How Does God Talk Back to You?

How Does God Talk Back to You? May 1, 2012


Today I want to tell you about a book that is one of the newest to my personal collection: When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God.

It was written by Tanya (TM) Luhrmann, a psychological anthropologist. She was educated at old Harvard and Cambridge universities and currently is a professor at Stanford University. All of this to say that she is pretty smart 🙂

The basic idea behind her book was that she was on a quest to figure out how evangelical Christians, namely those in the Vineyard movement, experience the Divine. In these circles, which I would sympathize with, it is claimed that Christians can actually interact with God through the Holy Spirit. I agree with this wholeheartedly.

So, she set out to discern what is happening from a psychological and anthropological perspective. Here’s what she says about why she chose this particular brand of Christianity to be her test case:

“I chose an example of the style of Christianity that would seem to make the cognitive burden of believe most difficult: the evangelical Christianity in which God is thought to be present as a person and someone’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. Jesus Christians speak as if God interacts with them like a friend. He speaks to them. He listens to them. He asked when they pray to him about little Monday things, because she cares. This kind of Christianity seems almost absurdly give it to someone who grew up in a mainstream Protestant church; when I first encountered it, I imagine that people thought of God as if he were a supernatural buddy with a thunderbolt (xix).”

She goes on to add some details about what she actually did:

“For over two years, I went to weekly services at a vineyard in Chicago, attended local conferences and special worship session, joined a weekly house group for year, and formally interviewed more than 30 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 (xx).”

The book traces her journey through those two years and another stent in a similar California church, and her subsequent findings.

As one who is sympathetic to charismatic expressions of Christianity (although not always agreeing about the methodology of several “pentecostal” churches) I was intrigued by this book. As one who doubts (and she continues to say that all Christians struggle with some element of doubt) her approach to understanding the way in which the mind creates space for encountering to the Divine was fascinating. Again, in the introduction, she says:

“Christians must also learn new things about their minds. After all, 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 unconditional and contingent upon right behavior.… To say this is not to say that God is an illusion (xxii).”

Make no mistake about it, this book is heavy both in length and in content at times. However, the way she wove story into her findings allows regular readers access to pretty complicated scientific stuff. Invite you to consider reading this book, and to examine your own experience of God. Do you interact with God in a personal way? Do you struggle with out? How has your mind expanding its capacity for experiencing God in the everyday? This book may just give you some helpful insights into the immense struggle that Christian face to experience God and may be a bridge for dialogue between Christians and non-Christians.

How do you experience God talking to you?

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  • I just downloaded the Kindle version a couple of days ago and looking forward to starting into it this next week. Should be a very insightful read.

  • I love the idea behind this book and much appreciate this blog post.  Stories are really all we have with religion.  Theology is a framework but humans need stories of interactions with the numinous much more – of others, of themselves.  Look forward to reading this. 

  • I’m reading this as well and much of it reminds of the way in which I’ve heard “relating with God” to work over the years.  It seems that much of the “you” language we read in the  New Testament we don’t understand is primarily communal.  I’m convinced that the normative way to hear God is through the work of community.  I do believe that there are exceptions (which I’ve experienced) but they are not meant to be the primary avenue we pursue to relate with God.  As a church planter inheriting truck loads of young and middle aged adults; they come all twisted up emotionally from the theology of an ultra-personal God.  Their longing to hear something directly from God in order to be secure in their status before God has forced them to do a lot of mental gymnastics that have exhausted them spiritually.  I did little post on this “Over-Spiritualization” >