Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey

He was a cowboy, mister, and he loved the land.
He loved it so much he made a woman out of dirt and married her.
But when he kissed her, she disintegrated.
Later, at the funeral, when the preacher said, “Dust to dust,”
some people laughed, and the cowboy shot them.
At his hanging, he told the others,
“I’ll be waiting for you in heaven – with a gun hug.” (strikethrough is mine)

A couple weeks ago, Saturday Night Live made waves (yes, SNL is still capable of stirring up controversy) with a skit called Djesus Uncrossed, a movie trailer spoof of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. In the trailer, the Son of Man rolls back the stone blocking his tomb, snarls “Guess who’s back?”, and then unleashes a gratuitously bloody and violent revenge on those who tortured, mocked, and murdered him. Dubbed “the ultimate historical revenge fantasy,” Djesus Uncrossed bears no resemblance whatsoever to the Jesus of the Gospels (except for perhaps the sandals). As Christians, we know that the “real” Jesus wants us to love our enemies not “mow them down” physically or metaphorically. Even though we recognize the absurdity of Djesus Uncrossed and are grossed out by the over-the-top gore, isn’t there a small part of us that silently pulls for Jesus as he exacts his revenge? Tarantino wouldn’t win Oscars and sell movies if we didn’t find it easier (and apparently more entertaining) to disdain our enemies and fantasize about their demise than to love them. To learn to love our enemies, as Jesus did, requires a much different – and more difficult – fantasy.

What’s this got to do with our current DWB series on religion and science? Dr. Andrew Newberg is a neuroscientist who has been studying the effects of religious practices like prayer and meditation on the brain. His findings, which are outlined a book he co-authored with Mark Robert Waldman titled How God Changes Your Brain, indicate that intense prayer and meditation permanently change numerous structures and functions in the brain, altering both one’s values and perceptions of reality. Through his research, Dr. Newberg discovered that contemplating a loving God (as opposed to a punitive or wrathful God) reduces depression and anxiety while increasing feelings of love and compassion. Prejudice generated by extreme beliefs, on the other hand, was found to damage the brain. Dr. Newberg cautions that the findings shouldn’t be interpreted as a criticism of religious fundamentalism (which, in and of itself, can be personally beneficial) but rather a criticism of any institution that pairs ideology or faith with anger and selfishness. Newberg concludes, “The enemy is not religion…the enemy is anger, hostility, intolerance, separatism, extreme idealism, and prejudicial fear — be it secular, religious, or political.”

What does this mean for a culture tainted by highly polarized politics, fear-mongering talking heads, and “pseudo-commando” fantasies of bloody revenge? We don’t have to look very far to find the kind of hostility, intolerance, and prejudice that digs us deeper and deeper into a pit of selfishness, anger, and fear. What is needed is transformation from selfishness to selflessness. Instead of dwelling in disdain, we need to transition toward a place of greater love, forgiveness, acceptance, and cooperation. At least one neuroscientist’s findings are confirming what many believers have known for a long time, that embracing a loving, generous, benevolent God (such as that revealed in the life and teachings of Jesus) and connecting to that God through religious prayer and meditation helps us achieve greater empathy, understanding, and love. It may not always feel easy or natural but thanks to neuroplasticity, we are able to literally rewire our brains towards what Newberg describes as “long-lasting states of unity, peacefulness and love.” Sounds like Kingdom-living to me!

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