Who Thinks that God Is Still Speaking?

This post is part of the Patheos Book Club. Check out the Book Club for more posts on this book and for responses from other bloggers and columnists. And be sure to join the live chat with the author, 2-3pm EDT TODAY.

Some of us giggled a bit when, a few years back, the notoriously liberal United Church of Christ denomination inaugurated a marketing campaign with the tagline, “God Is Still Speaking.” What they were getting at is that God’s interest in contemporary issues didn’t end when the final book of the canon was penned.

But what’s ironic about the slogan is that liberal Christians are quite reluctant to affirm that God speaks to them individually. That’s the territory of conservative evangelicals, especially those of charismatic and Pentecostal stripes. Like, for instance, believers who attend Vineyard churches.

That’s exactly the group that Tanya Luhrmann studied and writes about in her excellent book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. Seriously, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. If you like this blog, you should read this book.

Luhrmann is a psychological anthropologist. That is, she studies human beings, with a special focus on the mind. She grew up in a liberal, relatively secular home (with a connection to a Unitarian congregation). She writes that she was always intrigued when her childhood friends would talk confidently about their intimate relationship with God.

That youthful curiosity led to a massive research project as a social scientist. She confesses to having a 13-foot-high stack of transcribed interviews in her Stanford office. The core of that research came from two years attending a Vineyard church in Chicago.

Luhrmann writes of her experiences in the Vineyard congregation with sensitivity and a keen eye. She has no axe to grind. Her writing is in the best of the social science tradition of participant-observer.

The goal of her research is to discover how it is that some human beings profess to hearing directly and personally from God, while most of us do not. She writes,

To become a committed Christian one must learn to override three basic features of human psychology: that minds are private, that persons are visible, and that love is conditional and contingent upon right behavior.

It may be that these three are overridden by a trick of the mind, by a psychological weakness, or even by a genetic mutation. According to Luhrmann, it’s none of these.

But I’m not going to tell you what she thinks it is, because that would spoil the plot, and I want you to read this book.

I’m working on a book write now called, Why Pray?, and I can tell you that Luhrmann’s book will factor heavily into my own thinking on prayer and the activity of God.

  • http://adammoore.us Adam Moore

    Fascinating. Sounds well worth reading.

    This Fresh Air interview is probably good as well (I haven’t listened yet):

    http://www.npr.org/2012/03/26/149394987/when-god-talks-back-to-the-evangelical-community

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    Thanks for the recommendation Tony. I had seen that book and was intrigued by it, since I’ve often wondered the same thing (what do people really mean when they say “God told me…”) even though I actually grew up within that subculture and have said that myself at times!

    I’m going to add it to my list of books to get to eventually :)

  • Frank

    Gosh I love this and its not surprising at all:

    “But what’s ironic about the slogan is that liberal Christians are quite reluctant to affirm that God speaks to them individually. ”

    I suspect it’s because they make up their own theology and it’s not from God at all. Priceless!

    • Steve Swope

      Yawn. Got anything original to say, Frank? Or perhaps something that reflects an actual, open-minded engagement with those you’re criticizing, instead of just a snarky, self-aggrandizing put-down?

      • Frank

        Steve that’s interesting as that post could easily be directed at Tony. I guess you get what you give sometimes.

  • Evelyn

    Thanks for the book suggestion. I’m currently reading Julian Jaynes’ “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” and this should be a good follow-on for the topic. It would be interesting to find out why the conservative evangelicals claim that God is speaking to them given that most of their agenda seems to be about social control. I’m also not sure that this is a psychologically healthy thing to claim but I’d have to read more about the effects of it to ascertain anything.

  • http://homebrewedchristianity.com tripp fuller

    yes!

  • ME

    Is the book strictly about God verbally speaking to people or does it also include God’s non-verbal intervention in people’s lives? My guess is God verbally communicating to people is extremely rare, but, God communicating to people in other ways is fairly common.

  • EricG

    Her chapter on Darkness is very interesting and helpful (it is the only part I’ve read so far). It would be interesting to try to substantiate her suggestion that the current methods and purposes of evangelical prayer arose in the 1960s as a result of modern psychotherapy.


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