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Left Brained Readings of Right Brained Scriptures

Well, now I’ve done it. I’ve brought up right brained and left brained in a public setting. I’m sure I’ll hear about it from critics. So, let me ward off some of the flack by confessing from the get-go:

[Disclaimer: I am not a medical doctor, nor a psychologist, and I do not pretend to fully comprehend all the intricacies of the right brained and left brained facts that stand behind the popular use of these designations to characterize different strengths and weaknesses in human inclination.]

In fact, I am aware that early research, which seemed so promising for dissecting brain hemisphere dominance, has proven less “clear cut” (if you’ll pardon the pun) than first hoped. I am also aware, however, that this hitch on the academic level has not impeded the fashionable use of these terms in the least, nor dimmed the light that these categories have brought to more than a few struggles in both daily communication and, yes, even biblical interpretation.

The not-so-old, but well-worn saw is pretty simple:

People with left-brained dominance are strong in language, logic, critical thinking, numbers & reasoning.  We think of them as the math and science guys. In fact, I would suggest that this is how we would characterize most serious biblical scholars. These are people who live for the details, and love nothing better than breaking things into disparate categories and organizing charts.

Those with right-brained dominance are those more inclined toward expressing emotions, reading other people’s emotions, music, color, images, intuition & creativity. These are perchance, poets, story-tellers, artists, performers, those uber-sensitive souls driven powerfully by empathy. These are people who feel their way through life, taking in the sense of things, the sameness resonant at the core of things, no matter how different they appear on the surface. I would suggest that this best describes those biblical authors whose writings fill the Psalms, Wisdom Literature, and Writing Prophets.

In a recent lecture by Willem VanGemeren, editor of the well crafted New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, he spoke of the tension created by allowing rich Hebrew poetry to fall completely under the authoritative analysis of mostly left brained academics. Indeed, the rigor of academic training focuses almost exclusively on left brained disciplines.

Imagination, passion and imagery are important elements in properly writing and reading poetry. When these prophets (and all inspired texts are deemed the product of prophetic experience) chose to write, to express the message beating within their breasts, they often chose poetry as their medium.  We, millennia later, strive to understand those poems, believing that within them rings the voice of God.

So, how shall we read biblical poetry to the best profit?

Can we read these poems without the aid of the “left brained academics”? We cannot. For the very act of reading ancient Hebrew poetry is dependent on academic skills in language and translation and the analysis of things like structure, history & culture.

Can we read these poems without the insights of “right brained artsy types”? We cannot. For, to strip a poem of all that makes it poetry, to rob the oration of the passion and emotional connection that the poet deemed so important in choosing poetry as a medium in the first place is to lose an important part of the message itself. Our connection to the inspired text is not merely an intellectual one… gleaning for erudite thoughts, theological postulations, and intellectual jewels. Our connection to the inspired text is also about our souls, our hearts, our imaginations… seeking conviction, encouragement, devotion and intestinal fortitude to go on in the face of all that is.

So I recommend this. Cultivate a whole brained approach to life, working to strengthen areas of weakness. To the artist soul, I say, “Get academic rigor,” for without it imagination draws us away from the text into ourselves, following our passionate hearts where they want to go rather than where the biblical author wished to take us. To those with academic rigor, I say, “cultivate passion on purpose,” for without it you are attempting to think your way through something the prophet meant you to feel your way through in the illumination of the Spirit.

[1] media pic is from sxc.hu

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