When God Talks Back by T. M. Luhrmann

reviewed by Eloise Renich Fraser

When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (Vintage Books, 2012) is an exceptional book.  Read it.  Particularly if you're discouraged about misrepresentations of evangelical Christianity or if you think evangelical Christians are crazy.

Luhrmann is a professor of psychological anthropology at Stanford University.  Though she wouldn't call herself a Christian, she believes she can "explain to nonbelievers how people come to experience God as real."  Social science can't prove whether God exists.  However, as a social scientist Luhrmann can explain to nonbelievers how (not why) reasonable Christians learn to experience God as real and present, rather than as a figment of the imagination or as a distant being with no practical impact on daily life.  Given the growing gap between believers and nonbelievers in America, this is an important topic.  She wants to help bridge the gap.

She is also intrigued by the way spiritual exercises of the medieval period have become mainstream, especially among white, middle-class Christians.  Just as monks and other believers were schooled in spiritual disciplines, so too are more and more Americans.   It seems there are ways to shape and use the mind that allow God to become "real" for believers.

Luhrmann's goal is to unlock this puzzle:  How does this happen in the lives of rational, sensible people who, unlike their skeptics, find good reason to believe that an invisible God is present and makes a difference in their lives even when they struggle with doubts?  To this end, Luhrmann observes and participates fully in two Vineyard congregations—two years in Chicago, followed by more than two years in Palo Alto, Calif.  She believes Vineyard congregations seem to embody more modern ways of imagining the God many evangelicals yearn for today—a God who loves and accepts them as they are, forgives them, and brings joy into their lives.

Luhrmann organizes each chapter around a question, beginning with this invitation:  Are you ready to learn how to hear God speak back to you?  The next four chapters move step by step through practical questions:  How do I learn to recognize when God is present?  How do I learn to relate to God as a person?  What emotional practices will help me feel and accept that I am deeply loved by God, and become more loving? How do I build a personal relationship with God through prayer?

This is followed by three chapters that probe deeper:  Does training in prayer actually work, and if so, does it work the same way for everyone?  Since hearing a voice when no one is present can signal mental illness, does learning to hear God's voice lead to madness or demonic possession? How do evangelical Christians at Vineyard handle the darkness of times when God permits suffering or doesn't seem to be there?

Finally, Luhrmann reflects on doubt:  How do these believers remain faithful given the open skepticism they encounter daily among nonbelievers, the secularization of American society, the reality of other sacred texts, disagreements among Christian believers about how to engage the world, and their human limitations and doubts?

Luhrmann has crafted a richly layered mosaic drawing on multiple interviews, experiences, experiments, and scholarly disciplines such as history, spiritual formation, world religions, American history, psychology, and anthropology.   A few highlights for me include:  Luhrmann's descriptions of how this research impacted her personally; being reminded of the glory days of the Jesus People Movement when I was at Fuller in the '70s, recognizing myself in her chapter on the skill of prayer, and being humbled by Luhrmann's total immersion in her research project.  Would I do the same to help bridge the gap between evangelicals and their skeptics?

Elouise Renich Fraser volunteers at Dawn's Place, a safe house for women exploited for commercial sex, serves on the human trafficking task force of Narberth Presbyterian Church, and is Prof. Emeritus of Systematic Theology and past Dean of Palmer Theological Seminary (of Eastern University, St. Davids, PA).

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