevins provide an accessible breakdown of complex information and do a lot of the hard work of showing its relevance to ministry.
I pray other pastors and church leaders would find it as beneficial to their ministries as I have.