The Evangelical experience is so fascinating that even anthropologists long to look into it.
That’s just what Tanya (“T.M.”) Luhrmann has done in her fascinating book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God.
Granted, there is no such thing as the evangelical experience–and Luhrmann acknowledges this. Nonetheless, she has pinpointed important, prominent and unique features of a large sector of the evangelical religious experience and analyzed those features with care and insight.
She focused her research on two churches: one in Chicago and one in California, both of which identify with the Vineyard denomination, a church which has its roots in American Pentecostalism and in its later expression in the Jesus People movement. Vineyard churches today are usually barely distinguishable from any other slightly charismatic-leaning evangelical Protestant church. The more extreme experientialism and experimentalism has been muted, as it has come of age and in recent years. But this makes her choice of subject all the more relevant to the task of understanding evangelical religion in America.
And in an age of Trumpism, everyone is interested in what evangelicals are, what they do, what they stand for–and why. But this book won’t do that for you. It doesn’t shift into the contentious political realm. Rather, it helps the reader understand the spiritual and emotional experience of religion for evangelicals and its appeal to so many believers.
She focuses on how these evangelicals learned to relate to God as a personal being who communicates directly to and with them. She describes the processes of evangelical spirituality as more a learning “to do something” than to “think something”; it’s learned behavior that does shift the way one thinks. The behavior (the doing, or the spiritual practices) is essential to experiencing God as real for them. She writes,
In effect, people train the mind in such a way that they experience part of their mind as the presence of God. They learn to reinterpret the familiar experiences of their own minds and bodies as not being their own at all–but God’s. They learn to identify some thoughts as God’s voice, some images as God’s suggestions, some sensations as God’s touch or the response to his nearness. They construct God’s interactions out of these personal mental events, mapping the abstract concept ‘God’ out of their mental awareness into a being they imagine and reimagine in ways shaped by the Bible and encouraged by their church community. They learn to shift the way they scan their worlds, always searching for a mark of God’s presence, chastening the unruly mind if it stubbornly insists that there is nothing there. Then they turn around and allow this sense of God–an external being they find internally in their minds–to discipline their thoughts and emotions. They allow the God they learn to experience in their minds to persuade them that an external God looks after them and loves them unconditionally. (xxi)
She suggests that learning to experience God as personal in this way takes hard work — a point she emphasizes throughout. And not everyone “gets it” or does so with the consistency they desire.
Luhrman suggests there are several hurdles that must be overcome in order to attain this kind of evangelical spirituality, obstacles due to natural outcomes in human development. The most interesting of those, in my view, is the “theory of mind.” Children develop very early on the belief their their minds are private and independent. What they know and believe, they do so internally and privately (not everyone shares their beliefs and observations about the world). This theory of mind is what makes deception possible. And it’s also what makes private thoughts possible.But if my mind is private, how can I communicate with another “mind” (i.e. God’s) secretly, quietly, inter-personally? Is that really God’s voice in my head? Or is it my own voice telling me what I want to hear? Is it God or gas? Could it be…oh I don’t know…Satan?
So, to do evangelical religion, one has to learn to overcome the natural sense of the private mind and be open to blurring the lines between their conscious thoughts and God’s input.
Thus the rigorous straining to learn to discern the voice of God from their own voices in their head. The spiritual disciplines, of prayer (and quiet places and times for prayer), fasting, Bible reading, listening to preaching (much of which informs listeners what God is saying to them), reflection on “God’s will,” and so on, are ways to train the mind to discern the voice of God. But the line between “my mind” and “God’s mind” must nonetheless become blurry.
This is hard work and can often be quite confusing. I know this from personal experience, growing up as a non-charismatic Baptist, but nonetheless an evangelical for whom inward communication with a personal God was prioritized. However, I would add that the earlier one learns to do this, the easier it is.
I’ve known this already, but it occurred to me in a different way (upon reading this book) that experiential-oriented evangelical Christianity is probably still popular precisely because it offers people an experience that they couldn’t get or learn to acquire elsewhere. It’s a personal, dynamic way of relating to God and of bringing the divine into the everyday of life, that isn’t offered in, say, mainline Protestant Christianity, by and large.
Furthermore, that it is “hard work,” is surely also part of the appeal. People intuitively sense that things offered free of charge and demanding very little are probably not worth much of anything, anyway–this goes for religion, too.
The appeal of it doesn’t make it true of course, nor does it even make it a valid expression of religion, necessarily. There are flaws and challenges (both psychologically and theologically) with experiential, evangelical forms of religion.
Nonetheless, Luhrmann’s careful and thoughtful analysis brings both the positives and the negatives to light–letting the readers decide for themselves.
Importantly, she also rightly acknowledges that an anthropological analysis of evangelical religious experience has nothing to do with the metaphysical or even epistemological question of truth. That is, whether or not what her subjects are actually experiencing is true or real is beyond the purview of her study. Moreover, social science isn’t theological analysis.
Finally, it seems important to note that the idea that God can communicate with us, and us with God, is certainly not a brand new insight that comes from mid-twentieth-century evangelicalism. St. Augustine, in the fourth century, is often credited with constructing (in a sense) the inward consciousness as a mechanism for relating to God inter-personally. His Confessions are filled with reflections on his identity and personality in relation to God, and he anxiously seeks to “know” God in an apparently quite inter-personal and tangible way. And that was only the beginning in the history of Christianity of inward, mystical “seeking” after God and God’s ways.
So, while not entirely brand new, the distinctively American, individualist, and personal and particularist elements of the evangelical religious experience (e.g. that God has thoughts about where I might go for dinner, for example) are probably fairly fresh in the history of Christianity.
As one who hails from a slice of that segment, it’s interesting to think about my experiences of and with God, both past and present (though in different ways) through the lens Luhrmann provides.