Tanya Luhrmann interview: ‘When God Talks Back’

Since our initial coverage of Tanya Luhrmann’s “When God Talks Back,” many readers have emailed our offices to express fascination with this new book. She tackles “a subject that most other people would never touch,” according to the New Yorker. After years of research, she explains how millions of evangelical and Pentecostal Christians report such vivid interactions with God. Luhrmann is the Watkins University Professor in the Anthropology Department at Stanford University.
Today, she talks with ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm in …


DAVID: Let’s start with a crucial question behind this book: Why are we seeing such a strong Pentecostal movement today? In your first chapter, you touch on the 1906 Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles that is widely regarded as the birth of this revival—just a century ago. So, the first question: Why did this catch fire with Americans? From a single revival in LA, we’ve now got millions worshiping and praying in these very expressive forms. Why?

TANYA: You can find expressions like this going all the way back to ancient times and you can find them in religions around the world—in Tibetan Buddhism and so on. But, I think the reason this has exploded for so many Americans in recent years is the rise of doubt.

Doubt in Christianity is as old as the Gospels; Jesus constantly confronts doubt. People ask: Who is this man? People say: We don’t believe he is who he says he is. Doubt is a running theme throughout the Gospels and has been a part of Christianity since its founding. But, today, doubt is everywhere we turn in our culture—and is an even more powerful question than in the past. Now, it’s clear to all of us that there are a lot of sensible people who don’t believe in God at all. Many people wonder if what they are hearing from the pulpit really applies to them. In the Vineyard churches I write about, people find a relationship with God where they really feel God’s presence in a way that is a part of their daily lives.

With the kind of training they experience, they’re getting sensory evidence that God is real. God is speaking to them as individuals. The emphasis is both on God’s reality and God’s mystery—rather than a single line in the sand between “I believe” and “I don’t believe.” People now have ways to manage their faith and to hang onto that faith in the face of the skepticism they know is out there, today.

DAVID: Your book is not a history lesson, but I was surprised that in your overview section you didn’t touch on Alcoholics Anonymous. Now, scholars of religion in America regard the founding of AA as a major milestone in our distinctive American forms of faith. Your book is about intense, daily experiences of God. One group where people cultivate those experiences is AA—and other 12-Step programs, right?

TANYA: In modern religion, the big demand on the human mind is to persuade the person that God is real—and that God is good. You have to persuade yourself to envision God as somehow external to yourself and somehow a good thing in your life. Some people have more of a capacity for this than others, but I am saying in this book that most people can train themselves to increase their capacity to do this.

Alcoholics Anonymous is one example of how a person can conceive a Higher Power and train the mind that this Higher Power is good—and is in charge. That process doesn’t work for everyone, as we all know, but it has worked for many people over the years. Many people so effectively train themselves in the AA process—are able to persuade themselves of this Higher Power in their daily lives—that they are able to sever their dependence on addiction. This kind of religious perspective can be more powerful than a therapeutic perspective for a lot of people.


Click the cover to visit this book’s Amazon page.DAVID: In the middle of your book, Chapter 6 “Lord Teach Us to Pray,” you explain that Vineyard churches and modern Pentecostals didn’t invent spiritual disciplines. You write about the influence of Thomas Merton, and also Thomas Keating and the other monks behind the revival of the “centering prayer” movement. You reach back centuries to briefly describe St. Ignatius’ spiritual exercises. So, how are “spiritual disciplines” different from the “training” that you see taking place in the congregations you studied?

TANYA: People who use that phrase—“spiritual disciplines”—are typically referring to sitting down and doing a set of exercises. I’m writing more about the experiences people have in ordinary conversation with God. Certainly, the cognitive skill and emotional practice in those daily conversations with God are the same as what people develop more intensely in formal spiritual disciplines. What’s happening in the Ignatian spiritual disciplines is also happening in an ordinary prayer conversation day after day. But, in answer to your question, I would say that in the Ignatian practice, you’re spending more time focusing on developing explicit spiritual skills. In all of these practices—from formal to just having daily conversations with God—you’re developing the same inner senses.

DAVID: OK, so we’re not talking about something that’s an entirely new spiritual process. Pentecostal churches aren’t the only places where people develop intense forms of prayer. There’s a very long Catholic tradition, for example. But, if I’m reading your book correctly, you’re arguing that there’s a significant difference in theology today. On page 106, you point out that the centuries-old emphasis on heaven and hell is fading—replaced by a very contemporary emphasis on feeling good, right now.

You write: “The future recedes in these churches. Your pain and suffering are now. Your joy and redemption—if you accept Jesus as your savior—are also now. A sermon is not meant to frighten you out of your misbehavior; it is meant to be like a door opening from a raw, chilly evening into a cozy room.”

TANYA: Yes, that’s right. People have told me: Vineyard is implicitly a salvation church and hellfire is preached there. And, on one level, that’s true. But mainly what I heard from the pulpit is that you should come to God because God will make you feel better now. Sin is the shadow that falls between you and God. If you just accept a God’s-eye view of yourself, you will feel happy or at least you’ll feel better. You’ll realize you don’t need whatever addiction you’re suffering from right now. This emphasis isn’t unique to Vineyard. I see this period in American Christianity as a buyer’s marketplace. Certainly the Vineyard is very aware of that. They try to draw people into the church by making God available to people—mainly God’s love right now rather than fear of God.


DAVID: You say that these principles you’re talking about aren’t unique to Vineyard. In one section, you describe Rick Warren’s mega-best-seller The Purpose Driven Life. You write (on page 116): “Rick Warren never talks about failing the test for good. He never talks about damnation. He never suggests that God will punish you. … In fact, the book reads like a folksy, spiritualized manual for cognitive behavioral therapy, which trains clients to identify and to interrupt specific negative thoughts and to replace them with others.”

TANYA: This is a pretty effective psychotherapeutic system for people who are able to engage with these ideas in a healthy way. I go through the Purpose Driven Life and I see cognitive behavioral therapy in these pages.

Rick Warren wouldn’t use that term, but the process he is describing is to identify our fearful, negative thoughts about life—our anxieties about life. He’s inviting us to identify those thoughts and replace them with the way we would think of ourselves if we were God looking down at our lives with love. That’s a pretty effective psychotherapeutic system for people who are able to engage with these ideas in a healthy way. He wants us to experience a dialogue with a Person who is more loving, more warm and more kind-hearted than anyone who we know—and to model ourselves on that Person and to evoke that Person when we are in pain. That’s quite a powerful process.


DAVID: What puzzles me is that 9 out of 10 Americans say they pray. A huge portion of Americans say that prayer is important in daily life. You cite those data in your book. But it is obvious that most Americans don’t experience the more vivid forms of prayer you describe. Why not, if most of us are praying regularly?

TANYA: That’s a really good question. I think people mean a lot of things when they say that they pray. For a lot of people, it may just be once a day—like a prayer at a meal or before bed. But, people in the Vineyard church are talking to God about many things in many different settings across the course of a day.

DAVID: My maternal grandmother used to say: “We need to pray when we don’t need it, so that—when we do need it—we don’t have to pray.” She was a devout church woman all her life, but I was puzzled for years about that advice. I would say it’s a message right out of your book. The frequent, daily process of prayer attunes us to a deeper awareness of God.

TANYA: Yes, that’s the process I’m talking about. I encountered people who might pray about getting a good haircut—or what shirt they should pick out to wear in the morning. Even though they do this, most people don’t take that too seriously. But people do that because they realize that when we pray regularly about the really little things in life, we are able to pray when it really counts.

You can read this book from two very different perspectives. Some people will read this book and say: It proves that God is imaginary and people are training themselves to lose touch with reality—it’s why our country is going down the drain. But there are other people who will read it and say: Yes, you’re right. We are training people to experience God and that is good. What we really need to do is train people even more effectively.

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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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