Luhrmann—When God Talks Back

When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God

by Tanya Luhrmann

[Luhrmann, Tanya M. 2012. When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. New York: Vintage Books.]

Points

  • Based on over four years of participant observation at Evangelical “Vineyard Christian Fellowship” in Chicago and Northern California.
  • trying to find an answer to the “deep puzzle of faith … how sensible, reasonable people, living in more or less the same evidential world as the skeptic, are able to experience themselves as having good evidence for the presence of a powerful invisible being who has demonstrable effect on their lives and are able to sustain a belief in that presence despite their inevitable doubts” (xvi).
  • Answer – “In effect, people train the mind in such a way that they experience part of their mind as the presence of God. They learn to reinterpret the familiar experiences of their own minds and bodies as not being their own at all—but God’s” (xxi).
  • Vineyard members learn a new theory of mind (participatory) which “asks congregants to experience the mind-world barrier as porous, in a specific, limited way” (40).
    • specifically meaning that you can hear things in your mind that did not originate there, but limited to God speaking to you
    • The 1960s were a ‘great awakening,’ significantly among the hippie movement in California, which espoused a new, friendly, personal type of Christianity that became evangelism throughout the next decades—which leads to churches like Vineyard
  • Vineyards basic view on the God-relationship: “God wants to be your friend; you develop that relationship through prayer; prayer is hard work and requires effort and training; and when you develop that relationship, God will answer back, through thoughts and mental images he places in your mind, and through sensations he causes in your body” (41).

Vineyard members engaged in many practices that trained their minds to work this way

  • Figuring out whether or not it is really God is a practice called discernment, based on four tests:
    1. Is it not something you normally would have said?
    2. Is it the type of thing you think God might say or imply?
    3. Is the message confirmed through others’ experiences or larger circumstances?
    4. Is it followed by a period of peace?
  • Another way Vineyard members practice hearing God—pretend you’re hanging out with him
    • set an extra place at the table, pour him a cup of coffee, or even have a complete ‘date night’
    • with practice, this behavior enacts a type of play that children have with imaginary friends—completely given over to the reality of the pretend, like in Huizinga’s magic circle
  • Another type of training is “opening your heart” through emotional practices
    1. “crying in the presence of God”—be openly emotional when giving or receiving prayer
    2. “Seeing from God’s perspective”—look at situations past your own limited view
    3. “practicing love, peace, and joy”—practice it consciously
    4. “God the therapist”—tell him your problems
    5. “reworking God the father”—sometimes dads are scary and demanding; God is not
    6. “emotional cascades”—sudden moments of epiphany, when you physically feel God’s love
  • “It is a profoundly social process. It is the evangelical church that teaches discernment, encourages the playI and models the six emotional practices. It is no small matter to become confident that the God you imagine in the privacy of your mind exists externally in the world, talking back. In the struggle to give the invisible being its external presence, the congregation surrounds the individual and helps to hold the being out apart from the self, separate and external. It is the church that confirms that the invisible being is really present, and it is that church that reminds people week after week that the external invisible being loves them, despite all the evidence of the dreary human world. And slowly, the church begins to shape the most private reaches of the way congregants feel and know” (131).
  • Vineyard gives classes in prayer and regards some practiced members as “expert prayers”
    • These practices are important even to non-believers because “we cannot understand how God becomes real to someone until we understand that a person’s experience of God emerges out of the vortex not only of what they are taught intellectually about God but also of what they do practically to experience God—above all, the way they pray, and what the bring to their prayer experience as unique individuals” (156).
  • Vineyard members practice St. Ignatius’s “Spiritual Exercises”— training the imagination to picture the imaginer as a part of the life of Jesus

So how does this work?

  • Luhrmann says that the congregants who have the more intense experiences and the most verbal relationship with God have high rates of the absorption personality trait.
    • when you get absorbed in something, it seems more real to you, and you and your world seem different than before. That is why it is related to hypnotizability. Both rely upon your ability to throw yourself into something and then to involve yourself intensely in the experience” (199).
  • This gave her a hypothesis: “that when people believe that God will speak to them through their senses, when they have a propensity for absorption, and when they are trained in absorption by the practice of prayer, these people will report what prayer experts report: internal sensory experiences with sharper mental imagery and more sensory overrides (sensory experience in the absence of sensory stimuli). Note the combination: an interest in interpreting a supernatural presence (the participatory theory of mind, taught by the social world of the church); a willingness to get caught up in one’s imagination (an individual difference); and actual practice ( they do something again and again, which has consequences)” (202).
    • So she tested it in Northern California by having subjects listen to training tapes for 30 minutes every day for a month.
    • She found that the subjects “entered the project with a broad, generic desire to hear God speak or perhaps just to get their prayer life moving again; they spent thirty minutes a day imaginatively immersed in the scriptures; and then they had unplanned idiosyncratic experiences that they saw with their eyes and heard with their ears” (216).

evangelical—based in three beliefs: literal truth of the Bible, one can be saved through a personal relationship with Jesus (being “born again”), and one should spread the gospel

absorption—the mental capacity common to trance, hypnosis, dissociation, and to most imaginative experiences in which the individual becomes caught up in ideas or images or fascinations. That is not to say that absorption is equivalent to hypnosis or dissociation or trance: manifestly it is not. But absorption seems to be the basic, necessary skill, the shared capacity of mind that allows what we choose to attend lo become more salient than the everyday context in which we arc embedded. It is the ability to use a book to take your mind off your troubles. That cuts both ways, of course. Some people use novels to keep the world at bay long enough to recover and regain the strength to return. Others use novels-or soap operas, or reality television-to escape and ignore the troubled marriage or the needy child. In both cases, individuals use their mind to change their relation to the reality they perceive … That is why absorption is central to spirituality. The capacity to treat what the mind imagines as more real than the world one knows is the capacity at the heart of experience of God” (201).

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