Blame It On The Brain? Distinguishing Chemical Imbalances, Brain Disorders, & Disobedience

Human brain glowing lateral view

What are Christians to think when we see in the newspaper, or on TV reports that criminal behavior is not primarily sinful acting but brain misfiring?

Ed Welch writes in his book Blame It On The Brain?:

I once watched a televised press conference given by a prominent politician that made me actually feel sorry for the man’s brain. It was declared guilty without any real evidence. . .

He had been caught in the act of buying and using illegal drugs. It was all on tape. How was he going to get out of it this time?

As he was moving toward the podium, a reporter called out, “Why did you do it? Why did you lie to us all these years?” His response was immediate. “I didn’t do it,” he said. “My brain was messed up. It was my brain that did it. My disease did it!” There wasn’t a hint of remorse—only indignation that someone would ask such a question.

I had to shake my head as I watched. Surely he could come up with a better answer than that! No real student of the brain would accept such an excuse. I thought, “These reporters will be all over him in a minute with that response.”

But to my surprise, no one was laughing. His answer actually seemed to satisfy everyone present. Maybe they were afraid that they would appear ignorant of some brain research that supported the politician’s claims. Maybe they didn’t want to attack someone as a villain who might turn out to be a victim. Whatever the case, the politician appeared to have silenced his critics. He was already moving to another topic.

If privately polled, most of those attending the press conference would probably have said that this man was simply trying to avoid blame. But they would have had to give him credit for at least one thing: he knew how to change with the times. A few decades ago, his best bet would have been to blame his upbringing. Now, following some of the cultural trends of the day, he blamed it on his brain. And no one dared challenge him. . . 

As human problems seem to get both deeper and more widespread, people are desperate for solutions—and the quicker the better! How wonderful it would be, many think, if the right pill or genetic alteration could solve our problems! And such hope is encouraged by reports suggesting that we are on the verge of revolutionary brain treatments for problems that were once attributed to the soul.

As Christians, we are not so naive, however. We know that we cannot blindly accept everything we hear as God’s truth. Information we receive about brain functioning is viewed the same way we view any information, whether it is about finances, parenting, or the causes of our behavior: we view it through the lens of Scripture. And that requires us to be thoughtful, careful, and prayerful as we hear and assess the latest scientific discoveries.

Frankly, many people don’t understand why we attempt to do this. They think we are narrow-minded, old-fashioned, paranoid, or—well, you fill in the blanks. Most people are under the impression that researchers go into their laboratories and simply report the facts.

Then, those who get those facts report them to us. The reality, however, isn’t that simple. Although observations and discoveries come to us garbed in scientific language, they are more than just facts by the time we hear them. The reality is that, like all information we receive, data about the brain is shaped by influences such as our own desires and the unspoken assumptions of our culture.

At best, by the time brain research filters down to us, it is like a message distorted by a long game of “Whisper down the lane.” The original brain researcher whispers, “The brain is a remarkable instrument that participates in or contributes to all behavior.” But the last person hears, “My brain made me do it.”

That’s what you and I tend to hear from our neighbors or read in the newspapers.

—  From Blame It On The Brain? Distinguishing Chemical Imbalances, Brain Disorders, & Disobedience; by Edward T. Welch, P&R Publishing, pp 13-14.

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About savedbygrace1976

Mark Chanski (author of Manly Dominion and Womanly Dominion) has labored as a full-time Pastor since 1986 in churches in Ohio and Michigan. He has been Pastor of Harbor Church in Holland, Michigan, since 1994. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Cornerstone University, and a Master of Divinity degree from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. He teaches Hermeneutics for the Reformed Baptist Seminary in Taylors, SC. Mark is married to his wife Dianne, and has fathered their four sons and one daughter, whose ages stretch from 30 to 20 (born 1983 to 1994).
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