As the Fall semester concludes for me, and the year is quickly coming to an end, I thought it would be interesting to share a book review I wrote on Tanya Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back: Understanding the Evangelical Relationship with God. This is a purely academic writing–in fact, it is my last paper submission of this semester. My review focuses on cautioning readers of research-driven books to consider the researcher’s/writer’s personal background, values, and convictions when placing weight on their words. This is especially true when evaluating qualitative research. While I found Luhrmann, a religiously pluralistic non-Christian, to be an exceptional writer who undoubtedly conducts methodologically sound research, the epistemological, ontological, and axiological lens from which she observed evangelical Christians produces inferences that fail–from my perspective as a professed Christian–to encapsulate what it is to truly experience God in relationship. In short, as a non-Christian, she misses the need to focus on Christ. Thus, she provides a perspective of Christianity that views the supernatural as a psychological construct. While I admire her intentions and professional acumen as a researcher, I struggle–after reading her book–to see her research accurately describing my own experience as a Christian. To experience God requires more than what she calls “imaginative prayer.” Rather, it requires faith, hope, love, and action [through relationship] focused on Christ’s leadership, through His Word. My review is provided below:
When God Talks Back (Luhrmann, 2012) encapsulates four years of anthropological, ethnographic research focusing on two congregations within the Vineyard fellowship of churches. Within those four years—for differing periods of time—author, Tanya Luhrmann, participates in various church activities that include attending services, local conferences, and participating in a weekly house group; trying “to learn, from the inside out” (p. xx). Supplementing her ethnography, she interviews members from both churches—more than thirty total. From these observations and interviews, she then conducts experiments to delve deeper into the psychological aspects of prayer and sensory overrides (e.g. voices and visions).
Luhrmann (2012) states that the purpose of her book is “to help readers understand the problem of [God’s] presence more deeply, to understand why it is a problem—why it can be hard for Christians to know when God has spoken—and to explain how, in this day and age, people are nonetheless able to identify that presence and to experience it as real” (p. xxv). In the preface to her book, Luhrmann (2012)—positioning herself as an outsider—informs the reader that she “set out many years ago to understand how God becomes real for modern people (p. xix),” and suggests that this book may possibly “serve as a bridge across the divide [between Christian and non-Christian], and help us respect one another” (p. xvi).
Reading this book from an insider perspective—a practicing, evangelical Christian living in the Southeastern United States—I believe that Luhrmann attempts to examine something she lacks the understanding to interpret as an outsider. Rather than describing what she intends—how evangelical Christians experience God—she purposely refines her examination to explore that which she finds familiar from her past research endeavors. Setting out to provide insight about a tree [evangelical Christianity], she, instead, provides thick description (Geertz, 1973) of a branch [kataphatic prayer].
Describing herself as a “psychological anthropologist (Luhrmann, 2012, p. xx),” Luhrmann’s writing reflects such an approach. Her book starts with a historical background of the Vineyard, focusing on socio-political influences that she perceives establish its culture—a past of hippies and charismatic prayer. She quickly narrows her focus towards the psychological aspects of prayer. By the second chapter, “Is That You, God? (Luhrmann, 2012, p. 39),” she begins transitioning the emphasis of the book away from the church towards individuals’ practice of what she eventually refers to as “kataphatic” prayer. Adopting the term “kataphatic” from Dionysius the Areopagite, she uses it “to identify the type of prayer that would enable Christians to know an unknowable divine through their imagination” (Luhrmann, 2012, p. 168).
Luhrmann (2012) writes from a postmodern epistemological perspective, with an ontological viewpoint that leans towards social interactionism—focusing on the individuals’ constructed perspectives of interaction with God through prayer.” Luhrmann (2012) regularly speaks to how believers need to “pretend” and “imagine” the presence of God, even after quoting 1 Corinthians 11:1, where the apostle Paul tells early Christians, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ” (p. 73). She then explains her rationale for using “pretend” instead of “imitate,” saying that “To imitate is to act. To pretend is to suspend disbelief.” Writing with an outsider’s vocabulary, she implicitly denies the possibility of true faith in Christ.
Further, Luhrmann (2012) compares experiences of kataphatic prayers, to “magical realism (p. 301).” She states that “the kataphatic practice seemed to give people more of what the scriptures promise to those who turn to Christ: peace and the presence of God” (p. 211). But her definition of God, her “modern God,” is “ ‘hyperreal’: realer than real, so real that it is impossible not to understand that you may be fooling yourself, so real that you are left suspended between what is real and what is your imagination” (Luhrmann, 2012, p. 301). She suggests a personal Jesus, but not necessarily a biblical Jesus. Her personal subjectivities become noticeable from her observations, as she openly demonstrates a personal desire to create a connection between her dissertation work on people who practice magic in present-day Britain and evangelical Christian prayer (Luhrmann, 2012, p. 190).
Luhrmann’s (2012) presentation of her research findings consistently builds to the implication that modern people create a visual simulacra within their imagination to “create” their God. Her postmodern epistemological perspective inherently refutes an absolute such as the Christian God.
While she suggests the possibility of this book serving as a bridge, there can be no bridge without beginning with the belief that the bridge leads to something. In referring to a work from Joseph Ratzinger (now known as Pope Benedict XVI), she ironically provides support for my assertion:
We humans cannot know God. That is why, he continued, we were given Christ, and that is why Christ and the [W]ord are crucial, for they enable the twofold movement through which humans can reach God and God can reach back to humans. Ratzinger has a point: If prayer leads to an experience of divinity that escapes words and representation, one might conclude that the words of the Christian scripture are as a kind of elaborate window dressing, no more accurate in their description of the real than a Buddhist stupa (Luhrmann, 2012, p. 168).
For Christians, God is “knowable” through Christ. Moreover, they believe that one must know Christ–not an imaginary, personal construction of God–for eternal salvation :
Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘ I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness’ (Matthew 7:21-23, NASB).
To claim to be Christian is to identify oneself as a follower of Christ. As Luhrmann (2012) states, to be an evangelical Christian suggests, “belief that one can be saved only by choosing a personal relationship with Christ…and belief that one should, to some extent, evangelize and share the good news of salvation with others” (p. 13). Luhrmann (2012), however, fails to discuss how evangelical Christians evangelize, and she deemphasizes how members of the Vineyard develop a biblical understanding of Christ; focusing on how individuals can experience their hyperreal God through prayer. In doing so, she does a disservice in representing members of that congregation, and fails to establish a bridge of understanding between Christians and non-Christians. When God Talks Back illustrates how even the most methodologically sound research can be brought to question given a researcher’s personal subjectivity.
Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of culture. New York: Basic Books.
Luhrmann, T. M. (2012). When God talks back: Understanding the American evangelical relationship with God. Random House LLC.