- Review Symposium
When God Talks Back is a book of remarkable insight and empathy. Her subtitle, Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, overreaches a little, since the charismatic Christianity of the Vineyard churches neither constitutes nor represents the breadth of American evangelical spirituality, which is much more rationally oriented in its biblicism in many cases than what she describes. But this is to take nothing away from the achievement or significance of Luhrmann’s book. She manages to get right inside an influential form of contemporary charismatic Christianity and to explain, without a hint of condescension, what goes on within the minds of modern women and men who claim to have an everyday, immediate experience of God. The book is learned, beautifully written, and accessible. I shall assign it to my students this very semester.
As a psychological anthropologist Luhrmann looks closely at the practices of congregants and analyses what this implies about the use of their minds in particular. After the introductory chapter, the book may be nicely divided into three sections of three chapters each: on mental formation, on the skill of prayer, and on problems of interpretation. So, chapters 2 to 4 outline the way the believer’s mind is formed as he or she participates in the life of a Vineyard congregation. There is a kind of charismatic catechism at work here. First one learns to hear God personally, and this requires a new “participatory theory of mind” in which one learns to reinterpret some of one’s thoughts as God speaking. These are what Teresa of Avila might have called locutions. Certain thoughts, normally understood as internal to my mind, must be taken as perceptions of a reality outside my mind. Secondly, one learns to identify not just mental words and images but a divine person with whom to engage in meaningful conversation. To the outsider, it is as though the believer has an invisible friend. Acting imaginatively—even playfully—as if an invisible person were present in the everyday world, one’s relational mind is activated in the same way as in relating to visible, corporeal friends. The third movement goes deeper yet and involves the emotions of the believer as one learns to experience unconditional love from this divine friend. The experience is profound and the closest [End Page 131] modern analogue would be psychotherapy. Together, then, these chapters trace a progression from hearing to relating to feeling, from a divine voice to a divine person to a divine love. The interior formation is real, and Luhrmann notes the marked changes in the mind of the believer as he or she learns to pray in this way.
As she wrestles to make sense of her observations, Luhrmann draws insightfully on studies in theory of mind, play frames, imaginary friends, and psychotherapy as frameworks to help appreciate this form of charismatic spirituality. In the middle three chapters of the book, she turns to examine the experience of prayer in more detail as a learnable skill. Prayer involves learning to attend, particularly through kataphatic forms of prayer that sharpen the interior senses of hearing, seeing, and touching. Here the Ignatian composition of place provides the best parallel. (And Luhrmann does the Spiritual Exercises herself, and investigates how such training changes the mind in its capacity for attention.) She draws on absorption theory to show how the same sort of people that get lost in a piece of music are the sort of people more likely to be able to pray in the way she describes. And she also demonstrates that this is a skill that can be developed, regardless of whether it comes naturally or not.
The last three chapters deal with problems. First, there is the insiders’ experience of suffering, and the darkness of neither hearing nor feeling God. Luhrmann appreciates the paradoxical insight that these experiences can lead to spiritual maturity for the believer who continues to operate as though God is good and is present even in the absence of sensible consolation. The second problem is the question of how to distinguish psychosis from this sort of religious use of the mind, or, as the chapter title puts...