Inviting the imagination
As I read Tanya Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back, I was transported back in time thirty years to my seminary years (yes, I know this dates me, and I just re-did the math to verify that scary truth). The premise – an anthropologist with a scientific approach to understanding the ineffable and the sublime – reminded me of a similar book by John White, When the Spirit Comes with Power. White, a clinical psychologist, similarly began attending a Vineyard church in the 1980s, and like Luhrmann and her ethnographic intent, sought to understand the psychology behind the spiritual expression. White, like Luhrmann, was gradually yet convincingly drawn in when God’s mercy was experienced at an intimate, visceral level. White’s book was key to my own spiritual discovery of the charismatic at the time, so I was fondly disposed to reading Luhrmann’s more recent account.
Luhrmann, as a competent observer, joins the Chicago Vineyard and participates in worship, prayer, Bible reading, weekly small groups, and retreats. She attempts to critically maintain distance to rationally examine this cultural sub-group, but as the book develops, cracks begin to appear. Interestingly, it wasn’t in the modern worship style of the Vineyard, but through premodern Ignatian exercises that she uses her imagination to connect to herself and to God.
She recounts, “I felt this too. I cried in prayer, and I cried in the group. Even now I can remember the weeks we spent en route to Bethlehem and the flight to Egypt. I remember imagining the donkey and the dusty heat and the vivid blue of Mary’s robe. I had complicated philosophical thoughts about whether God was real – but I remember gazing into the baby’s eyes, and I wept.” Who cannot admit that she was encountering the divine in that moment?
For Luhrmann, cultivating the imagination is a work done within this church community and others like it. What I found fascinating is her citing parallels to broader postmodern culture which also encourages discovering truth through story, finding meaning in the telling of novels, television shows, and movies. We consume stories and absorb new environments at a greater rate than any point in history. Peter Stromberg, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Tulsa states in his review of Luhrmann’s book: “[T]he form of spirituality practiced at the Vineyard may well grow naturally out of the broader culture in which the church is embedded.” So where our culture values story and imagination, so too does the Vineyard and expressions like it.
It is important to contemplate the idea that the way we worship and pray is often culturally-bound and culturally-shaped. Because we are “of the culture”, like fish in water, we aren’t always aware that what surrounds us determines how we connect to God. Simon Chan highlighted this in his book, Grassroots Asian Theology, when he discussed how veneration of ancestors and the role of shame influences the way many Chinese approach God and one’s fellow believers leading to a Christian faith that has a very different expression than North American Christianity. In like manner, our postmodern culture which prioritizes individual stories, celebrating the uniqueness of each person, and at the same time hungering for relationship, creates the conditions for a religious movement where God speaks conversationally, intimately, over a cup of tea. Certainly there are only few historical examples of people with a conversationally friendly relationship with God, like St Teresa of Avila.
I find this a hopeful reality: to know that the varied religious expressions in our world are cultural constructs, just like the Vineyard expression highlighted in this book. The mystery of God is deeper than the veneer we paint him with. He is bigger than the boxes we attempt to construct for our theological understandings.
In framing her Vineyard anthropological investigation with patience and grace, Luhrmann seems to defang what most of her audience would typically fear. Certainly, in my Canadian context, all religious expression is suspect and marginalized, and the same is likely true within the author’s academic context. But, according to Stromberg, Luhrmann suggests otherwise: “She is saying, in effect, do not imagine that these believers are rigid defenders of some long-dead religious orthodoxy. They, like you the reader, are curious, open-minded, and (perhaps unlike you the reader) open to the possibility that there is something beyond what is obvious to our limited senses and intellect. In pointing to this mystery, she is saying, “They don’t understand it completely, nor do I, nor do you, reader.””
 T. M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), 178-179.
 Peter Stromberg, “Christian Charismatics, Anthropologists, and Truth: A Review Essay on Tanya Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back.Pastoral Psychology, 63(2), 2012, 215-222. doi:http://dx.doi.org.georgefox.idm.oclc.org/10.1007/s11089-013-0525-9.
 Peter Stromberg, “Christian Charismatics, Anthropologists, and Truth: A Review Essay on Tanya Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back.Pastoral Psychology, 63(2), 2012, 221. doi:http://dx.doi.org.georgefox.idm.oclc.org/10.1007/s11089-013-0525-9.
15 responses to “Inviting the imagination”
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I always enjoy reading your posts to see the turn you will take in applying the text. Thanks for your consistency.
I think that the power of this book is what you pointed out. It demonstrates how the surrounding culture impacts and influences faith expression. Particularly when one understands the history of movements like the Vineyard it is easy to see how the SoCal culture of the 70s and 80s is still resonant in Vineyard and Calvary Chapel. (I was there in the early 80s, occasionally attending Calvary Chapel, Costa Mesa with a friend.)
Most of those in the US Christian community do not yet fully grasp the change that is coming in regard to the marginalization that is evident in Canada, Australia/New Zealand, France etc. This book is timely and relevant because she engages with the communities academically distant but immerses herself sufficiently to be impacted.
Thanks Dan. I think the US is quickly catching up to the rest of the anglosphere in the postmodern, postevangelical era we are experiencing. It’s scary for many, but it does become a place where vibrant faith can emerge.
Thanks for sharing your reflections from 30 years ago! Nice. I agree, the Holy Spirit was convicting Luhrmann while she was trying the mental imagination exercise of walking with Joseph and Mary as they traveled to Bethlehem for the census and birth of Christ. Too bad she did not come all the way, but I have hopes for her. As a missionary, when we saw people of any culture get curious about the ways of Christianity we knew the Holy Spirit was at work.
I read Share Jesus without Fear a long time ago and it suggested that on average, it took about 7 times for a seeker hearing the Gospel to become a new believer. Some get it the first time, and the one’s like Luhrmann might take 100’s of times, yet there is hope right! Good post Mark.
I agree with you that I saw the author’s engagement with the Ignatian exercises as a way that the Holy Spirit was working in her life. Her fascination with the topic itself is surely the seed of God’s Spirit at work and growing in her.
We aren’t that old yet, are we? Oops, I guess we are…time is only flying by even faster by the year. I suppose Dr. Jason has been thinking about that with his recent birthday celebrations in Scotland. I must say, things get better with age, though!
I have been following with interest your talk with Dan about what is happening in New Zealand and Canada with the marginalization of faith believers. One thing I know, your light is shining brightly for Christ. They can’t marginalize that my Brother.
Thank you Jay.
Mark. I do like how you search and find a perspective that takes us a different direction. I tried to not be to reactionary to this book but did not do an adequate job. I appreciated the reminder of the individual journeys that are intertwined with the larger communities of faith. I am first to see how culture influences but sometimes oblivious to see how christian culture does the same thing. Thanks for your words.(and the absolution)
Greg – yes, the culture question keeps coming up, doesn’t it?? I have found my missiological background helps me understand and interpret my own culture’s often very cultural expressions that for most are just the way things should be.
You are a fine writer and you have taken this book seriously. I’m curious to hear more of your view of the cultural construct/limitations of worship. Do you think it’s helpful for Christians to experience worship and prayer from different traditions?
Yes I love experiencing different styles and approaches to worship. I remember as an evangelical seminary student I represented my school as a delegate to the Canadian theological students’ conference (and then ended up on the planning committee the following year). Well, our school was the only evangelical school represented – the rest were mainline Protestant and Catholic seminaries. It would have been threatening for many but I loved it because it forced me to look at faith from different perspectives. We did one liturgy that praised God for the various gifts of the different denominations: the love of the word of God (Baptists), the effusive and expressive worship (Pentecostals), the love of the environment and stewardship of the land (indigenous Christians), the middle path chosen by Anglicans, the political advocacy (United Church of Canada), the commitment to peace (Mennonites), etc etc. I’ve always treasured this memory as it helps me understand the way we worship is often just culturally-bound.
Interesting post MArk. I like that you were able to go into the book with a more open mind than I did. your explanation and interaction with it helped me undersdtand the points a little bit more.
Thank you for such a great perspective in your blog…I’m so curious about your statement regarding the Canadian expression/experience of God. I didn’t realize that my friends to the North are conservative in that sense? Please tell me more!
The mainstream Canadian culture, generally, would not be open to religion. Our political leaders would never reference God publicly, even if they held personal faith themselves. Canadians don’t know how to talk about spirituality in a public setting. I find that very sad.
Mark, I appreciated the point you made; “It is important to contemplate the idea that the way we worship and pray is often culturally-bound and culturally-shaped.” We had a discussion in class not too long ago that discussed the influences of United States nationalism within our Christianity. It is amazing how many political arguments are made these days in the correlation with Christian confirmations. Sadly, many of those arguments seem to have nothing to do with Christianity at all, but rather are merely ways of seeking out the desire for a more Christian nation. I believe the further our society moves from Christ, the more desperate we become to try and force Him back into it.