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Reviewed by:
  • When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God by Tanya M. Luhrmann
  • Barbara Newman (bio)
A Review Symposium on When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, Tanya M. Luhrmann. New York: Knopf, 2012. 464 pp. $28.95

A century ago, psychologist William James kick-started the field of Religious Studies with his epoch-making Gifford Lectures, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (2012). Anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann has produced a worthy sequel in When God Talks Back, which could easily have shared James’s subtitle. Luhrmann divided her four years of fieldwork between two Vineyard congregations, one in Chicago and one in Palo Alto. Her first and last chapters situate the Vineyard within the history of Evangelicalism, linking it to the Azusa Street revival, the Jesus People of the 1960s, and Calvary Chapel, a similar church founded a few years earlier in California. In many ways, the rapidly expanding Vineyard movement can stand in for American Evangelicalism writ large: it is typical of the charismatic or “renewalist” churches that emphasize an intimate, experiential relationship with God. Protestant in its Scriptural, non-sacramental, hyper-casual approach to worship, the Vineyard nonetheless diverges theologically from Reformation and older revivalist churches.

To be sure, the Vineyard’s Jesus is God Incarnate, divine and human, who died on the Cross and rose from the dead. His miracles are real and as likely to happen today as in biblical times. But if the Vineyard subscribes to any form of atonement theology (as it does, according to its online Statement of Faith), one would never guess it from this book. On Luhrmann’s telling, the church’s God has no wrath; he is pure, unconditional love. Original sin, though mentioned in the creed, is preached little if ever. Sin is a subjective problem that separates humans from God, but there is no threat of hell, no fear of damnation. Nor is there a theodicy: evil is an unfathomable mystery, which congregants are not encouraged to ponder beyond a strictly personal level. Their highly approachable God wants to be every believer’s best friend, even sweetheart (young women enjoy “date nights” with the Almighty). For all their allegiance to the Bible, it seems, Luhrmann’s informants do not know the terrible God of Abraham or the dread judge of the Apocalypse. In some respects, they are as theologically liberal as any Methodist. On the political side, Luhrmann supplies fewer cues, but her subjects seem no more inclined to march against same-sex marriage than to occupy Wall Street.

When God Talks Back is an in-depth study of Vineyard spirituality—and one of very few books by non-believers about the practice of interior prayer. Skeptical and empathetic in equal measure, it asks questions that echo James: What makes people believe? What kinds of experience persuade them that God is real? How do those experiences change their lives and reshape their world-view? Luhrmann threw herself avidly into the role of participant observer, conducted endless interviews, and even carried out psychological experiments. As a result, she has produced a study of prayer—its techniques and skills, its psychological grounding, its interpersonal dimensions, its effects on the minds of those who pray—that can illumine the meditations of medieval visionaries as well as the contemporary culture of the Vineyard. Luhrmann wears her learning so lightly that her book deserves the mass audience it will doubtless find. Yet her bibliographic essays show how deeply she has entered into dialogue with historians of Christianity, as well as cognitive scientists, psychologists, religionists, and fellow anthropologists. [End Page 127]

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“The Greatest Love” © 2008 Karen H. Ilagan

[End Page 128]

Christian prayer, Luhrmann posits, entails a “theory of mind” radically different from that of society at large. By this term she understands simply the common-sense assumptions we form about other people from childhood on. But her formulation is elegant and precise enough to subtend an explicit theological anthropology, if she were inclined to develop one. “To become a committed Christian one must learn to override three basic features of human psychology: that minds...


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