Blame It on the Brain? Part 2

Blame It on the Brain?, Edward T. Welch (P&R, 1998) Even if you’ve never suffered with a mental illness, you probably know someone who has. Maybe you care for someone who is suffering from a brain disorder. We certainly want to do the best we can to ease a loved one’s suffering and help them to live a joyful life. One struggle in care is determining which conditions are actually the brain’s fault. Welch opens up his book discussing a politician who steadily fought against drug use while in office, only to be caught on tape buying and selling illegal drugs. When confronted by the press, he claims it wasn’t his fault. He was sick. His brain made him do it. To author’s shock, everyone seemed to be satisfied with that answer. There is certainly a complicated relationship between the body and the heart. How can we determine which to blame when someone is struggling with addiction? What about depression or psychiatric problems? Gaining a better understanding will help us more lovingly care for hurting people. That’s what this book successfully does. Part Two of the book is titled, Brain Problems Seen Through the Lens of Scripture. Welch points out that “brain diseases that affect behavior, psychiatric problems, and behaviors that were once called sin but are now considered either sickness or normal” are important because they are “about people—people who are struggling, people who are suffering, people who need the ministry of the church” (63). He divides the second part of his book into three sections. The Brain Did It: Brain Dysfunction includes Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia, as well as head injury. Maybe the Brain Did It: Psychiatric Problems covers an introduction to psychiatric problems, depression, and Attention Deficit Disorder. The Brain Didn’t Do It: New Trends in the Brain Sciences discusses homosexuality, alcoholism, and some final thoughts. Although Welch clearly takes the stance to call these last set of behaviors sin, he does talk about the way the brain is affected by these behaviors and the challenges it involves. One thing I love about this book is the emphasis on compassion. Whether it is the brain’s fault or not, these are all spiritual issues because they involve people who are suffering. The emphasis is on loving care and healing, not pointing a finger to condemn. Welch is well-educated and experienced in helping those who suffer with these issues. Just because the brain is the blame doesn’t mean there aren’t strategies we can use to improve someone’s quality of life. In this first category Welch provides a helpful chart encouraging us to “get information, distinguish between spiritual and physical symptoms, address the heart issues,” and “maximize remaining strengths: correct or minimize weaknesses” (69). Welch demonstrates through examples of two family’s experiences in caring for a father with Alzheimer’s and a son with a brain injury how frustratingly painful it can be. It is hard to distinguish between the physical problems and the spiritual problems. Why was this one family’s son all the sudden unable to contain his anger? Well, it was both physical and spiritual. In understanding better the cognitive and emotional changes after a head injury, the family was able to help their son better. They could still address sinful behavior with the gospel, while setting up simple goals for care day by day. I also appreciated Welch’s emphasis on honoring the elderly who suffer from Alzheimer’s and dementia. One way to do this is to capitalize on their strengths. Proper care changes with the three different stages of the disease, but we must be active in seeking wisdom from them as they are able to provide it. Welch doesn’t downplay the hardships and struggle in caring for these people, but he also encourages with the power of the gospel still working in their hearts. I seem to know and love more people in the second category, Maybe the Brain Did It. Welch is not against medication for these issues, because maybe it is physical. But he also wants to educate the reader on side effects, combinations of medication, over medication, and the important fact that medication cannot change the heart. Yes, it can alleviate certain symptoms associated with psychiatric illnesses, but it isn’t a magic fix. I have people very close to me who take medication for anxiety and depression, and I see their struggle first hand. However, medication has been helpful for them to be able to address spiritual issues (like we all have to) without being completely debilitated by the condition. Welch warns us that “psychiatric medication is not treating a verifiable chemical imbalance in the brain. Contrary to public perception, psychiatric medications are not chemical bullets that target one particular brain chemical. They are more like chemical blitzkriegs, strafing chemical sites in the brain and hoping for the best” (109-110). He is upfront about what we can hope for with the drugs, and points us to the real source for our hope. Just like with the first category, we need to get information, distinguish between the physical and spiritual symptoms, address the heart issues and personal suffering, and treat the physical symptoms. This is such a good section of the book that I just can’t give enough space to in my review, so I highly recommend reading it. In the last section, Welch doesn’t just label homosexuality and alcoholism as sin and move on from there. He certainly discusses very serious factors that are involved. Again, I wish I had more space to cover it all, but Welch emphasizes the process of change from these sinful lifestyles to be a proper knowledge of God, and of ourselves. It is imperative that we realize the idolatrous heart involved in homosexuality, and the self-worship involved in addictions. I will end with the hope that Welch offers:
In short, Jesus, in his death for sins and resurrection from the dead, is the centerpiece of all change. We, as struggling sinners, must keep looking at him until we see and know that he is the fullest expression of God’s hatred against sin and love for his people. We keep looking until we believe that Jesus paid the penalty for our sin and delights to give us power to fight against it (201).