During the 1960’s, researchers at the California Institute of Technology had the opportunity to study a small group of individuals who came to be known as “split-brain” patients.1 These patients had been greatly disabled by epileptic seizures involving the left and right hemispheres of the brain. As a last-resort measure, the incapacitating seizures between the two hemispheres were controlled by means of surgery that severed the corpus callosum and its related cross-connections, thus isolating one hemisphere from the other. The result of the operation was that the patients’ seizures were controlled. In spite of the radical nature of the surgery, the patients’ outward appearance, manner, and coordination were little affected; and to the casual observer their ordinary daily behavior seemed little changed.
The Cal Tech research group subsequently worked with these patients in a series of tests that revealed the different functions of each hemisphere. The tests provided surprising evidence that each hemisphere, in a sense, perceives it own reality — or perhaps better stated, perceives reality in its own way. The verbal half of the brain — the left half — dominates most of the time in individuals with intact brains as well as in the split-brain patients. But the right, non-verbal half of the brain also experiences, responds with feelings, and processes information on its own: it is different than, but not dumber than, its verbal twin.
One of the most revealing stories to come out of split-brain research involves a patient who was exposed to two different images at the same time. On the left side of a divided screen was a picture of a spoon; on the right side was a picture of a knife. The patient was asked to focus on a dot in the center of the screen as the two images were briefly projected. The picture of the spoon was “seen” by the non-verbal right brain — but the picture of the knife was “seen” by the verbal left brain. When questioned, the patient gave different responses. If asked to name which had been flashed on the screen, the confidently articulate left hemisphere caused the patient to say “knife.” But when the patient was asked to reach behind a curtain with his left hand and pick out what had been flashed on the screen, he picked out a spoon.
If the experimenter asked the patient to identify what he held in his left hand behind the curtain, the patient might look confused for a moment and then say “a knife.” The right hemisphere, knowing that the answer was wrong, but not having sufficient words to correct its articulate counterpart, continued the dialogue by causing the patient to mutely shake his head. At that, the verbal left hemisphere wondered aloud, “Why am I shaking my head?”2
Why am I shaking my head?
Is it possible that, even when the two hemispheres of the human brain are communicating freely, the right brain knows more than it can tell?
What the Hemispheres Know
In a summary of the characteristics of left- and right-brain thinking, Betty Edwards says that the left brain is verbal, using words to name, describe and define, while the right brain is nonverbal, has an awareness of things, but minimally connects with words.
The left brain is analytic, figuring things out step-by-step and part-by-part, while the right brain is synthetic, putting things together to form wholes.
The left brain is symbolic, using a symbol to stand for something, while the right brain is concrete, relating to things as they are at the present moment.
The left brain is abstract, taking out a small bit of information and using it to represent the whole thing, while the right brain is analogic, seeing likenesses between things and understanding metaphorical relationships.
The left brain is temporal, keeping track of time, sequencing one thing after another, while the right brain is nontemporal — it has no sense of time.
The left brain is rational, drawing conclusions based on reason and facts, while the right brain is non-rational and willing to suspend judgment.
The left brain is digital, using numbers as in counting, while the right brain is spatial, seeing where things are in relation to other things, and how parts go together to form a whole.
The left brain is logical, drawing conclusions based on logic as in a mathematical theorem or well-stated argument, while the right brain is intuitive, making leaps of insight often based on incomplete patterns, hunches, feelings, or visual images.
Finally, the left brain is linear, thinking in terms of linked ideas, one thought directly following another, often leading to a convergent conclusion, while the right brain is holistic, seeing things all at once, perceiving the overall patterns and structures, and often leading to divergent conclusions.
In summary: the left brain is verbal, analytic, symbolic, abstract, temporal, rational, digital, logical, and linear, while the right brain is nonverbal, synthetic, concrete, analogic, nontemporal, nonrational, spatial, intuitive, and holistic: a complete and nearly perfect duality.
What the Right Brain Doesn’t Know
The nonverbal nature of the right brain raises an important question: Can we, in any real sense, preach to it? How can it participate in this consummately verbal activity if it can’t say the word “spoon”? The answer lies in the corpus callosum, that fibrous connecting cable between one side of the brain and the other. When the corpus callosum is intact, it serves as a kind of “interpreter,” so that when the right brain sends the image of a spoon to the left brain, the left brain can speak the word; and when the left brain speaks the word, the right brain can “see” the image. In split-brain patients, then, preaching to the right brain would be impossible. In persons whose corpus callosum is intact, the right brain depends on the verbal left brain to interpret the sermon in a language it can understand.
The problem faced by the right brain in preaching is similar to the problem faced by a deaf person in a worship service where an interpreter is present. As long as the interpreter can translate the preacher’s words into meaningful signs, the deaf worshiper can participate fully in the sermon. If no signs exist for certain words, however, or if the interpreter is unfamiliar with them, the deaf worshiper is left out of the preaching event; fingerspelling rarely fills all the gaps.
As the right side of the brain depends on the left side to supply it with a steady stream of meaningful signs, there will be many times when it is left out. How do you translate a phrase like “hypostatic union” into the sign language of the right hemisphere? The puzzled looks on listener’s faces may be a clue that at least half the brain “didn’t get it.”
What is true for the right brain is equally true for the left. There are times when the limits of language are reached, when not enough words — or not enough of the right kind of words — can be found to articulate the thoughts or images resident in the right brain. Can you describe a spiral staircase without using your hands? Can you give complicated directions without drawing a map? The Book of Revelation illustrates the limits of language in preaching: Are “streets of gold” really what John had in mind? Or did he see something much grander than that, for which golden streets can only be a poor metaphor? The puzzled looks on people’s faces as they read Revelation may again be a clue that half the brain isn’t “getting it.” Eventually even the preacher runs out of words; the best he can do is point.
The Right Brain and Religious Discourse
The difference between right- and left-brain thinking is more than the difference between words and pictures, however. Other characteristics of the right brain would seem to make it particularly well-suited for religious discourse. For example, the right brain is adept at synthesis, at putting parts together to form a whole. In all our efforts to describe or explain God, don’t preachers depend on this capacity of the brain to form a coherent synthesis: a “picture” of God that can be gently altered as the need arises?
In the same vein the right brain is intuitive, able to make leaps of insight based on incomplete patterns: the story of a father reveals the image of God; bread and wine serve as metaphors of grace; a gesture becomes an epiphany.
The right brain is nonrational. Unlike its reasonable twin, it is willing to hear the preacher out, to suspend judgment on things as fanciful as virgin birth and resurrection from the dead until whatever meaning is available can be gleaned from the story.
Finally, and most importantly, the right brain is analogic; its sees the likenesses between things and understands metaphor. “What is the Kingdom of Heaven like?” the preacher asks. “It is like a mustard seed, a treasure, a pearl.” “Aha!” says the right brain, “now I see.”3
Recent research by Elliott Ross suggests that the right brain is the locus of strong emotion, such as fear, anger, and panic. In talking with a man who had survived a serious automobile accident, Ross asked, “How did you feel?” “I was scared to death!” the man replied. Later, however, under the influence of a drug that put only the right half of his brain to sleep, the man described the accident in a dull monotone. When asked how it made him feel, he said, “Stupid,” and “Silly.” Ross understands this as evidence that the left brain is the locus for social emotions such as guilt, embarrassment, and envy, while the right brain is the source of the more powerful and perhaps more primitive emotions of anger and fear.4
If emotions are lodged in the head and not the heart, is it possible that something like faith is lodged there, too? And if the right brain is the locus of our stronger feelings, is it also the locus of our strongest beliefs? Is that why Jesus, who is consistently frustrated by His disciples’ unbelief, so often speaks to them in language the right brain can understand stand — the language of metaphor?
Read the Gospels carefully and you will find that Jesus is regularly stricken by the poverty of words. “The Kingdom is like this,” he says, “but it’s more than that, too.” “God is like such and such, but not exactly.” Jesus gestures and points. He murmurs and sighs. He waits hopefully for intuitive leaps that never come. His most powerful message is preached from the cross in silence, a wordless sermon that only the right brain could apprehend.
When Paul says, “We preach Christ crucified,” he seems to be moving from that right-brain event to a left-brain understanding. Having brooded over the death of Jesus for years, Paul begins to name, describe, define, figure it out, break it down, abstract, and symbolize until something as unspeakable as that can be neatly entered in a theological dictionary under the heading: “Atonement.” That kind of left-brain work is helpful. Saying from the pulpit something like, “The death of Christ on the cross makes it possible for us to be at one with God,” is probably better than simply holding up a picture. And so, Paul tries to make sense of the folly of the cross. He says things like: “justification comes by grace through faith,” and “as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”
Yet in the end even Paul, the debater, has to take off his glasses, let out a sigh, and tell a story. “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). Having exhausted the ability of language, Paul paints a picture and points. “Look at that,” he says, “just look at that.”
Words communicate, but words can never fully describe what happened in the death of Jesus, or in His birth, or in the Exodus, or in Creation. Those of us who preach are called upon to speak of the transcendent. We must say something, but we cannot say it all. What we speak of and what we point toward will always be beyond our reach. Therefore, the best we can do is sketch out what seems true to us and trust our hearers to finish the picture, to make one great leap of intuition after another, moving always to higher planes of understanding. This is the kind of work the right brain is best suited for. This is the kind of work it loves to do.
Preaching to the Right Brain
Any appeal for preaching to the right brain made in this article would be an appeal to preach also, rather than only, to the right brain — to keep in mind that undernourished twin as we write our sermon and hope for a hearing. The following suggestions are offered to that end:
1. Use visual aids. A rear-projected slide or a huge poster of a hungry child as a backdrop for a sermon on world hunger may stay with your hearers longer than any words you speak. Liturgical colors, crosses, banners, stained glass windows, an open Bible, a lifted cup, the breaking of bread, the bending of knees — all of these communicate in eloquent silence.
2. Speak the language of metaphor. If you are going to preach on the hypostatic union, then by all means take the time to think about what the hypostatic union is like. Think about what grace is like, or redemption, or the moral response theory. Help your hearers see what you’re talking about.
3. Learn sign language and use it to expand your repertoire of gestures. The signs for “love,” “praise,” “understanding,” speak volumes by themselves.
4. Show, as well as tell. When you say something like, “It was early morning. Jesus walked down the road near Caesarea Philippi with His disciples, some of them still rubbing the sleep from their eyes,” you create a visual context that supports the verbal content of your sermon. Talk about people and places, and not just ideas.
5. Help your hearers move from one way of thinking to another by using verbal clues such as “Once upon a time,” or “Imagine if you will.” These clues give them permission to engage the right side of the brain, and allow them to experience things they otherwise could not.
6. Explore the absurd. Fred Craddock says that the use of absurdity in preaching (having a conversation with a bottle of wine about the doctrine of transubstantiation, for instance) can break down some of the barriers that prevent people from hearing the truth. The language of the absurd is language the right brain understands.
7. Leave things open-ended.
1. Information for the introductory section of this article was gleaned from Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards (Los Angeles: J. P. Tarcher, 1979), pp. 26-43.
2. Edwards, Drawing, pp. 30-31.
3. Questions like “Do you see what I’m talking about?” appear to be ways of ascertaining whether or not left-brain knowledge has been received by the visual right-brain. Complete understanding seems to rely on this reception by both sides of the brain.
4. From a recorded interview broadcast on National Public Radio, January 3, 1994.

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