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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.