Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God
?by T. M. Luhrmann
Knopf, 464 pages, $28.95

The methods of anthropology were developed in the early years of the discipline, when its practitioners went to study so-called savages in exotic locales. In more recent times, partly because such people have become harder to find, anthropologists have turned to study people around the corner. But like their predecessors, they often come to identify with the people they study”a process known as “going native.”

It seems that this is what happened to Tanya Luhrmann, a professor of anthropology at Stanford University, who, she tells us, comes from a mainline Protestant background quite removed from the Evangelicalism of her study. Her methods are those of classical ethnography: participant observation and depth interviews, with the addition of some psychological testing. She has done very well with this approach, providing a convincing “thick description” of the Evangelical religious experience, or at least one important version of it.

She has entered into the world of her subjects with extraordinary empathy and impressive humility. Over several years she participated in communal Evangelical worship and in the personal practices intended to provide an immediate experience of God. She does not tell us whether she has come to identify fully with this version of Christianity, but she makes clear that in this book she writes as a social scientist who in this role cannot make statements about the ultimate validity of the Evangelical experience of God.

Evangelicals very consciously construct a world in which God is experienced as a personal interlocutor, who not only listens to prayer but responds in ways that are felt as coming from outside the individual’s consciousness: “God talks back.”

What interested Luhrmann from the beginning was how perfectly sane people, who move successfully in the modern world, can believe that they can converse with someone who is not empirically available in their social environment. She describes in great detail how this is achieved both through communal worship and by training in “the skills of prayer.”

There really is no mystery about this. The basic insight of the sociology of knowledge (my particular gate into the social sciences) is that, with the exception of an acute toothache, which can be experienced without support from others, we accept the reality that is taken as such by those around us. Religious definitions of reality are no exceptions to this rule. The reality of God, as understood by Evangelicals, is made plausible by particularly strong social support. The God who is thus made real is very distinctive: “a deeply human, even vulnerable God who loves us unconditionally and wants nothing more than to be our friend.” Given the history of Protestantism, this is a remarkably nonjudgmental God.

Luhrmann speaks of Evangelicalism’s God as a “modern God.” What is modern is the balance of faith and doubt in this form of piety. Evangelicals are well aware that their beliefs are at odds with the assumptions operating in their everyday lives, and they face up to the challenge of this. Also modern is the combination of an intense individualism”Jesus is accepted as “ personal lord and savior””supported by a strong community of fellow believers.

The individual to whom God speaks in an inner voice asks, “Is that you, God?” and must develop methods of discernment to distinguish God’s voice from mental processes that do not come from God. Luhrmann argues that this involves a distinctive “theory of mind” in which human consciousness is continuously open to supernatural presences, both divine and demonic.

Of course, this robust supernaturalism is in some tension with the naturalist assumptions that dominate the public discourse in a modern society. Luhrmann’s Evangelicals are well aware of this, but they manage to live successfully in the two universes of discourse. They can, for example, make full use of modern medicine but also attend a service of spiritual healing.

That too is not unique to Evangelicals. We all live in what the philosopher Alfred Schutz called “multiple realities.” Thus, if we go to the theater and see a good play about events in the past, we may switch from the twenty-first century to the eighteenth as the curtain rises and switch back to the twenty-first when the curtain falls. The book contains a large number of individual case histories making this theory of mind very vivid.

Luhrmann compares the conversations with God with the ones that children have with imaginary companions. Logically, she then asks about her subjects, “But are they crazy?” She answers with “an emphatic no.” This answer is supported by a detailed comparison of the Evangelical experience with the psychiatric criteria of mental illness. The defining criterion of mental illness is that an individual lives only in his solitary delusional world, unable to participate in the ordinary world of those around him. No, these people are anything but crazy. And they navigate successfully in the modern world.

I find Luhrmann’s description of the Evangelical religious experience highly plausible as well as an admirable intellectual achievement. Less plausible, I think, is where she places her subjects in the history of American religion.

She claims that there has been a shift in Evangelical spirituality in the decades since the 1960s and that this is closely connected with the counterculture and its increasing influence on the larger society. Her view of this is due to her focus on one Evangelical group, the Vineyard Christian Fellowship, which she studied first in Chicago, then in California. This group indeed originated in the turbulent counterculture of the 1960s, from the cafes of San Francisco to the beaches of southern California. But it is by no means coterminous with the much larger Evangelical community in America, nor is its rather cuddly relationship with God as original as Luhrmann seems to think.

Yes, the origins of the Vineyard are with the hippy “Jesus People” who in the late 1960s took over a nondenominational church in Costa Mesa, which then exploded in membership and eventually linked up with John Wimber, a charismatic Quaker leader. In 1982, Wimber founded the Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Anaheim. He died in 1997, but the Vineyard continues, with many affiliated congregations. It is part of the vast phenomenon of “renewalist” (also called charismatic or neo-Pentecostal) Protestantism. There can be no question about the importance of this phenomenon. It has certain distinctive features, notably “speaking in tongues” and miraculous healing.

But the piety described by Luhrmann has antecedents much earlier than the 1960s. There is, for example, the American genius for the benign transformation of originally grim doctrines and practices. In that sense the insertion of the “pursuit of happiness” into the Declaration of Independence was inadvertently prophetic.

The Vineyard is a late manifestation of this transformation within American Protestantism. During the first Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards offered salvation to all comers at revival meetings, an invitation that stood in considerable tension with the carnivorous Calvinism to which he still adhered.

Edwards’ “angry God” became progressively more user-friendly through the ensuing centuries, culminating with Billy Graham, who could play amicable golf with people whom earlier revivalists would have threatened with fire and brimstone. Another Protestant stream led all the way to Norman Vincent Peale, whose God was as smiling as the one researched by Luhrmann. (It is noteworthy that the Collegiate denomination to which Peale belonged derives from the movement in the Dutch Reformation that rejected strict Calvinism.)

There are non-Protestant analogues. Psychoanalysis, a doctrine rooted in profound Viennese pessimism, morphed in America into a variety of cheerfully optimistic therapies of self-improvement and self-esteem. Buddhism (estimated to have 800,000 American converts) underwent a similarly benign transformation. Its historical roots are in the peculiarly Indian horror of reincarnation”misnamed the “wheel of life” but better called the “wheel of death””from which the Buddha sought release. Lo and behold, for many Americans reincarnation is now understood as the cheering prospect of another chance.

American culture has indeed been a drama of the pursuit of happiness, and American religion has been part of this drama. This cheerful way of looking at the world, which is part of the very structure of American culture, can be seen in the experience of all newcomers to the country of what the sociologist John Murray Cuddihy has aptly called the “ordeal of civility.” Immigrants to America had to learn to be more mellow, less aggressive in their beliefs and values. It was characteristic of an America that was a remarkably open society and that in the last century became a rising power.

There are some grounds, alas, for thinking that American society is becoming less open and that its power is in decline. Such developments would affect every dimension of the culture, including the religious one. It is possible that the smiling God of Evangelicalism will develop more of a scowl.

Peter L. Berger is Senior Research Fellow of the Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs at Boston University.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift