This entry is part 8 of 8 in the series: ‘The Lost Message of Paul’ (Chalke)
One of the strangest chapters in Steve Chalke’s The Lost Message of Paul is chapter 24 – ‘Wired’. Strange because it doesn’t really belong in a book about Paul and his theology. Also strange because one has to wonder how competent Chalke is to deal with some of the subject-matter of this chapter.
Let me see if I can make some sense of what he’s trying to say.
While we all tend excuse our own bad behaviour (we are good people affected by bad circumstances), we are much more ready to attribute others’ bad behaviour as due to failed personal morality (they are bad people). This tendency is know as ‘fundamental attribution theory’.
Such ‘moralizing’ continues to be prevalent today:
‘Good’ people are thought to be ‘good’ because they control their behaviour and act in a socially appropriate and morally responsible manner. On the other hand, ‘bad’ people are ‘bad’ because they display antisocial behaviours and make morally bankrupt choices. And, sadly, this is where much theology – even that of some leading scholars – is still stuck.
The capacity of the human brain to make moral choices depends on healthy development, involving love and security from our childhood caregivers. Strong social and emotional attachments lead to a well-developed prefrontal cortex and to an ability for an individual to regulate his or her limbic system, and therefore his or her emotional impulses. The child who has been exposed to chronic insecurities will be less able to control these impulses. A disregulated limbic system can lead to emotional outbursts and to various kinds of destructive behaviour. Of course, stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol will play an additional part.
It is simplistic, therefore (says Chalke) to view people whose development has been affected in this way as simply morally flawed. ‘The reality is that they are victims of circumstance who have often appropriately adapted to the dysfunctional world they are being forced to endure.’
And it’s not only individual who are affected. The whole process can be passed on from parent to child.
Underlying all of our actions and reactions are the neural pathways of the brain. These are laid down form early childhood onwards, and are consolidated by repetition. However, the plasticity of the brain means that they are capable of being modified, so that new habits of behaviour can develop.
Adverse Childhood Events (ACEs) such as physical or sexual abuse are strongly linked to the likelihood of physical and mental health issues in later life:
For instance, people with a history of child trauma are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, anger, failed marriages and relationships, as well as addiction to gambling or shopping. They are also more likely to develop risky health behaviours such as being violent, smoking, alcohol and drug misuse, multiple sexual partners, morbid obesity and suicide attempts.
There may be a very long incubation period between childhood trauma and the adverse effects that manifest themselves in adulthood. And the higher the frequency of ACEs, the higher the incidence of violent or antisocial behaviour in later life.
Research suggests that children who are in care are much more likely to be in trouble with the law that their peers.
And, although fewer than 1 per cent of children and young people in England and Wales are ‘in care’, they make up a third of boys and 61 per cent of girls in custodial settings.
If ‘bad’ behaviour is linked so strongly with the way people have been raised as children, and with the neurological pathways that were laid down at that time, then it makes little sense to approach behaviour management with a blaming, punitive, or ‘pull-your-socks-up’ mentality.
A better starting point for human behavioural and moral development is always affirmation rather than condemnation.
This is precisely what Paul believed (Gal 5:14). ‘He articulates the principles of what we today would call a therapeutically informed approach to human development.’ Likewise with Jesus himself (Lk 23:34; Mt 5:44).
Love means that change is possible, that redemption can happen. See Eph 3:18f. Grace has a healing power that enables people to make better choices again.
All of this raises important questions about the church’s theology of sin, and about its social policy. We need to consider the benefits of using a trauma-informed model of care for supporting those we seek to serve. We need a multidisciplinary conversation between theologians, psychologists and others so that we can develop a more nuanced and compassionate understanding of sin and its consequences.
Chalke, Steve. The Lost Message of Paul. SPCK. Kindle Edition.
Well, actually, I’m not going to make much of a comment here.
I have mentioned already that this chapter doesn’t really fit into a book whose purpose is to re-evaluate the theology of the apostle Paul.
I’ve mentioned too that I have doubts about Chalke’s competence in dealing with this subject at all. I know that he has set out to write a popular book, but with footnotes that will demonstrate a degree of intellectual rigour. These footnotes to this chapter do not achieve that purpose, because there are merely five that could be considered to refer to academically reputable works.
As is the case elsewhere in his book, Chalke offers an argument that may have some legitimacy, but without considering any doubts about or weaknesses in that argument, and without considering other factors. To be specific: in suggesting that a person’s ‘sin’ might be strongly affected by that person’s early childhood experiences he fails to consider in what ways any of us might, nevertheless be responsible (before God and man) for our sin.
As a conversation-starter, this chapter is OK. Trouble is, I see little sign (for all his protestations to the contrary) that Steve Chalke really wants a conversation. He just wants the rest of us to stop thinking the way we do and start thinking his way.