Thursday, July 1, 2010

Book Review: Anatomy of the Soul

First, I must make it clear that I have interacted with this book in ways which the average reader probably never will. For starters, I myself am in the process (though currently paused) of earning a degree in a psychology field. This was, in fact, one of the reasons I selected this book. However, my academic appreciation for Anatomy of the Soul did not keep me from appreciating it on other levels. I'll attempt to briefly discuss a few of them below.

Literary, Dr. Curt Thompson is a master storyteller. I'm willing to admit that my own interest in counseling/psychology probably has a lot to do with my fascination of his stories, but he illustrates his points in a fascinating way through real-life examples. On the other hand, his metaphors can be over-exaggerated at times, and he has accepted too many of the modern chic elements of writing, but the book is definitely engaging and well-written. The structure of the book does oscillate between the scientific, theological, and practical, but Thompson does an excellent job of keeping each type of section compelling.

One fairly major quibble with the book format is the way in which his Integration Exercises have been randomly inserted throughout the book. These are several hands-on exercises, described in a page or two, which readers may use to help integrate Thompson's points into their lives. The idea of including these exercises was brilliant, but they occur in random places, many times breaking up sentences or paragraphs. The first few confused me greatly since the only differentiation between them and the surrounding text is a slight change of font. The biggest problem with this approach, besides being confusing, is that the readers will probably skip them to finish the rest of Thompson's thought and forget to come back. It would have been much more helpful, not to mention logical, for the Integration Exercises to be included at the end of chapters or in logical breaks in Thompson's thoughts.

Scientifically, Dr. Thompson does an excellent job of presenting a heap of psychological, neurological, and other scientific material in layman's terms. The front cover says that the book will explore "surprising connections between neuroscience and spiritual practices that can transform your life and relationships". It does just that. At times the scientific terminologies were slightly over my head, but Thompson does an outstanding job of explaining how neurological pathways are created, pruned, strengthened, and weakened throughout an individual's life. A portion of his book explores how consciously creating new neurological pathways can help to strengthen the Christian life, particularly the Fruit of the Spirit and the two qualities of Mercy and Justice (more on that in a bit). This proves to be an enriching and blessing blend of Christianity and Neuroscience.

One section of the book deals with how the ancient spiritual disciplines, so often and tragically neglected by modern Evangelicals in the West, have been proven scientifically as ways of reinforcing this brain re-wiring. Thompson points out in multiple places that he views Scripture as authoritative and thus is not shocked to find that there are now scientifically verifiable reasons for practicing the disciplines of fasting, confession, silence, solitude, Scripture reading, etc.

Along the way, Thompson reviews Attachment Theory (something every Christian parent, teacher, or child worker should be familiar with), the biological make-up of the brain (right v. left and the triune brain), the role and substance of memory, the dis-integration that happens in a person's mind because of shame ("Pride and shame are in fact two sides of the same coin" [page 241] says Thompson), the dangers of having a dis-integrated mind and the value of having a integrated mind, and the role of the prefrontal cortex in the areas of decision making and emotions. He emphasizes multiple times the importance of integration, specifically of the right (emotional, "we" centered) and left (logical, "I" centered) hemispheres of the brain (neither is more important than the other), and of "paying attention to what you're paying attention to". His scientific discussion also helps readers understand how the brain functions during an emotion, thought, or subconscious action. Knowing this allows one to rewire his neural pathways so that a) if the emotion, thought, or action is sinful, the root causes can be dealt with or b) if the emotion, thought, or action is holy, it can be encouraged, repeated, and memorized.

Another important aspect of the book is Thompson's idea of, as he calls it, the process of being known. He states the importance of being known: "It is only when we are known that we are positioned to become conduits of love" (page 3). This is an important element of Christianity, one that reaches into eternity past through the doctrine of the Trinity but which has been tragically forgotten in modern Christian thought, to the point that, as Thompson points out, few people realize that they are not being known by anyone, including themselves. Thus, we define "love" either intellectually or emotionally, but rarely a synthesis of the two.

Thompson also points back to the importance of both knowing and being known by God, something he says is next to impossible if the neurological patterns of an individual haven't been ordered through foundational relationships to at least have a blueprint (I.E., Attachment Theory) of the way God responds. In other words, if a person has grown up with angry, demanding parents, he cannot see God as anything but angry and demanding until his brain has a blueprint, picked up from other relationships or observing others' relationships, that enables his neurons to create a pattern for a non-angry God.

Theologically, Thompson has a lot of interesting ideas. First, he points out (somewhat subtly) that science and theology are both written by God and should fit together; his definition of "science" is "the study of God's good creation" (page 238). Ergo (though technically unstated by Thompson), what Scripture reveals should help guide our interpretation of scientific facts and what science reveals should help guide our theological interpretation of Scripture. It's an interesting idea, one that many Christians, especially scientists and theologians, will not agree with.

One of the biggest controversial theological claims Thompson makes in Anatomy of the Soul is that "We delude ourselves into thinking that we know God, but God as we believe him to be - in control and invulnerable - not God as Scripture describes him to be: risk-taking and able to be hurt badly." He argues, in essence, that humans can affect God (not his being, but his emotions). Hard-core Calvinists will likely find this idea repugnant. Indeed, most other orthodox Christians will find the idea difficult to balance with their (quite proper) theology of God as sovereign, unchangeable, all-knowing, etc. Yet the idea has clear Scriptural backing, and I wonder if there is as big of a paradox as first appears, but perhaps it's an idea that should be explored and discussed more.

One thing that does make me a bit squeamish, though, is the way in which Thompson presents his theological ideas (with the exception of the above idea): He rarely cites Scripture accurately and, even when what he's saying clearly agrees with what Scripture says, he tends to get there in a sketchy or confusing way. For example, in one section discussing the Fall and Eve's reaction to the Serpent, he goes out of his way to say that we can't add to what is in the text, but the whole discussion is based on analysing Eve's brain processes which of course involves several extra-textual presuppositions. Elsewhere, Thompson often dismisses or twists Scripture to fit what he's saying, even when his interpretation makes little sense in the original context. Not that he isn't in good company since 100% of human Christians (especially theologians of all brands) do this at some point, but it is a little too prevalent in the book. Again, I'm not saying his interpretation of Scripture is heretical or seriously flawed, but his methods are. Unfortunately this flaw will likely give credence to those wishing to ignore the major themes of his book.

Another troubling example of Thompson's tendency in this area has to do with his elevation of mercy and justice as the primary functions of Christians in social interaction. No Christian should have a problem with mercy and justice, to be sure, but there's absolutely no Biblical reason (or scientific reason for that matter) why these two should be elevated above, say, harmony, grace, humility, or, most importantly, Truth. Not that Thompson doubts or questions the value of any of the above, especially Truth. On the contrary, he does discuss each of them and, despite sounding like one at times, Thompson is certainly no post-modernist. He strongly believes in the authority of Scripture. But the problem lays in his making assertions (such as that justice and mercy are the greatest outworking of the Spirit in society) with no real backing, either Scriptural or scientific, for his claims.

Related, Thompson tends to make brief comments about several hot-button political issues that are at least a distraction from the main thesis of the book and at most should make anyone familiar with Scripture raise their eyebrows. His unspoken but between-the-lines views of the death penalty, Evolution, and homosexuality reveal a troubling arrogance and elevation of his own mind/emotions above what Scripture clearly says (I could have misinterpreted his positions on any/all of these, but there I would say he should be faulted for being so vague and repeat the assertion that these issues shouldn't even be addressed unless one wants to take the time to properly clarify one's position, something which would be highly inappropriate for this book).

The biggest problem with Thompson's sketchy interpretation of Scripture (or ignoring of Scripture) and his needless inclusion of hot-button political points is that, because he is wrong in some of these areas, it calls into question his major themes and points, especially for those who tend to be more theologically astute. This presents a two-pronged problem:

  1. Those who are in the most need of this book are probably the more conservative, fundamentalist types who will automatically use Thompson's weakness in this area as an excuse to ignore the rest of his mostly excellent ideas. Thus, those who would have benefited the most will simply ignore his valid points because of his weak, minor points. 
  2. Thompson's faulty interpretations and other errors are likely to be swallowed whole by those who do benefit from the book. This is why the apostles and Early Church warned about being too anxious to teach: you are responsible for even the minor errors you teach. 

All of that detracts from the otherwise strong and beautiful theme of Anatomy of the Soul: "When our brains operate in a flexible, adaptive, coherent, energized, and stable fashion, we are able to live in community in a way that encourages those around us to develop these same qualities." It is a stellar theme, one that the Evangelical world is, quite literally, dying to understand (or for lack of understanding). What I mean is that ignoring the basic principles Thompson presents in this book are what have lead to the spiritual and intellectual devolution of modern Evangelicals, whether they be more liberal-minded or conservative fundamentalists.

Despite the flaws, I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in discovering how to improve relations, move closer to God, or integrate his mind, spiritual life, and actions more fully. As with any book, just be cautious about the author's own flaws, particularly how his political ideals may affect his interpretation of data (both Scriptural and Scientific).

One last word of caution: About halfway (or earlier) through the book you will feel overwhelmed. I certainly did and the majority of the scientific and relational material was not new to me. Keep with it. Anatomy of the Soul is definitely worth reading to the end. Feel free to take a break, but make sure you go back and finish.

*Please note: Anatomy of the Soul was provided free of charge by Tyndale Press for review purposes. The author of this review received no financial compensation and has not been influenced by Tyndale Press, the author, or any entity concerning this product.