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.

To its credit, the book does a fair job of developing the scholarly arguments in a manner that is neither too complex, nor overly simplistic. Given the audience of non-scientific readers (who are not looking for advanced technical explanations), Cox does a commendable job of reinforcing much of what most pastors may find intuitive.

However, I found the book's central argument—that there is something unique about the exercise of preaching—less than convincing. Much of the same argument could apply to many things outside a spiritual or religious arena. Anything that has a high degree of emotional resonance or meaningfulness could act on the same brain circuits. One could swap out the pastor for a family figure (like a mother or father) and make the same kind of argument.

Of particular interest is a chapter dealing specifically with the unique manner in which theology is processed. Most chapters deal with the interconnection between positive psychology and religion, but Cox discuses the neurological impact of many common forms of religious processes and rituals (confession, forgiveness, baptism, laying on of hands, the Eucharist, foot washing, pastoral counseling, etc.). Unfortunately, the majority of these claims amount to speculation that could benefit from invoking the relevant scientific research.

Some chapters are unusually small (the chapter on how preaching affects a brain in pain is only four pages long), and greater reference could be made to research backing up the book's scientific claims. If you're looking for an advanced, technical description about what happens specifically in the brain when someone is preaching (as opposed to listening to a lecture, having a conversation with an old friend, or watching the nightly news), you won't find it here. What you will find is a book that is quite easy to read, makes some clever connections between science and theology, and is accessible to the majority of pastors and lay persons.

William Struthers is professor of psychology at Wheaton College and the author of Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain (InterVarsity Press).

Rewiring Your Preaching: How the Brain Processes Sermons
Our Rating
4 Stars - Excellent
Book Title
Rewiring Your Preaching: How the Brain Processes Sermons
Release Date
December 6, 2012
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