T.M. Luhrmann. When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.
T.M. Lurhmann is a psychological anthropologist. She attended Harvard and Cambridge, and she now teaches at Stanford University. She says that she would not call herself a Christian (page 325), but she spent time at the charismatic Vineyard church to learn about Christians who claim to hear from God. These Christians were aware that they were a part of her study. See here for information about other studies that she has done.
Here are some items from When God Talks Back that interested me:
1. Luhrmann tells the story of Lonnie Frisbee, a hippie preacher who was prominent in Calvary Chapel and the Vineyard church. I am familiar with Calvary Chapel because I have listened to a lot of Calvary Chapel sermons over the years for my weekly quiet times in the Bible. And I know about Vineyard on account of its music, acquaintances who have attended Vineyard churches, and my own visit to a Vineyard church in my church shopping days. Lonnie Frisbee reached a lot of people, but, according to many tellings of his story, he was expunged from the history of Calvary Chapel and Vineyard when it was learned that he was gay. Luhrmann’s telling of this story interested me so much, that I decided to watch the 2005 documentary Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher. One person on the documentary denied that Vineyard expunged Lonnie Frisbee from its history, even though the interviewer pointed out to him that Lonnie was not mentioned by name in a book by the founder of Vineyard, but was simply called a “young man.” The documentary also showed Chuck Smith—-the head of Calvary Chapel—-preaching at Frisbee’s funeral, offending attendees by saying that Frisbee did not live up to his potential. Throughout the documentary, conservative Christians were wrestling with how God could use someone so powerfully, when that person engaged in homosexual activity.
2. When God Talks Back largely attempts to explain and account for the religious experiences of charismatic Christians who claim to hear from God. These religious experiences include people hearing the voice of God in their head, or sometimes even hearing an audible voice; it may also include feeling a presence. In some cases, God tells the person information that the person later learns is correct. Part of the explanation for such experiences is the way that the people who have them are: people who are especially empathetic and who can find themselves intensely absorbed in a storyline from a book or movie are the types who are more likely to have those kinds of religious experiences. But people can also train themselves to have them. There is Ignatian prayer, in which a person uses his or her imagination to become a part of a biblical story. A person can have a picnic with God and share with God like God is an actual person. There are books about how one can identify the voice of God in one’s head: if you have a thought that is different from the thoughts that you usually have, then it might be from God. Luhrmann also contrasts hearing God with mental illness, saying that the former usually brings peace (especially if a person believes in a benevolent God), whereas the latter is much more negative. Luhrmann still explores the possibility that hearing the voice of God may be a symptom of schizophrenia, without actually indicating that the person having the experience has schizophrenia.
3. Luhrmann also brings up religious experiences throughout history: Jesus’ disciples experiencing the risen Jesus, people seeing the Lubavitcher Rebbe after he had died, Augustine hearing a voice telling him to read the Scripture, etc.
4. I enjoyed the stories and case studies in the book. I especially appreciated the story about a Christian lady who worked early in the mornings at the gas station, and she was annoyed at the people who came in. One morning, someone came in wanting cigarettes, and the Christian lady went to get them. The Christian lady heard God say that this customer is made in God’s image, and so she should have respect for her.
5. Luhrmann was in a small group, and she relates that, while she was interested in academic questions about the Bible (i.e., date of the text’s composition, why something was written as it was, the concerns of the community that composed the document, etc.), people in her group were usually interested in spiritual questions—-what does the text tell them about their relationship with God? I was wondering why one couldn’t explore both! I liked when Luhrmann told about one person in the group who was quite sympathetic when Luhrmann asked academic questions. He did not have religious experiences of hearing from God, and he learned to accept that. He was still respected within his Vineyard community, though. I can picture the type: the dry, ironic personality!
6. Luhrmann had some interesting insights about therapy. She said that a therapeutic breakthrough occurs when the patient realizes that the therapist has feet of clay, but that he or she (the patient) is still profiting from the therapy. This resonated with me, as someone who has wondered what exactly I should be getting out of therapy, has seen my therapists as god-like, and has also recognized that my therapists have feet of clay.
If I have any disagreement with the book, it is that I think that Lurhmann depicts the Vineyard people as having a pet God, one who is loving but not tough. I agree that many evangelicals tend to ignore the hard passages of Scripture, and perhaps that is true of some in Vineyard. But there may also be a tough element to their God’s personality. I have heard more than once that, at Vineyard churches, people are told not to take communion unless they have reconciled with their neighbor. That is pretty tough, in my opinion!