Have you ever said something and then, moments later, cringed with shame as you replayed it in your mind? If so, you’ll know the sort of feeling I had a couple weeks ago.
I was talking with an expert on social media polarization who was not a Christian. She made an insightful and compelling case about why so much radical, crazy content gets traction, including within the church.
The algorithms recognize, she said, how emotions work. Emotions like affection, wonder, and curiosity don’t prompt people to linger on posts—much less to spread them. But anger and fear do.
When I asked, “So how is this fixed?” she predicted that things will get worse and worse because “What can you do about the reptilian brain?” I nodded sadly and said, “I know.”
Her point was that social media technology exploits the part of fallen human psychology—what she would call “the lizard brain” or the “reptilian brain,” also known as the amygdala—that is alert to threats and danger. In her view, tweaking the technology would be a small and futile effort against what can’t be changed in the human condition.
None of that was the problem. The problem was my sigh of resignation in response.
Feeling chastened, I reminded myself that I’m a Christian—and an evangelical one at that. My response was akin to the believer I heard several years ago arguing some issue in terms of “what Jesus would do if he were alive today”—until I interrupted with “Jesus is alive today.”
Putting aside whatever naturalistic assumptions are behind the terminology of lizard brain, gospel Christianity tells us that there is, in fact, something that can change the reptilian brain—and that our minds have faced reptiles for a long, long time.
The serpent, after all, was “more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made” (Gen. 3:1). The old reptile of Eden appealed to our human appetites and perceived autonomy, summoning our fear of mortality and then offering a “fix” for it.
In the biblical storyline, the snake’s hyperrational coolness at the first is matched by the ancient dragon’s limbic hotness later on—when he rages all the more “because he knows that his time is short” (Rev. 12:12).
An honest look at the plight of fallen humanity in any age could lead to a pessimistic despair. After all, what can we do about our sinful human nature? Yet this is a dangerous but subconscious way of tossing the supernatural overboard. It’s a sign that we are secularizing.
People can express this mentality in various ways.
We can embrace a hand-wringing anxiety that looks at the current reality of the people we know or the church itself and assumes a gloomy version of “tomorrow will be just like today, only more so” (Isa. 56:12, NASB). Or we can give in to an “if you can’t beat them, join them” kind of cynicism that we convince ourselves is realism and “the way things are.”
Or, perhaps worst of all, we can find a gospel “realistic” enough for these times—embodying the kind of half gospel that activates the amygdala rather than a whole gospel that lightens the conscience.
For some of us, that resignation comes from a fear of the “lizard brain” in what we perceive to be the world. How do we keep from upsetting those whose hostility could, we think, hurt us?
For others, that resignation is a way to exploit the “lizard brain” of our own people: How do we frighten them to the point that we can “lead” them? How can we find ways to sanctify what the Bible calls “works of the flesh”—like wrath, rancor, rage, and fear? How can we keep these fleshly impulses from bothering our consciences, instead deluding ourselves into thinking they are the only “realistic” way forward and ultimately confusing them for signs of genuine Christian conviction?
Eugene Peterson warned his son (also a pastor) that some people mistake adrenaline for the Holy Spirit. What the elder Peterson referred to was much of the enthusiasm he saw in his Pentecostal background and the exuberance he saw in church-growth marketing mottos like “The church alive is worth the drive.”
I am sometimes almost nostalgic for that kind of adrenaline—particularly in a time when fearmongering like “We are one step from catastrophe if our enemies aren’t stopped!” drives more enthusiasm than exhortations such as “We are one step from winning the world to Christ!” But Peterson is right in either case: The rush of adrenaline can surely disguise itself as life—for a little while.
Some give up by expecting to perpetually lose; others, by expecting to win. But their idea of winning falls short of “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” and their means of winning falls short of “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” That’s especially true with those who see a way to say, “Mine is the kingdom and the power and the glory” (and some daily bread too).
Perhaps now is the time for evangelical Christians to remember our calling. The rest of the body of Christ has so often relied on us to remind the church and the world of what Jesus said to an anxious teacher by night: “You must be born again” (John 3:7).
Our human tendency in perilous or upsetting times is to look for strategies to solve what we think is our problem. We want the basic facts of how to get from barrenness to life in ways we can understand. We want Jesus to say, “There’s nothing to be afraid of if you just do this” or “Be afraid, be very afraid, and therefore you must urgently do this!”
Both of those, though, are the equivalent of a liberal German scholar trying to tell us that the Virgin Birth doesn’t mean what we think because, realistically, virgins can’t get pregnant. After all, Nicodemus wasn’t unreasonable when he asked how a grown adult could reenter the birth canal; he just didn’t understand the Holy Spirit.
When we don’t believe the Spirit is able to give life—to grant us the mind of Christ, to crucify the works of the flesh, and to produce fruit—then we don’t call for it or long for it; we don’t pray for it or model it. And then a lifeless but furious church leads people to wonder whether “born again” is just another way of saying “people whose lizard brains light up in red-state ways more than blue-state ways” or vice versa.
Our predicament—whether in terms of our personal morality or mortality or in terms of the world around us—can’t be fixed with a step-by-step guide or by “fighting fire with fire.” The reptilian spirit is the one that tells us, “Step one: Eat this in your hand. Step two: Open your eyes,” whereas Jesus says, “This is my body; take and eat.”
And just as Nicodemus asked, “How can anyone get reborn at my age?” we followers of Jesus tend to ask, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat? What can we do?”
To that question, Jesus responds, “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life” (John 6:63). The point is not for us to learn how to counter our fear of starvation by perfecting our baking skills. It’s to lead us first to the place of bewilderment where, like Simon Peter, we can say only, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (v. 68).
“Give us this bread, and we’ll be on our way” is a strategy. “I am the bread that comes down from heaven” is a promise. The strategy seems real-world; the so-called lizard brain can understand it because we see it all the time. The promise, on the other hand, seems unrealistic because we don’t know how to get there—or maybe we’ve so rarely seen it that we start to question whether it can really happen at all.
It’s the difference between “Here’s how to harness wind energy for sustainable electricity” (or, in these times, “Here’s how to harness wind energy for an electric fence to keep out your scary neighbors”) and “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going” (John 3:8).
When we look at a church that all too often operates from a lizard brain, we want to figure out how to harness or quiet it. Those who just wait for “the fever to break” often yield to despondency or to cynicism. And those who seek to mobilize it—to “reclaim America for Christ” or to “own the libs”—end up learning too late that those who whip up the appetite to devour are ultimately the prey (Gal. 5:15).
But neither of those is the way forward; they only appear to be when we’ve forgotten that the gospel truly can renew minds, transform hearts, and revive congregations. That can happen slowly, almost imperceptibly—or it can happen suddenly and disruptively.
The bad news and the good news are the same thing: What’s born of the lizard is lizard. What’s born of the Spirit is Spirit. Grace is still amazing, and the gospel still works. So, let’s remember once again what it means to be born again.
Russell Moore leads the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today.