Here’s the first thing you need to know about Tanya Luhrmann’s new book, When God Talks Back, Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God: She is neither trying to prove the existence of God—nor to disprove God’s existence. She is a scientist trained in anthropology and psychology. She is interested in understanding how the most intensely active Christians shape their lives and their church culture to develop the deepest levels of interactive prayer. In a nutshell, she tells us: These Christians train their minds and senses to be attuned to signs and sounds of God’s presence. Then, they surround themselves with similarly attuned individuals.
Readers might guess that her book is an attempt to “explain away” what millions of evangelicals claim is the voice of God or other clear signs of God in their lives. In fact, she is not trying to belittle these experiences. Rather, she is trying to explain how some people spend years training themselves to sense these things—while most Americans don’t have such vivid experiences.
The New Yorker magazine assigned no less a reviewer than Joan Acocella, best known for her writing on dance and American literature, but also a noted author on psychological and spiritual themes. (Acocella has written about Joan of Arc, Mary Magdalene and Primo Levi among many other subjects.) Acocella’s in-depth essay for the New Yorker about Luhrmann’s book explains how Luhrmann’s life-long study of alternative spiritual cultures led her to years of research in two Vineyard churches near where she was teaching at the time. In the end, Acocella praises Luhrmann’s book: “She has addressed a subject that most other people would never touch. We should thank her.”
What is this Vineyard denomination where Luhrmann conducted her research?
The Vineyard movement is both evangelical and, more than that, it is open to what are often described as Pentecostal experiences: speaking in tongues, hearing God’s voice, spiritual healing and personal direction from prayer on a daily basis. The worship tends to be fairly intense—by mainline Christian standards, that is—and focuses on encouraging people to really feel God’s Holy Spirit moving among them. However, a good number of Vineyard men and women do not speak in tongues on a regular basis or experience the more vivid manifestations of God. Vineyard members are pretty much normal, well-adjusted men and women who might be working in the cubicle next to us. (Here’s the Vineyard Wikipedia entry if you care to learn more, although—like all Wiki entries—Vineyard adherents are likely to disagree with some details.)
These are the people you will meet in the pages of Luhrmann’s book—men and women struggling to make it through daily life, as we all do. Overall, Lurhmann tells their stories transparently and compassionately. How honest is this book? Readers will have to judge for themselves, but it rings true to us, as journalists here at ReadTheSpirit. From the Vineyard perspective, at least one prominent church leader is happy with the book. Nationally known Vineyard leader and author Ken Wilson appears on the book’s back cover, writing: “What if non-believers could understand how people come to experience God? What if believers could come to understand just how difficult the process of coming to experience God is for all of us, here at the end of modernity? ‘When God Talks Back’ is a chance for our divided nation to stop talking past each other about our national preoccupation: God.”
Bingo! Ken Wilson has cut to the chase. Right now, if a Pentecostal Christian finds herself sitting over coffee with a stranger who is, let’s say, an Episcopalian who prefers to attend worship at Christmas and Easter—the unspoken subtext of their conversation is likely to be unfortunate. The Episcopalian is likely to think: She heard God helping her pick out a pair of shoes!?! What a sadly deluded weirdo! Meanwhile, the Pentecostal is thinking: How sad! She calls herself a Christian, but she’s not a real Christian!
What Luhrmann gives us in these 325 pages (along with copious end notes) is a very compelling look at how these more-intensely active Christians train themselves to spot daily signs of God’s presence—and build a congregational culture to reinforce that awareness. These days, learning “spiritual disciplines” and taking “spiritual direction” and recovering “religious traditions” is all the rage. Luhrman is explaining to the less-intense majority of Americans about the disciplines, directions and traditions used by these the more-intense Christian minority.
She does this by telling us lots of fascinating stories about people she has met, along the way. Although her book is based on painstaking research and mountains of detailed notes (she actually stresses that her notes formed an overwhelming pile), Luhrmann is not drawing hard-and-fast conclusions. This is not an article in a scientific journal. Rather, she closes her book inviting more research into this process that involves millions upon millions of men and women. She invites us to keep discussing these issues.
In fact, she raises tantalyzing questions that are perfect for group discussion. Late in the book, for example, she speculates that the ever-growing power of multi-media devices in our lives means “we practice living in multiple realities” every day. Perhaps our entire culture is training us to more easily appreciate mind-bending experiences—perhaps even opening us more easily to mysticism. If that sounds crazy, just jump back and read our 2009 interview with Catholic Father Thomas Keating—the godfather of contemplative centering prayer for Christians—in which we talked with Keating about his decision to produce a multimedia set of training materials. When Keating does this, we praise it as a revival of traditional Christian wisdom. Luhrmann is simply arguing that Pentecostals aren’t weirdos—they’re simply training themselves to experience God’s presence in their own distinctive ways.
Borrowing from St. Paul’s famous 1st letter to the Corinthians, Luhrmann writes: “We see through a glass darkly. There is much we do not know, even now, about spiritual experience. … The goal of this book is simply to help readers understand the problem of presence more deeply, to understand why it is a problem—why it can be hard for Christians to know when God has spoken—and to explain how, in this day and age, people are nonetheless able to identify that presence to experience it as real.”
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.