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  • Review Symposium
  • Todd E. Johnson (bio)

When considered in light of Peter Berger’s The Sacred Canopy (1969), Luhrmann’s study of Evangelical piety provides evidence either that Schleiermacher was correct or that Schleiermacher defined the context of contemporary Evangelical piety. Berger makes two significant observations in his renowned 1967 sociology of religion text. Schleiermacher’s 1799 lectures, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, maintained that religion was true because deep in one’s being, in the seat of sense where ultimate things are perceived (die Anschauung), one could feel (das Gefühl) the reality of God. This feeling is neither like the feeling of contentment on a beautiful spring day nor the feeling that you have met your mate for life. This is the feeling of knowing with certainty that life is not an illusion but a feeling of absolute dependence upon God (das Gefühl schlechthiniger Abhängigkeit). This turn inward, however, led to unforeseen challenges of ecclesial authority. If one has an unmediated experience of God, who needs the Church? Berger therefore offers a stark, still contemporary assessment of the nature of ministry in a pluralistic, un-mediated religious context: allegiance is voluntary, less than certain, therefore any tradition must be marketed. “The pluralistic situation is, above all, a market situation.” (Berger, 1967, pp. 138–39). Berger concludes that religious communities will now be under pressure to produce results. Luhrmann’s study gives strong evidence that, in the spiritual marketplace, the churches in her study produce results.

At first I was skeptical of her study, as Vineyard churches certainly do not represent Evangelicalism—as if one tradition could. She acknowledges this limit by describing Evangelicals as comprising “an enormous range of people” (13). Still she presents Vineyard churches as representing a broader trend in American spirituality, tending toward “a more intimate, personal, supernaturally present divine” (13). Luhrmann clarifies the unique history and distinctives of the Vineyard churches. She identifies this type of genre of church a few ways, such as churches having an “experiential spirituality” (14), being “renewalist” (40) or “revivalist” (133) Evangelicals. These churches are contrasted with conservative, non-charismatic churches (273), those for whom God would not speak directly to a person today (311). Luhrmann does identify the emphasis on “signs and wonders” within the Vineyard churches, but she does not focus on that more distinctive aspect of their piety. Instead she defines their spiritual approach as one where God is “hyper-real” creating a spirituality of “magical realism” where the supernatural blends almost seamlessly with the natural. This is spirituality with an intimate, personal God who is as close as your mind. [End Page 136]

Luhrmann offers a persuasive argument for the nature of this piety. Prayer, for Vineyard members, is conversation with God (41). It requires skill, often called discernment (63). The means toward discernment grows through “as if” spiritual practices. One must act as if God is present in a specific temporal-spatial location (72–3). The result is a relationship with “vivid, silly intimacy” (76). Right belief is less important than right relationship. Essential is growing trust in a God who loves unconditionally. Self-awareness of the artifice of one’s imagination is common, yet it makes God “realer” for those who practiced this approach. (94–95). Luhrmann concludes, “In short, the congregants set out, at the church’s invitation, to treat God like an imaginary friend” (77), your imaginary best friend (80). “This is play, but it is serious play . . . (which makes) the player’s commitment to the serious truth claims embedded in the play more profound” (99).

The seat of efficacious prayer is “the heart.” It is the development of one’s heart that determines one’s ability to converse with God. Knowing God requires emotional, therapeutic practices—you are coached in the process of feeling loved (110–11). The key to forming the heart is absorption—an ability to focus upon one thing to the exclusion of all else (137). One therefore increases the likelihood that encounter with God will be more intense, with frequent and direct communication (143). The spiritual muscles are exercised in imagination, what Luhrmann calls the via imaginativa (168), taking us to divine...


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pp. 136-137
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