It's rare for smart religion books to enjoy widespread attention, and rarer still when those books are research-laden works of cultural anthropology. But since its late March release, T.M. Luhrmann's When God Talks Back has received laudatory reviews from a who's who of major publications, including Publisher's Weekly, the New Yorker, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Boston Globe, and the San Francisco Chronicle, just to name a few. Luhrmann's book, which provides a rich ethnography of evangelical spirituality and its beliefs and practices, is helping to shape discussion on what it is like for many believers to "experience God" in the late modern age.
Luhrmann, a professor of anthropology at Stanford University, met with guest Patheos interviewer Joseph E. Gorra to discuss the book's contributions to our perception of evangelicalism and how we might come to understand, from a particular social science perspective, the role of the imagination in helping people experience God.
Background of When God Talks Back
Gorra: You are a "psychological anthropologist." What intrigues you about that way of reasoning and approach in anthropology, given that you are interested in studying "the social construction of psychological experience, particularly in the domain of what some would call the 'non-rational'" (from your Stanford faculty page)?
Luhrmann: I have always been intrigued by how different people experience their worlds, and particularly, by the way our social worlds shape our feelings and imaginations. But I didn't want to understand just from the outside, but also from the inside. The participant-observation method of anthropology allows me to get a glimmer of what these other ways of being in the world are like.
Gorra: So, for the project of this book, why did you want to participate-observe as an insider?
Luhrmann: I was doing another project, and a young evangelical woman told me to have coffee with God. Coffee with God! I was astonished. But she had coffee with God, and she giggled with God; God seemed more alive to her than her boyfriend. I wanted to understand what she was experiencing.
Gorra: Given that context for why you wanted to understand, and to help us appreciate your astonishment, can you tell us a little about your own "faith journey"?
Luhrmann: I grew up with people who had very different understandings of who God was and whether God was real. My father's father was a Christian Scientist, and my father became a doctor. My mother's father was a Baptist minister, and while her sisters and their families remained theologically conservative, my mother drifted away from the church. We lived in an orthodox Jewish neighborhood. So I knew many good, kind people with different understandings of God. I wanted to understand how people came to develop such different interpretations.
Gorra: That context for how you wanted to understand how people had different perspectives seems important to me. Can you say more about how you have come to view the value of religious beliefs?
Luhrmann: When I was young I described myself as an atheist. I thought people who believed different things about the world just had different ideas. As I have studied religion more deeply, I've come to realize that religious belief is not just about ideas, but about the experience of the divine.That understanding has altered the way I think about religion both as a scholar and more personally.
Gorra: That makes sense. I can begin to see how that background has shaped your desire to empathetically understand other people's experiences. Moreover, it seems to me that your understanding of religious beliefs also moves you to want to try and help "unbelievers" understand what it is like to be a believer with vivid God-experiences in the "late modern world." Why does this matter to you?