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When God Talks Back: Read an Excerpt
I grew up among all these good people whom I loved, and I saw that some of them took there to be something in the world that the others did not see, and their mutual incomprehension seemed deeper and more powerful than just knowing different information about the world. Later on, when I became a professor and taught a seminar on divinity and spirituality, I saw again the blank incomprehension that had startled me when I was young—decent, smart, empathic people who seemed to stare at each other across an abyss. The skeptics did not understand the believers, and the believers did not understand the skeptics. They did not even know how to get from here to there.
I set out many years ago to understand how God becomes real for modern people. I chose an example of the style of Christianity that would seem to make the cognitive burden of belief most difficult: the evangelical Christianity in which God is thought to be present as a person in some- one's everyday life, and in which God's supernatural power is thought to be immediately accessible by that person. The Vineyard Christian Fellowship is a new denomination, a few decades old, and it represents this shift in the American imagination of God. These Christians speak as if God interacts with them like a friend. He speaks to them. He listens to them. He acts when they pray to him about little mundane things, because he cares. This kind of Christianity seems almost absurdly vivid to someone who grew up in a mainstream Protestant church; when I first encountered it, I imagined that people thought of God as if he were a supernatural buddy with a thunderbolt.
The Americans in this church are ordinary Americans. They are typically middle class, but one finds very wealthy and very poor people in the congregations. They are typically white, but the congregations include many minorities. Most participants are college-educated. The church took form in California, but there are now more than six hundred churches across the country and as many as fifteen hundred around the world. The Vineyard is arguably the most successful example of what one sociologist has called new paradigm Protestantism, the infusion of a more intensely expressive spirituality into white, middle-class Christianity. This style of spirituality has also been called neo-Pentecostal because it represents the adoption of a Pentecostal ethos, and its flamboyant emphasis on the direct experience of God, into a form acceptable to the white mainstream. Another name is renewalist. According to a recent survey, nearly one-quarter of all Americans embrace a Christian spirituality in which congregants experience God immediately, directly, and personally. The Vineyard typifies this powerful new impulse in American spirituality.
For over two years, I went to weekly services at a Vineyard in Chicago, attended local conferences and special worship sessions, joined a weekly house group for a year, and formally interviewed more than thirty members of the church about their experience of God. That is the anthropological method: we anthropologists learn, or at least we try to learn, from the inside out. We observe, we participate, and we converse, for hours and hours on end. After several years in Chicago, I moved to California and found another Vineyard to join. Again I joined a small group that met weekly, and again I went to conferences and retreats, and I interviewed congregants willing to talk to me about God. I was there for over two years. Members of these churches became my friends and confidants. I liked them. I thought they liked me. They knew I was an anthropologist, and as they came to know me, they became comfortable talking with me at length about God. I have sought to understand what they said.
Tanya Luhrmann is a psychological anthropologist and a professor in the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University. She received her education from Harvard and Cambridge universities, and was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2003. In 2007, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.