Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Believing the Unbelievable….or Hearing Voices

Written by: on April 21, 2015

“The vengeance with which religious issues have again entered the public arena illustrates what pollsters long have known: the United States contains more citizens who value religion than other western industrial societies. This odd combination of modernity and religion defies conventional wisdom, which suggests that secularity and socioeconomic development are positively related. Such manifest religiosity in an advanced industrial and technological society raises interesting questions about the nature of popular religious movements in the United States and about the contrast between American popular culture and that of other western industrial nations.”[i]

From: Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianityimages

It must be aggravating for modern intellectuals when faced with American’s continued love affair with Christianity. What should be happening here is what happened in Europe over the last two centuries: the mass exodus of people from church. At least Europeans are enlightened about religion (opiate of the people, mindless superstitions, and the cause of all the bad in our world). But, strangely, in America, people aren’t leaving the church. One has to wonder if this strange phenomena–of enthusiastic allegiance to God and spirituality in modern America– might be the real reason researchers, such as T.M. Luhrmann, to spend so much time trying to figure out what makes supposedly educated and normal people not only claim to hear God, but dedicate their lives to His serve.

I found When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God an uncomfortable read. Examined where these feelings came from, I came to several conclusions. First, I felt offense, that “my people” were being studied like lab rats in an anthropologists experiment. It just seemed a little awkward to have an outsider scientifically dissect important concepts like faith, prayer, and intimacy with God. It felt like Masters and Johnson had entered my bedroom with a clipboard in hand. It didn’t feel comfortable.

My second reason for feeling uncomfortable was the strange disconnect I felt with Luhrmann’s interpretation church and faith. This may be due to the particular groups she studied, but her conclusions are far different from my Christian experience and understanding. The believers she described sought above all else to convince themselves that God actually spoke to them. This involved “play” or “make believe.” It also involved a great deal of mind games to give the believer a sense that God is real. She suggests that to the “anthropologist, the central principle was identifying the ‘not-me’ experience: a thought or image or sensation that one felt was not one’s own. If a thought felt spontaneous and unsought, it was more likely to be identified as God’s.”[ii] Faith becomes a mental game or exercise. “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….They construct God’s interactions out of these personal mental events, mapping the abstract concept “God’ out of their mental awareness….”[iii]

Third, is the assumption that ultimately these believers are trying to convince themselves to believe something that they know to be patently untrue. “They know that they are pretending to talk to God”[iv] and this is why it is such hard work. “This is play, but it is a serious play: a play that cultivates the imagination for a serious end, precisely because congregants presume the basic claim of Christianity to be unbelievable, even foolish, in modern, secular society.”[v] She further suggests that it “is a fragile process, because what they are doing is so hard, because it violates so much of what we take for granted. It takes an enormous amount of work.”[vi]

Finally, I am uncomfortable with her conclusion that this kind of Christianity thrives because it lacks any real solid foundation. “It is a truly ‘new American Christ’ who is just as raw, both concretely present and curiously untheologized. His churches emphasize intimacy not historical understanding. They care that people know Jesus, not that they know and memorize the scriptural text, and they want their congregants to feel as if church is meeting in the upper room in Jerusalem, with Jesus at the table.”[vii] This untheologized, unscriptural, unhistorical Jesus is what Luhrmann suggests modern American Christians are finding. That must be her conclusion, since this Christianity has no basis in anything other than the mind or imagination. But, is this what Christianity is really all about? I hope not!

So, what are we left with? We are left with one anthropologist’s perspective and interpretation of a small group within evangelicalism through which she seeks to answer the allusive question of how in the world can supposedly smart people possibly believe today in any religion, especially Christianity? What I believe we can take away is a clear understanding of how an intellectual section of modern American society might explain away the large and dedicate Christian community in American today. Or, to put it another way: How very smart people might explain why so many Americans believe in something that has long been discredited?

One point she does get right: “there is evidence that the quality of someone’s relationship with God has consequences. In a study of the relationship between prayer and mental illness…. when God was experienced as close and intimate, the more someone prayed, the less ill they were.”[viii] Hummm…there might be something good here after all, even if it might all be just “make believe.”

            [i] Nathan O Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989). 210.

            [ii] T.M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (New York: Vintage Books, 2012), 67.

            [iii] Ibid., xxi.

            [iv] Ibid., 99.

            [v] Ibid.

            [vi] Ibid., xxii.

            [vii] Ibid., 38.

            [viii] Ibid., 288.

About the Author

John Woodward

Associate Director of For God's Children International. Member of George Fox Evangelical Seminary's LGP4.

8 responses to “Believing the Unbelievable….or Hearing Voices”

  1. John,

    Thanks for sharing here. I so agree with your assessment of this book. It was an uncomfortable read for me too, but for some different reasons. I struggled with the title of the book and agree with you 100 percent that the title is inaccurate. How can someone claim that she knows the American evangelical relationship with God by studying one small segment of Christianity? This was troublesome for me.

    As I grow as a Christian and as a human, I find myself thankful that the Body of Christ is so diverse. This allows for different people to come to faith in ways that fit with their personalities. Not everyone would come to faith if all Christians were Vineyard people; I know I wouldn’t. In fact, this kind of faith sometimes turns me off to God. However, it is doing some good work, so I won’t condemn it. Luhrmann needs to get out more and read more, I think. If she did, the title of her research would have been more accurate.

    I look forward to talking with you about this and many other things on our road trip.

    • John Woodward says:

      Bill, thanks for your thoughts! It has been encouraging to receive your insights as I often find that we are on the same page! Great minds think a like! Yes, Luhrmann needs to get out more and maybe do her own soul searching!

      Looking forward to seeing you in a month and half. Say, have you seen the HBO movie Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee? Do so if you haven’t – it will set you up well for where you will be in South Dakota. Blessings, brother!

  2. Stefania Tarasut says:

    John, I had some of the same feelings as I was reading this book. What did you think of the “Let’s Pretend” chapter? 🙂

    • John Woodward says:

      My post really reflected my thoughts on “Let’s Pretend” – which I think she got backwards. As some of the other posts suggests (and I concur) that God show us not when we “sit around and pretend” but when we serve and sacrifice. It is by self giving not self reflection that we will hear God (that is why I am all about missions/mission trips) because it is there that I’ve experienced God. (That is why your young people need to go as well!)

  3. rhbaker275 says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful, no-nonsense and well documented review of Luhrmann’s book.

    I experienced discomfort in many places of “When God Talks Back” and like other posts, the title actually causes me to cringe a little. But not any more than when, like last Sunday during prayer request, a parishioner asked us, during the pastoral prayer, to pray for their sick pup. I cringe when someone refers to “the man upstairs” or suggests that a deceased love one is “looking down” and really happy that a lost relative has found the Lord. I will never forget the cold, drizzling winter morning when I stood with our 16 and 14 year old son by the grave we had just dug for Rusty, our 12 year old Cocker Spaniel who had died during the night. As we clasped hands and they wept, I had to find the the right words for prayer … and I did not pray for Rusty. There is a lot of theology that is not very deliberative or reflective.

    Like Stefania, I was uncomfortable with “Let’s Pretend” but I had some good take-aways from “Developing Your Heart.” I think we have to account for Luhrmann’s perspective – a social psychologist, writing to inform those nonbelievers who claim a “psychic evolution of the mind”, how it is that believers have come to experience God as real. Luhrmann clearly states she is not a Christian, especially a couple times when her reflections on what she has observed almost sound like she believes. In the end, it reminds me of King Agrippa’s “almost” when she says, “I do not presume to know ultimate reality. But it is also true that through the process of this journey, in my own way, I have come to know God. I do not know what to make of this knowing. I would not call myself Christian, but I find myself defending Christianity” (325).

  4. John Woodward says:

    Ron, I always appreciate your thoughtful comments and insights! You’ve been a true blessing in our cohort. I think you bring up several important points, especially that there is much that is done in our churches that is a little shady when it comes to good theology! I should not be surprised when outsiders evaluate us based on some of the crazy things we do. But, I also realize that no matter how well do things according to the Bible, we will always be viewed by outsiders as a little strange (and we would be in good company, as Jesus was considered a partier and the disciples are drunkards). We will never win with outsiders…but that is ok!

    Hope you are finishing the semester well. Blessings, Ron!

    • rhbaker275 says:

      Thanks, John,
      I appreciate your encouraging words and kind comments. “Finishing well” is always a challenge.

      Unfortunately, it is difficult to shake the stereotypes of being “evangelical” and “Christian.” Jesus told us there would be times of rejection and to “shake the dust off our feet,” but even as we do, we still proclaim “the kingdom of God is near.” (Luke 10:11) As I responded elsewhere to Deve, we need the times of safety in Dan Kimball’s bubble, but the sending is to go outside the safety and comfort to those, who despite their brokenness, reject their only hope Jesus. It is not about the church and if people like us or don’t like us – it is Jesus.

  5. Deve Persad says:

    John, great observations. There are definitely parts of this book that seem contrived and impersonal. Which makes it all the more alarming based on the fact that we’re supposed to be interacting with Our very personal God. Does God talk back? I definitely think and know that to be true, however, I’m not at the place where we can experiment with that relationship for the sake of measurements or simply a cool experience.

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