A Theology of Sleep

From TransformedBlog:

I’ve always found sleep to be a profound mystery–in so many ways. There are nights, like last night, that I vaguely recall getting into bed and turning on some music. I can remember nothing after that. But there are those other nights, thankfully rare, that I read, listen to music, turn on the news, read some more, pray, count sheep, stare at the ceiling–anything to get my body into a state of rest. And then there is the mystery surrounding dreams, some I can easily connect the dots, but most are so random I wonder if another brain occasionally infiltrates and takes over.

In the latest Time Magazine, Jeffrey Kluger writes about sleep (“Shhh! Genius at Work”). Recent research is beginning to discover a lot more about what is actually happening when we shift from high tide to low tide. Sleep scientists are discovering what is already obvious–that the brain is a loud, messy, and stormy place when we drift off. The brain’s prefrontal cortex, that acts like a “traffic-cop”, keeping a certain order during the day, goes off duty in the night, and wild things happen. As Kluger puts it, the sleeping brain runs its absurdist movie loop. I doze off and find myself in the pulpit, in my pajamas, finding my notes scattered, my speech confused, and the faculty I once sat under sitting in the front row listening to my awkward stammering!

Much of this activity occurs when one enters the second cycle of sleep, when one moves from non-rapid to rapid eye movement (REM). One’s imagination takes off. It helps explain why we sometimes wake up with a brilliant idea. Paul McCartney came up with the melody for “Yesterday” in a dream. Out of her rapid eye movement, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. I have discovered that in those moments I awake in the night, my brain seems to churn out some of its best ideas. I am learning to keep a notepad nearby. We have not simply unplugged. As Leonard Sweet puts it, we have changed frequencies. Beta waves switch to alpha waves, which are emitted when the conscious mind operates at lower cycles.

Which helps to explain Lauren Winner’s wonderful article “Sleep Therapy” in Books & Culture some years ago. Her basic thesis is that living with the intention of getting proper sleep is countercultural (for much of our culture is sleep deprived), but it is for the common good. Tragedies from sleep deprivation cost Americans more than 50 billion dollars a year. Those who trade sleep for productivity are fooling themselves. We would accomplish more (and Kluger would add–be more creative) if we slept more.

I remember during my student days driving from Portland to San Diego–nearly 18 hours of non-stop driving. I nearly blacked out in LA, and it took me two days to recover. Pretty crazy. But Winner would add–pretty unfaithful. Proper sleep honors the fact that the day really begins the night before. This is how the ancient Jewish culture viewed sleep. Everything begins with how we go to bed. And we must go to bed. But it is more. Sleep testifies to the fact we are creatures who are finite. Ps 127 refers to sleep deprivation as vainness. When we short circuit sleep, we are often saying we cannot bear to relinquish control. We are ignoring God’s creative purpose. As Sweet notes, resting is clearly a divine prerogative. Only God neither slumbers nor sleeps.

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