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Reviewed by:
  • When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God by Tanya Marie Luhrmann
  • Jon Bialecki

American religion, Evangelical Religion, Pentacostalism, The Vineyard, Mysticism, Psychology, Anthropology

Tanya Marie Luhrmann. When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. New York: Knopf, 2012. Pp. 464.

To the readership of this journal, T. M. Luhrmann is probably most familiar as the author of Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft,1 one of the first ethnographic accounts of witches and magicians in the contemporary secular West. While Luhrmann’s work in this area has not gone without criticism,2Persuasions was an incredibly influential piece of writing; this was not just for the ethnographic description of the seemingly contradictory world of middle-class English priestesses and warlocks, but also because of Luhrmann’s description of the work that these respectable burghers had to undertake to find the world of “magick” plausible. In brief, Luhrmann’s claim was that magic became real for her subjects by way of an intensification of the [End Page 204] imaginative faculty achieved through practice in the form of meditations and rituals; this, combined with a subtle shifting of plausibility structures that she called “interpretive drift,” allowed one to become an adept without ever having to consciously “forswear” quotidian Western utilitarian rationality.

This is mentioned not in the spirit of a compulsive academic completeness, but because to a large degree the same theoretical (though not ethnographic) armature can be found in Luhrmann’s most recent work, When God Talks Back. This book is interesting in ways that exceed the purview of this review—for instance, the manner in which it has given Luhrmann one of the oddest of all statuses in American life, that of the public intellectual,is certainly of note, as is the series of New York Times opinion pieces that she has been able to pen in the wake of the book’s publication. While this is in large part the result of the quality of the arguments in this work, which will be discussed below, it certainly is also due to the ethnography’s writerly style, which is Geertzian in the best senses of the term.

The object of this ethnography is the Vineyard, a Southern-California originated, but now worldwide, church network. The Vineyard is characterized as much by its informality and the use of genres of pop music in its worship songs as it is by the intense, Pentecostal-type spiritual practices that it encourages, practices such as supernatural healing, speaking in tongues, prophecy, and casting out demons. As an influential movement in the “Pentecostalization” of Evangelical Christianity, the Vineyard is an important enough object, but what is more important for Luhrmann’s argument is what the Vineyard is a metonym for: here, she uses the Vineyard to stand for American Evangelicalism writ large, as well as for the participatory, democratized mysticism that she sees as a vital part of American religion in general.

Luhrmann uses the Vineyard to take on a host of seemingly unlikely enemies. She has cause against accounts from evolutionary psychology that see an overly active attribution of agency as the engine of religion, against those that would see American Conservative Christianity as entirely a hermeneutic affair focused on a Biblical literalness and not an experiential sense of encounter, and against those who would conflate “hearing from God” with the kinds of psychological illnesses that are also characterized by hearing voices. She strikes at these diverse targets by focusing on the way that the Vineyard deals with what Matthew Engelke calls the “Problem of Presence,” which is how one interacts with and is assured of an invisible, intangible God.3 This [End Page 205] is not a religiosity centered on “Eternal Life,” nor is this a political Christianity (at least as she presents it). Rather, it is an immanent though still thoroughly supernatural Christianity, for which heaven and hell are located in this life. The driver of this immanent Christianity is not faith, but doubt—or rather, a continual confrontation with doubt, a perpetual Kierkegaardian leap.

Her claim is that Vineyard-style religiosity is a centered around a process that redoes both the...


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