When God Talks Back

[This is the first in a series of posts by T.M. Luhrmann, author of When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, about her book and research. For more conversation on this book, visit the Patheos Book Club.]

I am an anthropologist with one foot in psychology. About ten years ago now I set out to study how God became real to people by looking at a kind of faith that might seem to make the contradictions and difficulties in a faith commitment even more difficult: experiential evangelical Christianity. This is a faith in which people seek an intimate, interactive relationship with God. They want to hear God’s voice, and feel the touch of his hand. They want to know that he loves them, specifically and personally. They talk to him about where they should go on vacation, what shirt they should wear in the morning, and even what shampoo they should buy. They expect that he will talk back.

This is the faith that the hippie Christians gave to our country, although most people who practice it are now quite right wing. It is part of the radical spiritual transformation of that era, when the hippies discovered speaking in tongues and the Beatles discovered Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and everyone wanted direct experience of the divine. As many as a quarter or more of all Americans now embrace a Christianity in which God is imagined as intimately present the way Jesus was for his disciples in the days after his death, when he wanted among them yet again.

I think that this kind of faith speaks to people now because it helps them to deal with doubt. The liberal Christian God, re-imaged so that the claims of science and religion could be reconciled, has failed. Those pews are often empty now, while churches who see themselves as filled with supernaturalism sparkle with life. This vivid, right-here, almost magically real God is a God of mystery and paradox—not a God whose supernatural presence is easy to reconcile with a skeptical science. Such a God makes an in-your-face demand to suspend disbelief and to create a third epistemological space, between everyday material reality and fiction, which is also real.

Questions or comments for Dr. Luhrmann about her research on experiencing God?  Leave them below and she’ll respond to them in a video to air at the book club next week. Also join us for a LIVE CHAT with the author on Friday, April 27, from 2-3 pm at the Patheos Book Club!

  • John Richardson

    I have no questions, but I must tell you I was completely captivated by your book. I just finished it and will now reread it. I came into Christianity in 1973 via the ‘Jesus People’ and experienced many of the things you describe in the book, tongues, prophecy and the word of faith. As I got older and settled into a less demonstrative church, everything faded into dogma, liturgy and repetition. But your book has rekindled all those old feelings of closeness to God. I am now praying fervently for that which was once lost to now be found again.
    John Richardson

    • http://luhrmann.net Tanya Luhrmann

      That is lovely; thank you.

  • Laurel

    My question (and I haven’t read the book yet) is: Is this book is written as if these people are deceiving themselves that they hear from God? Doubtless, some are – but do you present your information as if it’s all a psychological process and not objectively real? Are you patronizing them? I’m not Evangelical but I’m not going to read the book if it’s just another subtle put-down of Christians.
    I raise this question because of your last sentence phrase, “between everyday reality and fiction”. There is the natural world and the supernatural world and neither is fiction.

    • http://luhrmann.net Tanya Luhrmann

      Hi, the book is not at all a put down of Christians, subtle or otherwise. It’s an attempt to understand this kind of spirituality on its own terms. The last sentence is my way of explaining how many Christians I knew were able to experience the supernatural as real but not identical to the natural world. But let me know what you think …

  • Stephen

    Theology was once called the “queen of the sciences.” The two have now been separated for many years, and both suffer. The most mature version of the philosophy of science includes strong inference, Bayesian interpretation of idea plausibility, and Lakatosian methods for hypothesis modification in the process of validation. Strictly followed, this sort of science has proven that the God self-described in the Scriptures, with all the associated spiritual stuff: heavens, angels, and so on, is quite true or real, beyond reasonable doubt. Meanwhile, the Lakatosian approach to discovering this has uncovered a biblical theology quite different from that in all the biblical religions I know of. Unscientific theology falls into dogma, hypocrisy, and subjective opinions, while untheological science, haunted by the very real “devil,” a master at disinformation and the half-truth, has been led down a primrose path. We are running out of time to fix this, but this book will surely move us along.

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