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In her intriguing "When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God," Stanford University cultural anthropologist Tanya Marie Luhrmann sympathetically but objectively examines the religious psychology and practices of American evangelicals, in the spirit of William James' 1902 classic "Varieties of Religious Experience". In her previous books, Luhrmann presented fascinating ethnographic studies of modern witches and ceremonial magicians in contemporary England, the once prestigious and privileged Parsis in post-colonial India, and the training and ideological indoctrination of young American psychiatrists. In "When God Talks Back", her latest book, she analyzes the growing movement of evangelical, Pentecostal, and charismatic Christianity.
Luhrmann specifically examines how evangelicals come to experience God as a close, intimate, and invisible but very real friend and confidant with whom they can communicate on a daily basis through prayer and visualization, clearly recognizing His voice. She is not quite a believing evangelical herself, more a sincerely interested, warmly sympathetic student of an important human activity in the manner of William James. In the tradition of James, and before him of the 18th century German Lutheran theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, she treats religion as a matter of psychology, feeling, and personal experience, rather than of dogma or doctrine, as emotionally and emotionally enriching rather than as rationally convincing. She addresses religion's educated modern potential sympathizers as Schleiermacher addressed its skeptical Enlightenment "cultured despisers."
Luhrmann investigated the new evangelical movement as a participant-observer. She attended services and small group meetings for several years at local branches of the Vineyard, an evangelical church with hundreds of congregations throughout the country and the world, and had hundreds of conversations with evangelicals, learning how they believed themselves able to communicate with God, not just through one-sided prayers but with discernible feedback--some seeing visions, others claiming to hear the voice of God Himself.
After countless interviews with Vineyard members reporting either isolated or on-going supernatural experiences with God, Luhrmann concluded that the practice of prayer could train a person to hear God's voice--to use their mind differently and focus on God's voice until it became clear. A subsequent experiment conducted between people who were and weren't practiced in prayer further confirmed and illuminated her conclusion. For those who have trained themselves on their inner experiences, she found, God is experienced in their brains as an actual personal social relationship: His voice was identified, and felt to be real and interactive.
In an autobiographical note, she asks if God is real or present, and how do we know. She grew up with those questions, she notes. Her mother was the daughter of a Baptist minister, her father (a doctor) the son of Christian Scientists. When she was young, they lived in a neighborhood with Orthodox Jews. She "grew up among many wise people who thought differently about the world," and she was curious about "how they made those decisions, and what an observer could say about the ways they used and experienced their minds in making those decisions." She notes:
She declares that "I am an anthropologist, and in all likelihood I chose my profession because I have lived these questions." She adds, <>
In her final chapter, "Bridging the Gap," Luhrmann concludes:
<<And there is another factor that shapes the way the individual experiences God. That is the real presence of the divine. I have said that I do not presume to know ultimate reality. But it is also true that through the process of this journey, in my own way I have come to know God. I do not know what to make of this knowing. I would not call myself a Christian, but I find myself defending Christianity. I do not think of myself as believing in a God who sits out there, as real as a doorpost, but I have experienced what I believe the Gospels mean by joy. I watched people cry in services, and eventually I would cry in services too, and it seemed to me that I cried the way I sometimes wink back tears at children's books, at the promise of simple joy in a messy world. I began to pray regularly, under the tutelage of a spiritual director, and I began to understand parts of the church teaching not just as so many intellectual doctrinal commitments but as having an emotional logic of their own. I remember the morning it dawned on me that the concept of redemption from sin is important, for example, because we cannot really trust that we are loved until we know that we are loved even with our faults. >>
The God of the Vineyard churches, groups, and members she has known, Luhrmann repeatedly reiterates, is an unconditionally, infinitely loving and forgiving God. The Vineyarders' God is "not only vividly present but deeply kind," "no longer the benign but distant sovereign of the old mainstream church; nor...the harsh tyrant of the Hebrew Bible" but "personal and intimate" (p. xvi). The Vineyard, she emphasizes, does not go in for the graphic, terrifying hellfire and brimstone sermons of Jonathan Edwards' "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" or Stephen Dedalus' retreat in James Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man." Sin is "understood not as forbidden behavior but as an inner state of being separated from God." That "may be caused by doing something of which God disapproves, but the problem is not that *God* has withdrawn" but "that the sinner cannot be close to God."
The Vineyard, as portrayed by Luhrmann, also does not seem to engage in political campaigns against abortion, pornography, homosexuality, or Darwinism, and not to have produced any figures comparable to Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. Many readers, however, may fault her for ignoring or downplaying evangelical political activism, by the "Religious Right" but also by liberal evangelical groups and figures like the "Sojourners," former President Jimmy Carter, and the late Senator Mark Hatfield. Ignoring passionately Bible-quoting evangelical campaigns against evolution and gay marriage, she seems to consider their fervent belief in Biblical inerrancy as something of little concern for outsiders, like fasting at Lent or avoiding pork and shellfish.
Nevertheless, given this caveat, Luhrmann's approach offers a hopeful alternative to our bitterly polarized religious-political "culture wars." Along with other recent and contemporary heirs if Schleiermacher and William James like Aldous Huxley, Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell, Ken Wilber, Huston Smith, Ninian Smart, and Karen Armstrong, she expresses an irenic "third force" between the militant secularists and the shrill fundamentalists, pro-religious and pro-spiritual but non-sectarian and non-dogmatic.