- Review Symposium
When God Talks Back makes an ambitious claim, signaled by its subtitle. The argument is far-reaching, insightful, and largely persuasive. It uses thick description to represent sympathetically the experiences of informants. Its interpretive frame elucidates larger patterns. Luhrmann draws her data primarily from the ethno-graphic observation and interviews at two Vineyard churches and a psychological experiment she designed and then contextualized with psychological theory, select historical reading, and bestselling evangelical literature. A twofold question arises: Does the data support the book’s claim to explain evangelical experiences of relationship with God? Does the overall portrait—even if accurate in observation and interpretation—have the right proportions?
The Vineyard began as a loose association of churches with a common “spiritual DNA,” to borrow founder John Wimber’s language. Leaders of Vineyard USA accept classification as a “denomination,” though they are organizationally separate and distinctive in emphasis from much of the global movement, which comprises two-thirds of Vineyard churches. Even so, the Vineyard is a very de-centralized denomination. Individual congregations differ markedly from one another. Luhrmann describes the Chicago Vineyard selected as located within an “intellectual island within the inner city” (9). Congregants took notes during sermons and wrote for hours in prayer journals. Not all Vineyards—let alone all charismatic churches—have such an intellectual bent toward cultivating prayer “skills.”
There are certainly popular prayer manuals that encourage evangelicals to plan “date nights” with Jesus or pour an extra cup of coffee for God (80, 74). Luhrmann found informants who followed this advice, but it is hard to say just how many do so. Other important genres of charismatic literature and practice receive considerably less nuanced attention from Luhrmann, i.e. texts that encourage Christians to pursue a more starkly supernatural vision of divine-human interaction in miraculous healing, deliverance from demons, and highly specific prophecies used in evangelism. Such artifacts of a worldview influenced by the “never-secular societies” of the two-thirds world are relegated to the Bibliographic Notes at the end of the book (387). The few deliverance books mentioned might be supplemented by many other widely read books and films on deliverance, healing, and prophetic evangelism, i.e., the Argentinian Pablo Bottari’s Free in Christ (2000), Randy Clark’s Ministry Team Training Manual (2011), Bill Johnson’s When Heaven Invades Earth, Darren Wilson’s film Finger of God (2007) with its sequels, and many others. (2007)
Chapter 1 explains the emergence of the Vineyard as an outgrowth of the 1960s counterculture, adding in the penultimate chapter that this period of social upheaval also ushered in a “psychotherapeutic” revolution. Only in the last chapter does the reader hear that California’s Fuller Theological Seminary and “power evangelism” played a role in Vineyard history. Indeed, Wimber, who was an adjunct instructor at Fuller’s School of World Missions, borrowed extensively from two-thirds-world students who emphasized the close connection between “signs and wonders” and church growth. Luhrmann picks up on Wimber’s lament that Western “reason” impedes recognition of the supernatural, but she has remarkably little to say about how Wimber sought to counter rationalism with supernatural power more than the “feel-good blurries” of “God the therapist” who functions like an imaginary friend (316, 121, 119). (Luhrmann does acknowledge that Wimber cared enough about deliverance, however, that he parted ways with Calvary [End Page 134] Chapel) for that reason, amongst others. Luhrmann hints at the gulf between the Vineyard of the 1980s and the 2000s. To be sure, during Wimber’s lifetime, the Vineyard’s characteristic teaching that the kingdom of God is both “already” and “not yet” spawned expectations of supernatural intrusions; over time, emphasis shifted from pressing in for more breakthroughs toward explaining why there are not more successes. By contrast, movements that grew out of the early Vineyard—such as Toronto Blessing and Revival Alliance (Randy Clark, John Arnott, Heidi Baker, Bill Johnson, Ché Ahn, Georgian Banov) continue to draw inspiration from two-thirds-world charismatics with whom they interact in global networks.
The book says little about healing, deliverance from demons, or prophetic evangelism. When many charismatics say they hear from or...