Is Brain Chemistry A Misnomer?

Harold Kroto, the man who discovered Buckyballs, was giving a lecture once where he asked the class to raise their hands if they think the sun revolves around the earth. The class snickered and no one dared raise their hand. He then asked them to raise their hands if they think the earth revolves around the sun. The entire room raised their hands, hoping they weren’t about to be tricked into something. Then he asked them to keep their hands raised if they knew the evidence for the earth revolving around the sun. Not a single person kept their hand up. He then explained that they took it on faith that the earth revolves around the sun. (Source: Things I Mean to Know)

How many things do you take on faith? How many things have you researched until you fully understood both sides of the debate? Until you could argue the oppositions point better than they could? Today I want to tackled one topic I think many people on both sides take on faith. It’s an issue that gets raised constantly, even cyclically, on social media. The debate over chemical imbalances in the brain versus those that think it’s all a hoax.

 

Is Brain Chemistry Real?

Some people are posting about how metal illnesses and chemical imbalances are real. You’ve probably seen this cartoon from Robot Hugs that makes a point about the absurdity of not getting help when you’re experience mental health issues:

 

­­HELPFUL-ADVICE

On the other hand, I’ve seen people posting about how leading psychologist don’t believe that mental illness are just chemical imbalances. Take this article as an example: On the Myth of Chemical Imbalances. The author has been practicing psychotherapy for nearly a decade and he cites another psychologist who claims he’s never heard a psychologist who used the term “chemical imbalances” in any way other than in mockery.

Which of these is more accurate? Are mental health issues the same thing as physical issues? I’ve done some digging into this complex issue and want to show you some relevant quotes and discussions from prominent psychologists and medical doctors.

Depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress, and schizophrenia are not, have never been, and will never be “just like” cancer or diabetes or heart disease, despite the obfuscations of psychiatrists, mental health professionals, and mental health “advocacy” groups.

~ Mark L. Ruffalo, LCSW in The Great Paradox of Psychiatry

If anything has been gleaned from the origins of these maladies [mental disorders] in two decades of work, it is that the genetics of psychiatric disorders are terribly complex. No individual gene for a psychiatric disorder has been found and none likely ever will be.

~ Charles Barber, MFA, Yale Psychiatry Professor in The Brain: A Mindless Obsession

The more we learn about the workings of the mind, the more we realize that we can never reduce human thought, feeling, or behavior to a biochemical reaction.

~ Armand M. Nikoli, Jr., MD, Harvard Psychiatrist The Harvard Guide to Psychiatry 3rd Edition

Did you catch that? These psychiatry professionals think there is no biologically identifiable reason for mental health issues. Not only that, but they purport that we will never find such a link. The complex mental health issues we experience are far different than physical health issues.

Part of the issue in our common misconception about psychology is that we think of psychologists as doctors who can look at our symptoms and determine our condition and therefore what is truly wrong with us. And no wonder, it makes a lot of sense! If you got to the doctor with the stomach flu, you have tell tale signs that will alert the doctor to your condition and he can prescribe curative medicines. If he’s in doubt he can draw your blood and find the real problem. But this is not true for psychology.

‘Mental illness’ is terribly misleading because the ‘mental disorders’ we diagnose are no more than descriptions of what clinicians observe people do or say, not at all well established diseases.

~ Allen J Frances M.D. (Literally wrote the book on mental health disorders) in What’s in a Name?

There are currently no standard ways of treating or assessing mental illness based on brain images.

~ Charles Barber, MFA, Yale Psychiatry Professor in The Brain: A Mindless Obsession

The fact that we think of extreme emotional issues as being a direct byproduct of brain chemistry is thwarted by the fact that there is no way to assess or test for these alleged brain chemistry issues. There are no tests the doctor can give or scans they can run to determine who has depression, anxiety, or ADHD. All of the experts keep speaking the same theme, that mental issues are not diseases nor are they chemical imbalances. The diagnosis we use are nothing but labels that describe the state someone is in, but there could be a 100 different causes for how they got there.

Take depression for an example. You can get depression from the loss of a loved one, abuse in your past, constant reflection on your own mistakes, or any number of other reasons. Would any of those show up in a brain scan? No. But what of the cure? Most doctors prescribe the same drugs regardless of the cause. They usually don’t even ask after the cause!

In researching depression and its cures, I found a study that tested Zoloft, St. John’s Wort, and placebos against each other. The study found 25% of those taking Zoloft received a full reduction in depression. Those that were taking St. John’s Wort had a 24% response. But those on the placebo schooled them both, with a full 32% responding with complete reduction in symptoms. (For more on how chemicals aren’t solving emotional issues, see Good Mood Bad Mood by Charles D. Hodges, M.D.) If a placebo is more effective than drugs, that indicates that most of the issues the drugs appear to be solving would be solved on their own (in time) or through the belief that something can fix them (placebo effect). If you’re interested in seeing the study results for yourself you can find them here.

 

Drugs Cured Me!

Most of the time when I have participated in conversations about depression or anxiety, I have heard someone say, “I know that chemical imbalances are true, because I took a drug and it cured me.” I don’t doubt that their cure coincided with their taking medication. However, there may be more going on than just popping pills and finding freedom. We cannot reason that solely because some people have found relief from their symptoms that the actual cause was addressed. There are several reasons we should not immediately accept the answer that drugs are the solution to our emotional issues:

1) Ex Juvantibus is the medical term for making a determination about the cause of a disease by what solved it. For instance, if a patient has strep throat and takes aspirin to fix it, they would be wrong to think that the aspirin cured them simply because the strep throat went away. Strep throat is a short lasting illness on its own and will subside without medication.

I’ve seen at least two scholars take up the stance that ex juvantibus should be considered for psychological issues. Steven Rose, emeritus professor of Biology and Neurobiology at the Open University and Greshem College in London and Charles D. Hodges, M.D. both point out that psychotropic drugs do not seem to have an actual effect on reducing depression.

If you’ll allow me a taboo – quoting from Wikipedia:

Steven Rose applies the term [ex juvantibus] to the use of psychoactive drugs to “cure” depression, implying that the underlying cause of depression is not simply low levels of certain chemicals in the brain (such as serotonin) that these drugs treat. ~Wikipedia

I fear in making this point, some people who have struggled with depression, anxiety, or other emotional issues in the past will be upset and say that I’m discounting their experience. I hope I am wrong in believing that, as the truth is far from it. I firmly believe that there are many people that have come through hard times and that they took drugs at some point and the symptoms subsided or went away. Hodges and Rose would say the same. The point is not what happened as a person gets through emotional turmoil; the issue is what really caused the emotion turmoil in the first place. When we focus on the end of an issue instead of the beginning we focus at the wrong part for diagnosis and are sorely tempted to come to the wrong conclusions.

2) The Placebo Effect appears to account for a large portion of those cured of emotional troubles. Earlier I cited a study where the placebo effect was greater than the percentage of people cured of depression by St. John’s Wort and Zoloft. You may be thinking this is a fluke, but Richard A. Griggs PHD wrote in his book Psychology a Concise Introduction that the placebo effect might account for more than 50% of a drug’s effectiveness. In this case he was talking about chronic pain reduction, but the principle holds true. The placebo effect is a large portion of why people are cured from their issues. He goes on to say that the placebo effect of drugs today is greatly increased over that in 1996. He theorizes that this is true because our culture uplifts drugs as a cure all. Other cultures don’t have such a strong placebo reaction and also don’t have such a strong drug culture.

Again this does not mean that people aren’t cured by the drugs. The pain may very well go away, but it isn’t the drug that cause the relief you experience. And just as ex juvantibus doesn’t diminish the reality of the curative experience you might have gone through, neither should this.

If mental health issues are not biological than what are they? What further role to psychologists play? Dr. Armand M. Nicholi said:

The more we develop and use psychopharmacology drugs, the more we realize that these drugs usually must be combined with psychotherapy to be more effective.

~ Armand M. Nikoli, Jr., MD, Harvard Psychiatrist The Harvard Guide to Psychiatry 3rd Edition

I saw this same sentiment echoed in other psychologists. The issue we must worry about at this point is that the science suggests that the drugs aren’t the cure. The main thing that seems to be working here is therapy/counseling.

Counselors everywhere will tell you that there are no easy fixes to complex mental states and emotional issues. And they are correct. The brokenness that is felt and experienced by so many people that are suffering and have been labeled as Anxious, Depressed, ADHD, OCD, Bipolar, et cetera are very real, intricate problems that create complex issues on both personal and interpersonal levels. If the issues we face as individuals are not biological or chemical, then the solution to our problems must be sought out in counseling.

This truth is born out in the the psychological realm. Not only do the psychologists who advocate drugs also advocate for counseling, the scientific studies have proven the effectiveness of counsel. Speaking about patients that went to receive therapy/counseling Griggs had this to say:

The average psychotherapy client was better off than 80% of the people not receiving therapy.  (Source: Psychology: A Concise Introduction)

What’s amazing about this, is the type of counseling didn’t matter. Whether good or bad counsel – counsel is better than none at all.

The point here is that therapy is effective, and drugs have not been proven to solve complex emotional issues. This is the role psychologists should fulfill. Their aim should be to help you take view of your life (where you’ve made good and bad decisions and where you’ve been hurt by the actions of others) and help you find a way to move forward in good conscience. These complex issues are best resolved through intentional counseling.

This can best be summed up in a quote allegedly* from Steven Hyman:

We psychiatrists have been given an impossible task. Our medications are sometimes able to alleviate symptoms, though they often come with side effects. But we cannot give people what they really need. People need meaning and relationship.

~ Steven E. Hyman, MD, Former Director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). This quote is supposedly taken from a National Public Radio (NPR) show entitled “The State of Psychiatry in America Today.”

*This quote is originally cited by the Christian Counseling & Education Foundation (CCEF) in a DVD series called “Psychiatric Disorders.”. I reached out to the Broad Institute, where Steven Hyman now works. A spokesperson says he never said it. I reached out to CCEF for clarity, and a spokesperson there said they also couldn’t find the source material but that it was a summary not a quote from a talk on NPR in the late 90’s. This caused me to go on a multi week long search to find the original airings of NPR broadcasts in the 90’s. I eventually was able to get my hands on all three of Hyman’s segments from the 90’s (plus one from 2000) and none of them come close to this summary. I leave it here for two reasons: First because I think it’s a good summary of the argument I’m presenting. And second, because I want to show that I did not take any of these quotes at face value. I pursued them until I could hand over hard evidence.

Disclaimer: For any unbelievers reading this, I have only referenced medical and mental health professionals up to this point. It is my hope that in referencing experts and laying out the some of their quotes that are in conflict with that we see in the average debate/conversation about mental health issues, that you’ve been given something to think about. I hope that some of your assumptions have been challenged and that you are able to begin to reform your beliefs and foundations for your view of mental health. At this point you may want to stop reading, because I am about to move from the hard facts of how many leading psychologists think about these issues to the way Christians think about these issues. If you’re curious to know about the Christian view of psychology and counseling, please read on, but where you wish to interact with the facts as presented by scientific experts, please consider this the end.

 

Counseling As Cure

Disclaimer 2: For those who are choosing to read on, know that I am about to present three views on Christian counseling and point to the one I think is most Biblical. There are actually more like five views on Christian Counseling. I will review them all when I review the book Psychology & Christianity Five Views by Eric L Johnson in a couple months. For this section, I will be a bit more simplistic.

Counseling is an essential part of life. We all seek advice from friends and family when life gets hard or our emotions are overwhelming us. And that’s all that counseling is, seeking advice from someone who has training or experience to give us answers. Sometimes we think the only training that is necessary is being alive. That’s why we ask our friends how we should go about getting someone to fancy us. Other times, the counselor must have extensive training and experience in order to be useful. Which is often why we seek out professionals to help us through depression or anxiety.

Unfortunately, not all training is created equal. And how can it be? If the goal is good advice that frees us from our trauma, the counselor has to base that advice on some worldview. If it’s based on humanism, the advice will come out self serving, if it’s based on views that are more pantheistic, the advice will be more about accepting the current suffering to prepare you and grow you for the next life. Each worldview directly feeds into the type of advice we give each other; psychologists are not exempt from this statement.

Even in theistic (specifically Christian) circles the kind of advice you get can vary widely. There are at least three views in Christian Counseling.

1) That the Bible doesn’t address mental health and thus we should embrace secular psychology. This view must be rejected outright for we see counseling happen all throughout the Bible (Job 2:11-13, 4-42; Jon. 4; Mat. 5-7; et cetera) and the Bible specifically commands counseling (1 Thes. 4:18, 5:11 & 14,;Heb. 3:13; Col. 1:28; and Rom. 15:14)

2) There are those that attempt to merge (integrate) secular and theistic views on counseling, reasoning that while the Bible is fully true, not all truths are in the Bible (the Bible doesn’t teach math, it just assumes it).

3) Lastly, there are others that argue that the vast majority mental issues are sin issues – whether caused by them or as a reaction to things done to a person by others. Most issues that come up in the counseling office deal more with things done to someone and not the sin they themselves have committed. (Some well known diseases would be exempt here: hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism, Cushing’s disease, Huntington’s disease, brain tumors, and pancreatic cancer are a few examples)

I went to a college that taught integrationist counseling (the second option in the list above). They sought a merging of secular ideas and biblical truth to get to a more perfect counsel. They took the works of prominent secular psychologists and distilled their lessons down and took the ones they thought didn’t contradict the Bible and began using them along with the Bible to try and solve the issues of our day.

On the surface, this may not sound that bad, but the integrationist has a problem. They have to decide for every issue that arises: does the Bible talk about this and provide a solution? And often times, they will decide that the Bible doesn’t talk about it and take whatever secular approach seems most beneficial. The issue here is the subjective nature of the method. One counselor might find that drugs are the solution to the problem, while another might elect for therapy. One counselor might see that someone is struggling with Impulse Control Disorder, while another might call him out as a thief.

In school I found this subjectivity incredibly disturbing. For instance, how can Christians say that there is never anything wrong with anxiety when Jesus clearly calls believers to “not be anxious” (Matt. 6:25-34). If Jesus tells us not to be anxious, then he’s telling us it’s possible to not be anxious. Which means anxiousness is usually a sin. Taking drugs to relax your anxiety may make you feel better, but it doesn’t relieve the underlying issue. If the Bible calls something out as a sin, you can be assured it gives a method for dealing with it (for this example see Matt. 6 and Phil. 4). If you are properly responding to the emotions you have, drugs may be able help you get through these hard moments… but the most important thing is that you are actively taking the right steps in response to God. (However, as pointed to above the drugs don’t seem to actually work. Charles Hodges recommends that the best approach when experiencing emotional issues it to get a physical with your primary care physician to make sure there are no health issues and see a good counselor at the same time.)

I do not wish to make lite of anxiety or any other issue, unfortunately a full treatment on the Biblical answer to this issue is outside the scope of this article. All of our emotions serve a purpose at different times in our lives (Eccles. 3:1-8), but some of our emotions are more known for leading us down a sinful path. If you are struggling with anxiety, both of these books have been highly recommended to me: Elyse Fitzpatrick’s book Overcoming Fear, Worry, and Anxiety and Ed Welch’s book Running Scared. Please know too that reading a book will not be an instant solution. You can’t microwave change. Change is a slow process; you’re making a bouillabaisse here. (Traditionally, bouillabaisse takes 72 hours to make, making it one of the most time intensive meals to prepare.)

By calling sadness “depression” or restlessness “attention deficit disorder” it secretly imputes biological causes for which there is no evidence.

~ Eric R Maisel Ph.D in The Great DSM Hoax

The unpleasant emotions we feel (anxiety, guilt, dejectedness, anger, et cetera) are warning signs for us to change our behavior. Just like the feeling of physical pain tells us to remove our hand from the stove before severe damage is done, negative emotions tell us to change our actions before our spirit is harmed. We need to listen to our emotions and react appropriately.

There’s a story I heard recently about a woman who had a particularly hard pregnancy and she went into postpartum depression. She went to the doctor not knowing what was wrong, and the doctor prescribed her antidepressants. Which led her into a cycle of trying to find the best drug, but none of them were working. After a long series of attempts and failures to fix the problem, she went to see a Christian Counselor (who also happened to be a gynecologist). She explained to him how her trip through antidepressants began and that they weren’t working, and he exclaimed “they’re not working because there’s nothing wrong with you. It’s perfectly natural for you to be feeling those feelings given what you’ve been through.”

When tough emotions hit, one of the most important things we can do is work through them.

 

Conclusion

The idea that metal health issues are all chemical imbalances of the brain is not a view held by many psychiatric experts, and it ought to be abandoned by the world at large. Science does not support a biological cause to most mental health issues. Given that, when we are feeling negative emotions, we should keep in mind that this is part of life. We all have highs and lows, so the best thing to do is seek out godly counsel to help us through the toughest lows in our lives.

Of the three Christian views on counseling outlined above, I side most closely with the third (Scripture has an answer for our negative emotions). I think it lines up most accurately with what the Bible has to say and with real life experiences. However, I do think there are some physical ailments that can lead to mental health issues. For instance, if your thyroid has been damaged, you are more prone to feelings of depression and lethargy. It will take a medical doctor to help fix that damage, and not a counselor. During that medical treatment, both kinds of professionals can work together to help you through your toughest spots. That said, physically caused mental health issues are pretty rare, most people experiencing these emotionally driven mental health issues will find that they are caused by some kind of loss or hurt done to them.

Christian Counseling isn’t so concerned with the emotions you’re feeling as it is with how you respond to them. If the Bible lays out a method for solving an issue you are facing and you believe in God, you have a clear path for what you must do. Follow the path God has laid out before you! If you don’t believe in God, you still have hope; hope found in relationship with Jesus Christ and the redeeming work of his life, death, and resurrection. If you’d like to know more about what having a relationship with Jesus means, please contact me, I’d love to talk to you about it.

 

Additional Resources (besides those linked above):

12 Shocking Facts About the Dangers of Psychiatric Drugs by Dr. Edward Group DC, NP, DACBN, DCBCN, DABFM

Are Psychiatrists Stuck in the Past or Do We Still Not Know Much About Mental Health by Lana Gilbert

A Theology of Christian Counseling by Jay E. Adams

Christian Counseling from PBS (Not a fan of this source, I don’t think the counseling here is presented in a way consistent with Scripture)

Christians, Psychotropic Drugs, and Biblical Counseling by the podcast Care & Discipleship

Dangers Related to Psychotropic Drugs from Dr. Josh Axe DNM, DC, CNS

Good Mood Bad Mood by Charles D. Hodges, M.D.

New Clue to How Lithium Works in the Brain from MIT News

Psychedelic Mushrooms Help Your Brain by Stephanie Larsen

Psychiatric Disorders: A biblical approach to understanding complex problems from CCEF

Psychology & Christianity Five Views edited by Eric L. Johnson

Review: The 21st Century Brain 2005 by John McCrone

Stereothreat by the podcast Radiolab

The Fix by the podcast Radiolab (I’ve listened to the last 2-3 years of their podcasts over the last few months, but this one is relevant to this conversation.)

The 21st Century Brain by Chris Nunn

The Work Required to have an Opinion by Charles Munger, Psychologist

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Review: The Storytelling God

Storytelling God

This book is forgettable.  I write most of my book reviews a couple months after reading them.  It gives me time to process what I’ve read and how well the author did at communicating it.  In this case, knowing the review was coming, I’ve been racking my brain for the last two weeks trying to remember what it’s about and I honestly can’t tell you anything that isn’t mentioned in the title:  The Storytelling God – Seeing the Glory of Jesus in His Parables.

At this point, I only have vague recollections of learning somethings from it, but when I mentioned that I had a good impression of it to my wife, she said “that’s not what you said when you read it.”  I gave it 4 stars on goodreads, which means I did have an overall favorable opinion of it when I finished it.  4 stars is kinda my code for a book that did quite well but had one or two issues, or perhaps isn’t going to be my first recommendation on the topic at hand.  Anyway, now that I’ve given you my initial “I can’t remember this book at all” speech, let me dig into it and give you a more detailed review.

Jared Wilson writes about a number of Jesus’s parables and what they tell us about Jesus.  He centers on the idea that these are not just good moral stories, but are designed to drive us to awe, need, faith, and worship in Jesus.  He writes in an approachable and human way helping you see truths that might have eluded you before.  His writing is like having a conversation at the kitchen table.  It feels warm and welcoming.

I can’t say much more about it without rereading it more in depth. I think Jared does a good job of writing a approachable work, but as I found it so forgettable, it’s hard for me to recommend.

Upon review, I give it 3 Stars.

Up NextA Theology of Christian Counseling by Jay E. Adams

Review: The Left Hand of Darkness

Ai has been sent to Gethen to open up diplomatic talks of joining an intergalactic nation.  As the sole ambassador to the whole planet, he must learn their culture and offer them membership into the intergalactic nation.  The catch?  Being alone has its draw backs, why would anyone believe him without others to corroborate?  To make matters worse, this world’s populace is fully androgynous beings who only show a gender when they go to mate (having the ability to show either gender at that time).  Ai is a man all year round.  To the people on this planet he is a pervert.  As in any other culture, perverts are looked down upon and Ai loses some of his credibility with many people.

The country he first lands in has a strong sense of honor that Ai is never fully able to master.  Eventually he finds himself on the run from that country and running toward their rivals.  He is met with open arms in every country he goes to, but is eventually mistreated and is forced to run away.  The story really gets interesting when then.  My wife and I agree that this book isn’t interesting until “he is on the ice.”

Ursula K Le Guin writes a fairly interesting story.  She introduces different kinds of psychic abilities, danger on every front, and a frozen world that will make you want to light a fire and grab a blanket.  Ai’s story of epic travel across a frozen land will have you eager to turn each page and see how and if he gets through his ordeal.

My wife and I joined a book club this summer and this was the second book we read as part of the club.  (The first was Night by Elie Wiesel.)  This book didn’t excite me initially, and while I did enjoy the overall story, I did not enjoy reading it.  The commitment to that androgynous gender was really hard to follow throughout the text.  It helped develop a rather unique race of people, but it did at times become a focal point that also distracted from the story.  Disregarding my thoughts for a moment, many have hailed the book as a feminist work of art because of its betrayal of an androgynous species.

If a novel that uplifts women is what you’re looking for, this is probably not the one to read.  The main character only talks about women in a negative way.  The alien culture believes in the same negative male female dynamic that many people in our own culture follow.  The separation from this world in building a new culture was not very successful.  Le Guin introduces cool concepts but doesn’t deliver on them in her implementation.

This book is the book that established Le Guin as a Scifi author of note.  It won several awards and has sold over 1 million English copies to date.  Despite all that, I don’t think this book has held up well over time.  The language has become harder to decipher and the long sections on gender did little to move the plot along.  There are also big gaping holes in the the development of this alien culture, such as their not being a pronoun for the genderless state.

Over all I give this book 3 stars.

Next Up:  The Storytelling God: Seeing the Glory of Jesus in His Parables by Jared C. Wilson

Review: War Psalms of the Prince of Peace

Have you ever wondered what the so called “Cursing Psalms” are in the Bible for?  Why does a holy God allow his divine word to say “O God, break the teeth in their mouths” (Psalm 58:6) or “Let death steal over them; let them go down to Sheol alive” (Psalm 55:15)?

These Psalms seem to contradict the idea of God being loving.  They sometimes don’t even feel like they even fit within the scope of a just God.  It’s hard to understand how these sames words can come from the same God who told off those who wanted to stone an adulterer (John 8:1-11).  Does this mean that they’re contradictory or hypocritical?  By no means!  What it means is we don’t have a full picture of who are God is.  It’s really no different than when your friend does something out of character and you call them out on it.  Did they really do something out of character?  No; it’s impossible for them to do so.  What you missed is a story, some sort of peek into their past that you had never known before.

What we miss with these Psalms is similar, there’s something worth getting angry over.  There are things that anger God’s heart, and in these Psalms we get to see some of what those things are.  But even when we’re angry it seems that calling for broken jaws can seem a bit harsh, but would you feel that way if you lived through the holocaust?  Would you feel that way in the midst of serious abuse and mistreatment?

James Adams dives into these Psalms and shows you that there is only one person who can call out for such an angry vindication.  There is only one person who lived a pure enough life that they can see perfectly how harmful and wicked sin truly is and can then call for perfect punishment.  But while Jesus is able to do that, he does not withhold forgiveness for those who ask for it.  He does desire that everyone should come to know forgiveness at the foot of the cross (2 Peter 3:9).

I saw a facebook post recently where someone said they couldn’t forgive another person for the way in which they sinned against them.  It broke my heart, as they also claim to be Christian.  If you recognized the depth of your own sin, how many times you’ve broken God’s heart, how deeply you’ve hurt people on this earth, and how far you come from living to the godly standard He set before you AND you recognize what it took in His death and resurrection to save you from the punishment you justly deserve, THEN you must forgive others as Christ has forgiven you (Ephesians 4:32).  As a Christian, it really doesn’t matter how deep, hurtful, and painful the crime against us was, forgiveness is still the weapon we are called to use.  But that doesn’t mean we should be ignorant of the damage the sinner can do, or place our tormentors in a position to do harm to us again.

When Jesus said:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.  And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.  And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.  Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” ~ Matthew 5:38-42

He did not mean what most of us modern readers think when we read it.  He did not mean, if someone beats you, make sure they have the opportunity to do it again.  No, Roman Soldiers were legally allowed to back hand you with their right hand.  If you “turn to him the other also” you put him in an awkward place.  How can he backhand you when the wrong side of your face is showing?  Roman soldiers were legally allowed to draft civilians to carry their load for 1 mile after that it became abuse of power and was punishable.  If they forced you to go one mile, and you go two, you make them look like the abusers they were to begin with.

Most of what I’ve just said isn’t in this book, but I feel like it’s an appropriate aside.  Paul wrote we must forgive as we have been forgive, and Jesus said we need to forgive 70 times 7 times those who have wronged us.  I say those that are not able to forgive have never been saved.  If someone has abused you, stolen what is yours, forced you into servitude, you still must forgive them.  It may be very very hard depending on what’s been done to you, but if Holocaust survivors can learn to forgive, so can you (Source).  If Jesus can forgive those who murdered his followers (Saul) and he can forgive you, then you must forgive.

Overall, I give this book 5 stars.  Adams clearly shows how these Psalms do fit into Scripture and helped me see God in a more full light.  I was blown away by the implications of his study and will likely be rereading it in the near future.

Up next: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin

Review:  The Republic of Thieves

The Gentlemen Bastards have been manipulated by their enemies into running an massive attempt at rigging an election.  Their goal is to thwart thwart their political rivals through every underhanded means they can devise.  The catch, their political opponent is up to the same task, has a head start, and was trained by their same mentor.  Meanwhile, they need to find a way out from under the boot of the Bondsmagi who manipulated them into playing this dangerous political game.

Their opponent’s head start means that everything starts going wrong the moment they reach town.  They spend the first couple weeks in town completely on the defensive only able to retaliate in the most childish ways.  After a bit of back and forth they set up a parlay with their rival and old friend and discuss boundaries for their fight.  Once established, the real political battle quickly ensued.  And true to Scott’s writing style, we see our protagonists come up against some of the hardest challenges you could expect to face in such a bizarre political fight.  Their wits are put to the ultimate test, as is their resolve.

This story deals a lot with the Bondsmagi, their society, history, and power.  If you were intrigued by them in the first two books, this book will answer many questions and deliver many more.  I found their society intriguing and the twists and turns in the story engaging.  However, I found this story less interesting than the first two.  Perhaps this has to do with the simple fact that corrupt politics are all too real right now.  I’m not entirely sure.  Regardless, I’m still sold on this series and looking forward to the next book, The Thorn of Emberlain.  I’m disappointed that it’s not out yet, I can’t believe he thinks getting married, moving, and buying a house is more important than finishing up the next book.  I mean, come on!  We, the readers, need this series to be released on schedule!

All kidding aside, Scott’s writing style is so excellent and the story so engaging, that I really do wish the next book were out now and I could binge read it today.  Instead, I have to wait until next year, which just makes me feel like I’m back in the 90’s watching t.v. on an old antenna driven system, where you have to wait a week in between cliff hangers.  We’re in the 21st century, nobody does that anymore, we just wait for it to hit Netflix and watch it all in one weekend.  Why can’t your books be the same way, Scott?  To this end, I propose you release the rest of the series in 2018, cut down our waiting time between books by literally years, and let our imaginations run wild.  I know this will be a pressing schedule for you, since you haven’t written any of those books yet, but sacrifices must be made for the good of the fans.

Overall, I give this book 3 stars.  Worth reading, but pales a bit in comparison to his other two.  I will note here, that my opinion on the overall score of this book has been challenged by my friends who have read it.  They seem to think this is the best one in the series so far, but I retain that Red Seas Under Red Skies holds that title.

Up Next:  War Psalms of the Prince of Peace by James E. Adams

Review: Getting the Gospel Right

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Have you ever wondered what the difference between a Catholic and an Evangelical Christian is?  This is a fitting question for this time of year as just a few weeks ago, Evangelicals acknowledged Reformation Day – the 500th anniversary of when a monk named Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenburg Castle with every intent of starting a lively scholarly debate about the unbiblical issues and traditions of the Holy Roman Catholic Church.  He posted them in Latin as was scholarly tradition, but his points were so provocative that they quickly went viral – being translated into German and spread all around the country.

Consider theses 82:

Such as: “Why does not the pope empty purgatory for the sake of holy love and the dire need of the souls that are there if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a church?” The former reason would be most just; the latter is most trivial.  ~ Martin Luther’s 95 Theses

Luther claims the pope is not loving, but only interested in money.  How provocative is that?!?  Each these was just as provocative in its own way.  Many poke at the pope and his authority, thus pointing at issues with the authority of the Holy Roman Catholic Church.  This simple act of nailing 95 discussion points to the public debate forum for scholars to debate ultimately resulted in the church splitting.

Many of the same issues Luther posted about are the same ones that Evangelicals and Catholics disagree on today.  In the 500 years since, the Catholic Church as recanted some (but not all) of the beliefs that they had way back then.  The progress that’s been made has caused some on both sides of the divide to come together and try to reconcile their differences.   In 1994 some Catholics and Evangelicals gathered together and framed a document that has been labelled Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT).

This document sprouted controversy in the Evangelical Church as many began to wonder if the Catholics had abandoned their view of justification by works and embraced the reformation view or if the Evangelicals had abandoned sola fide – the belief that justification for sins comes by faith in Jesus alone (not by any amount of good works a person does).  As people on both sides of the divide began investigating this they found that neither side had capitulated, but they both mistakenly thought they had come to an agreement.

In 1997 a group of Catholics and Evangelicals gathered together again to see if  an agreement could be made regarding the most important theological issues (ie. salvation).  What resulted is what is known as The Gift of SalvationSince many of the people at this gathering were also in attendance at the signing of ECT, this document became colloquially known as ECT II. One must ask the same questions here that were asked after the signing of the original ECT, did either side change or abandon its views?

It is with this document and this very question that Sproul addresses the majority of his book.  He takes the lengthy document they produced and dissects it paragraph by paragraph pointing out the pros and cons of what they had to say.  In the end he concludes that Catholics and Evangelicals are still divided on the belief of what is takes to save a person from hell.  The document glosses over some vital issues calling them “needlessly divisive disputes” and saying that both sides needed to spend more time talking about them.  He goes into great depth as he breaks down each point and the reader will find themselves full of rich knowledge about the Evangelical position on salvation.

Overall Sproul does a great job dissecting the documents and presenting clear Biblical truth.  One of the most striking things he said was:

Some churches require their pastors to take a sacred vow to work for the peace, purity, and unity of the church.  But if the church becomes impure in its doctrine or its practice and the pastor earnestly seeks to purify the church, he is almost always accused of disturbing the church’s peace and unity. ~ Page 23

This strikes a cord for me with how true it is.  Consider Luther 500 years ago, nailing his theses to the door of the castle, the response from the Roman Church was to try and burn him alive.  They would have none of his correction for their impure practices.  Today is not much different.  Sure we don’t try to burn our pastors alive anymore, but in many churches today if a pastor calls sin sin, he risks his congregation going on a hunt for a new pastor while they do away with him.

This instinct to attack or dismiss that which is different from what you believe is so present in our age (inside and outside the church) that you can find it readily all over facebook and every day conversations.  We as Americans are unwilling to sit down and talk with those whose views differ from our own and try to understand.  Instead we gather to the people who agree with us and in essence become an echo chamber to ourselves (2 Tim 4:3).

When we are willing to humbly admit that we can be wrong and have healthy discussions with those that disagree with us, we are in the best place possible to learn from each other and grow into more perfect individuals.  In this kind of open mindedness we are able to seek out and challenge one another to grow and strengthen our hearts and minds with solid, unbreakable truth.  I pray we all would find the humility to be humble and admit that our knowledge is not perfect and likely never will be in this life.

I give this book 3 stars.  It’s very informative and sound, but a bit dry.  I would normally only want to recommend this book to someone who either thinks there is no valid distinction between the Evangelical and Catholic or is struggling with the differences therein.

Up next:  The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch

Review: Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game

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I became fascinated with Moneyball after watching the movie earlier this year.  Using science and numbers to predict statistical averages and win 20 games in a row is amazingly brilliant!  The book was just as fascinating as the movie, and a pure joy to read.

The A’s had one of the smallest budgets of any baseball team, their budget was just a small fraction of the big boys:

You have $40 million to spend on twenty-five baseball players.  Your opponent has already spent $126 million on its own twenty-five players, and holds perhaps another $100 million in reserve.  What do you do with your forty million to avoid humiliating defeat?  “What you don’t do,” said Billy, “is what the Yankees do.  If we do what the Yankees do, we lose every time, because they’re doing it with three times more money than we are.”

What’s so amazing about this story, is Billy saw beneath the fake veneer of professional baseball and knew there was more to it, but no one else did, or even believed him while he pushed toward his goal.  Billy was a pro player who failed, through his failure he began to realize there was more to baseball than the experts thought.  Eventually he came across statistical analysis that proved everything he secretly held to be true, and he embraced it.  In a world that told him he was wrong, he ran with it.  The other team managers and experts called him crazy the whole season for making the decisions he was making, but he pressed on and went on to set records with his team.

But even after that, his opponents didn’t believe his methods were viable and continued to lay into him calling his success a statistical anomaly.  The first person to break through the wall gets dirty, and that’s the place Billy was willing to be.  He looked outside the box of how things had always been and sought new and interesting ways to beat the system.

Moneyball is an interesting book of how one man bucked the system and proved statistics are valuable.  This book is part story and part business lesson, and is surely a must read for any business leader who wants to find a way to be more efficient with the resources and projects they have.

I’m actively thinking about these lessons and how I can make my job better and more efficient myself, and how my company might be able to push the boundaries and out smart our competition.  I’ve come up with some ideas, but the practical applications of this book are not easily implemented.

I think the lessons Michael Lewis writes about, are applicable to any field and this book is well worth the read.  (But then, I’m a numbers nerd so take that for what it is.)

This inspiring book gets 4 stars.

Up next:  Getting the Gospel Right: The Tie That Binds Evangelicals Together by R. C. Sproul

Review: Red Seas Under Red Skies

Red Seas Under Red Skies is the second book in the Gentlemen Bastard series.  Scott Lynch is in the process of writing a seven book series set in a fantasy world, centered on a group of thieves.

I read the first book, The Lies of Locke Lamora, last year before starting this blog.  It focuses on a young Locke Lamora who survives a plague outbreak and gets sold into an orphanage for thieves.  Locke falls in love with stealing and refuses to follow the rules. Eventually the leader of his orphanage sells him off to prevent him from messing up his thieving business.  This ends up being the best thing that ever happened to Locke; he gets a caring father who teaches him and trains him to master his innate skills.  He gets a family of brothers and a sister.  Scott Lynch writes two stories side by side, the history of Locke’s past and the present events of the Gentlemen Bastards.  In both stories, you’ll see how he has a habit of writing himself into a corner.  He finds the most insurmountable obstacles to throw in the path of the characters, and buries them with it.  You’ll find yourself believing there’s no way out (and sometimes it’s even true).

This propensity for Lynch to write his stories into corners is only part of what makes him a great writer.  He also is able to fully wrap his mind into his world and tell the story as if it were written to people in that world.  This may sound like strange praise, but many writers, including Brandon Sanderson and Tolkien, are unable to do this.  When you read The Hobbit the writing is clearly designed for the children of this world as a fable of another world.  On the other hand, The Lord of the Rings, is written like a historical tale of the world in which is takes place.  It’s hard enough to create an entire world, but it’s pure trickery to move your mind into that world and experience and express things as if you were really there.

My only complaint with this series is that Scott Lynch writes like a crude, cussing sailor.  Never is that more apparent than in Red Seas Under Red Skies, which is the story of Locke Lamora as a pirate on the high seas.  This book as some of the coolest characters I have ever read.  One of them is a middle aged female pirate and mom that prompted one reviewer to write:  “Real sea pirates could not be controlled by women, they were vicous rapits and murderers and I am sorry to say it was a man’s world. It is unrealistic wish fulfilment for you and your readers to have so many female pirates, especially if you want to be politically correct about it!

Let’s considered this misogynist response to the book for a moment.  The commentator makes a rather ignorant comment about history: “Real sea pirates could not be controlled by women.”  A two second google search would prove that statement false.  Madam Cheng is one of the 8 most infamous real life pirates and the History Channel composed a list of 5 famous female pirates.  For this commentator to so ignorantly attack the author, is just pure unresearched foolishness.

Scott Lynch chose to reply to this commentator.  Rather than reply that historically this man is ignorant, he embraced his writing and said that it is wish fulfillment, because all people deserve a character they can relate to:

H.L. Mencken once wrote that “Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.” I can’t think of anyone to whom that applies more than my own mom, and the mothers on my friends list, with the incredible demands on time and spirit they face in their efforts to raise their kids, preserve their families, and save their own identity/sanity into the bargain.

His full reply can be read here.  But be warned it’s full of language and spoilers.

This series has been described as Ocean’s Eleven meets fantasy.  It’s action packed, risk filled, con-artistry at its best.  I’m hooked.  I’ve read all three books that he’s released so far and will eagerly continue to consume them as they release.  (My review for book three will be hopefully be coming in about three weeks.)

Overall I give this book 5 stars.

Up next:  Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis

Review: Daniel Commentaries

A little over a year ago my wife and I started a Life Group at our church.  We wanted to do something different than the Life Groups and Bible Studies we’d been in before and so we developed a plan for how our Life Group would look.  There are several things that we identified as important for a good Life Group.  First, a dedication to Scripture, with which we’re just a bunch of people hanging out.  Second, a dedication to living life together, which is exactly what the church is called to.  We believe that a dedication to living live together results in accountability, that ever important virtue of growing in Godly morals and right living.  Focusing on Scripture helps us think rightly about the world and its issues, but accountability makes sure we are self evaluating and examining each other so that we might act rightly.  It keeps us from being judgemental and harsh, and keeps us loving and broken before God and each other.

With those points in mind, we structured our group to meet weekly for dinner and a study.  Eating food together is one of the fastest ways to build relationships and it gives us ample time to catch up on life before diving into the Word.

For the study, I’ve noticed over the years that most Christians don’t know how to study the Bible.  The know they need to read it, and so they make a commitment to try, but they often struggle to retain what they’ve read and apply the principles of holiness to their lives.  So we thought it would be best to do one study a month on how to study the Bible, and follow that up with two weeks of practical application of the lessons learned.  The fourth week of the rotation is dedicated solely to being a Life Group and living out life together.

As we began to get our Life Group off the ground and running, we asked them what book of the Bible they wanted to study, and since they noted that they wanted to know more about prayer, they unanimously chose Daniel.  That was a shock to me.  I immediately began pondering the sections in Daniel that I struggled to understand and feared for the future of our group, but I took their suggestion and ran with it.  I purchased two of the highest rated commentaries out there (Miller and Longman) and began digging into the word on my own and looking up what the commentaries said afterward.  As my study progressed, I felt a need for a third commentary and bought Davis.

It took us nine months or so to make it through the twelve exciting chapters of Daniel, and I know I’ve been changed by my study of this powerful book, the discussions we had as a group, and from reading these three commentaries.  I have now read them cover to cover and will give them an individual review below.

Daniel: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture by Stephen R. Miller

What first interested me in Miller’s commentary was a one star review (it seems to have vanished from the internet since then) that read something along the lines:  Miller’s commentary focuses on historical facts and fails to provide thorough interpretations.

This one star review sold me on buying it.  A good commentary should tell you want the text means in context of the time it was written.  Many commentaries fail on this point, which leads them to make wildly inaccurate interpretations.  Miller digs in deep to the culture of the day, the setting of the people, and provides meaningful insights into the why’s and what’s of the events.  He doesn’t skimp as much on interpretations as that one star review led me to believe, and that’s fine as the time spent in the background gave him a solid framework for good interpretation and application.

He has a tendency to argue both sides of an issues, and if you’re not paying careful attention you can find yourself believing both sides of the issues for a few moments before it all clicks.  This is good as it allows you to see a well reasoned approach to both sides and what the weaknesses are as well.

For his in-depth presentation of history and factual analysis of events, I give Miller a 5 star review.

Daniel by Tremper Longman III

Longman did a great job introducing the book and its main theme: “despite the circumstances, God is in control.”  I started off with a great affinity for this book and its simple approach to the theme of Daniel, but I quickly began dreading reading this book.

The twelve chapters of Daniel are broken into two six part pieces.  The first six are stories of what happened to Israel, Daniel, and Babylon during Daniel’s life.  The second six are prophecies that were given to Daniel mostly toward the end of his life.  In the first piece of Daniel, Tremper has at least two chapters that end with an application section that is several pages long and has nothing to do with the story being discussed.  I was initially frustrated by this, but found nothing unbiblical in those applications (other than not belonging here), and so I continued to push on gleaning what I could.

As I got into the second section of Daniel, he quickly began making statements about how prophecy is done that directly flew in the face of what the text actually said.  He would say things like “numbers are especially used in a symbolic manner in apocalyptic.”  While he tried hard to support that view throughout the book, the simple fact is that Daniel, the prophet of this book and an expert on prophetic interpretation, did not hold that to be true (see Daniel 9:2).  Further, many scholars have pointed out how the numerics in Daniel’s prophecies do work out, and so we see Longman take his bias into the text and ignore what it actually says.  Longman also takes the prophecy in Daniel 9:1-27 and applies them backward to the previous 70 years, rather than forward as is clearly intended in the text.

The other big issue I found in this commentary is Longman’s dismissiveness of people’s differing opinions.  Where Miller would bring up someone’s view and do his best to show you it intact, Longman would say “So and so disagrees with this statement, but they’re wrong, let’s move on.”  Which means you either need to have the same resources he did when reading the book or have firm grasp of the various opinions on all the topics in Daniel.  But even if that is the case, you would then have the argument clearly presented to you and Longman’s half a sentence dedicated to saying it’s dumb, and be left thinking Longman is incapable of thinking the issue through since he can’t give reasons for his disapproval other than saying “I disagree.”  (Luckily for me, many of his statements like this were directed at Miller, and I could easily see the argument for real.)

All in all, I found this book annoying and quite off topic.  I did find good Biblical truths in it, but often times those truths came not from Longman, but from the Scripture he quoted.

I am forced to give this commentary a 1 star review.

The Message of Daniel by Dale Ralph Davis

This commentary is not designed to be an in-depth analysis of history and culture like the other two are.  Instead, Davis tries to write a book that could be read straight through and give you a whole and complete look at how your life should change as a result of reading Daniel.  And I think he does this very well.  He interweaves his book with tales from modern history that paint for you a more complete picture of what is going on, and he writes some great and powerful one liners.  Some great examples:

  • “Faith knows the power of God [3:17], guards the freedom of God [3:18a], and holds the truth of God [3:18b].”
  • “The Fourth Man can always find his people.”  (This is in reference to the fiery furnace, and I think it packs a powerful punch, especially up here in Seattle where we have the Twelfth Man…  the Fourth Man is so much more powerful!)
  • “Pay attention to what Belshazzar teaches you: having clear information does not guarantee the right response.  He knew all this but did not humble his heart.”
  • Talking about Daniel 6:1-28: “This section carries a two-pronged message for Israel’s exiles: see how gracious God is in giving you favour among your captors and even with kings, therefore, don’t despair; and see how costly it may prove to remain faithful when you are favoured, therefore, don’t make an idol out of human favour.

This commentary proves to be an application or devotional style commentary, which in general I’m usually wary of.  It takes a lot of work behind the scenes in proper grappling with the text to get those golden nuggets and present them rightly.  Often times a work like this doesn’t do all the behind the scenes work; what the present is the seemingly all the work they did.  It is obvious in Davis’ carefully written book, that he did take the time and effort to write this commentary in a way the properly addresses the text, and he gives life altering words to the importance of it.

There may be a few points I disagreed with him on, but I leave that to you to judge for yourself.  This book is easy to ready, theologically sounds, and carries several powerful messages for believers.

I heartily endorse this book with a full 5 stars.

 

Up Next: Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

 

Review: Within the Sanctuary of Wings

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Within the Sanctuary of Wings is the fifth and final book in the Lady Trent Memoirs.  Marie Brennan brings her personal knowledge of anthropology, archaeology, and folklore and shapes a wonderful, Elizabethan world full of dragons.

The action in this book takes a bit longer to develop than it did in books three and four.  This was a bit disappointing as reading through non action scenes at the beginning of a novel can be a bit dry and boring.  Once we move past those initial events, we get taken on an interesting journey (Lady Trent’s last) to the snow covered mountains at the edge of the country.  This particular border divides them and another country with which there is a “cold war” brewing.  Both sides have a vested interested in finding a way through the mountains, and Trent has proof of an unknown and ancient dragon species in those mountains.

This book sheds light on mysteries Marie Brennan started hinting at in the first book and slowly intensified throughout the series.  The reveal is engaging, and I don’t want to spoil it here, but it’s worth while.

Strangely I’m both glad and sad that this series is over.  The way these books were written as a memoir with constant direct statements of foreshadowing feels insulting to the reader.  Foreshadowing is a part of most great novels, but it should not be blatant.  When you tell the reader, this next statement is a foreshadow, you ruin the suspense.  On the other hand, Marie Brennan did develop an interesting world, and dealt with many issues in today’s culture.  It’s also nice to have a story with a female protagonist.  It’s often hard to find good fictional stories that center around women, which is odd since 50% of our world is made up of them

Overall, I give this book 4 stars.

Up next:  A three book review of commentaries on Daniel:

The Message of Daniel by Dale Ralph Davis

Daniel by Tremper Longman III

Daniel: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture by Stephen R. Miller