Responding to God’s Self-Revelation
Lurhmann’s book, “When God Talks Back,” is an anthropological look at American evangelicalism and the complex cognitive processes at work in a dialogical relationship with the divine. She is concerned less with how God reveals himself as how evangelicals perceive God’s self-revelation and conceive of a God they can dialogue with about all of life. Luhrmann’s tiresome attempt to write as a non-judgmental inquisitive outsider enabled her to position herself as a neutral keen observer in her ground research. Nevertheless, the Christian reader may easily smell the bias of Lurhmann and her contemporaries. According to one reviewer, one of Lurhmann’s implications is that believing that God can “talk back” to humans does not come “naturally,” but requires “hard work”:
The definite intuition that an agent is around, that this agent really is the god, that the god is talking, requires a lot of work, and is rather rare and frustratingly elusive. Even among the most accomplished of believers, a few islands of intuition are surrounded by oceans of doubt and disbelief (GTB: 133). This is splendidly illustrated in Lurhmann’s eth- nography, and raises important questions to do with both our understanding of “beliefs” in anthropology and our cognitive models of belief states.
Where a book like this might be useful to someone like me is for the purpose of self-awareness. It is interesting to see how a non-Evangelical sees how Evangelicals respond to God, often in ways they are not aware. If I were to classify myself as an “Evangelical,” and perhaps I do depending on one’s definition, it’s not that I am not aware of my own complex relationship with God (whether real or imagined), I just find it interesting to see how an outsider perceives how Evangelicals perceive themselves. She makes too many assumptions in my view, and I think a self-aware Evangelical could be more intuitively accurate. I admit my frustration at what I perceive to be an arrogance on her part and I am inclined to get defensive, which perhaps is useful self-awareness information in itself.
But to think this is how observant outsiders might perceive our practices of prayer could serve well to help guide those who are also skeptical of their skepticism of Christianity (or “Evangelicalism” to be precise). Perhaps we could be aware of our complex relationship with God in order to guide others whose prayer experience is also difficult. It is true that “belief” takes hard work, in a sense, but the hard work is largely done by God. Ours is the work of surrender. This is true. But the work of surrender is not the same as the work she is describing. It is responsive work, not innovative work. We do not conceive of God ex nihilo. We simply respond to his revelation in our lives, as was the case for me when I was 16 years and God showed up unannounced and uninvited into my life. God commandeers us and then we figure out how to adjust. Lurhmann does not grasp the responsive nature of the Christian faith.
HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (3): 349–57
12 responses to “Responding to God’s Self-Revelation”
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Great post, Chris!
Is it dangerous to teach people “how” to pray?
Luhrmann recounts a story with a women Hannah. She reveals, “Hannah did not treat her relationship with God as a relationship with a human. Despite all the books she had read and the prayer courses she had taken…she did not act as if God was a person who was actually present” (Luhrmann, 82). As I read this, I didn’t question the validity of Hannah’s relationship with the Lord, but unneeded pressure for conformity and replication.
I’ve spoken at multiple denominations and attended various churches. However, I’m always curious about why certain denominations teach people how to pray through courses. For me, prayer and hearing God are so intrinsic to one’s personality. It’s like asking everyone to list their best friends and then assuming that each person picked the same characteristics in order to select them. We’re all so different. Some might choose a friend based upon commonality, others might select someone who challenges them because of their differences and others might choose those who are emotionally connected through emotive experience. Our choices don’t invalidate our preferences, nor do they diminish our friendships, but they show friendship through a diversified context and lens.
What are your thoughts? Does our denominational preference override people’s cultural identity and/or individuality?
Good question Colleen! I think there are so many different ways to pray and it’s okay to teach people various methods so long as the object of prayer is clearly in view. We can learn much from other traditions/denominations. They’re like tribes who do things uniquely and we can gain from each tradition within orthodox Christianity. Do you agree? Have you had experiences with contemplative prayer even from a charismatic tradition?
You stated, “Where a book like this might be useful to someone like me is for the purpose of self-awareness. It is interesting to see how a non-Evangelical sees how Evangelicals respond to God, often in ways they are not aware.”
This was one of my a-ha moments in the book as well. I find it helpful that she critiques how we do church. For example, she describes people praying over an individual – where all gather around the person and lay hands on them, and if they can’t reach, they at least touch the shoulder of the person who can reach them. Now, why do we pray this way? Some would say it is just to surround and encourage through presence. Others might add that the flow of the Spirit goes through all our outstretched hands. Is something literally happening through the way we position our bodies? It’s an interesting question to consider.
I think context is important with regard to prayer postures. Outstretched arms is a posture of openness in our culture (is it universal or culturally conditioned?) and kneeling is a posture of humility. They communicate something internally that has a physiological and psychological affect, I wonder. But if there is a culture where bowing communicates power, then I doubt it would have the same affect. What do you think?
I think that outstretched arms and kneeling are culturally conditioned to express praise/openness and humility in many cultures, but I would not venture to say this is true in all cultures. There’s too much diversity in our world for me to believe that.
good post Chris. thank you for sharing how you were uncomfortable with her. she was way outside of her lane to write this book. I too felt very defensive as I read this.
Thanks Kyle! Missed you on the call. Hope all is well.
I’ve got to admit I’ve been curious how our esteemed Presbyterians will respond to this next which categorizes evangelicals as only this one denomination. If the book was written out the Presbys, what would her conclusion be?
Probably that we don’t connect with God much at all haha! Or maybe mostly with our intellects but not with our bodies or emotions. 🙂
Chris, great point you made there; “It is interesting to see how a non-Evangelical sees how Evangelicals respond to God, often in ways they are not aware.” Though I believe the heart of Christians is to be united, I fear one of our greatest downfalls is our ability to express the truths in our hearts. I often find myself anxious to understand those I am most trying to relate to, and yet, instead find myself frustrated. I would love to understand other’s perception of the God or god they serve; I believe it would make me a better minister.
love this: “I admit my frustration at what I perceive to be an arrogance on her part and I am inclined to get defensive, which perhaps is useful self-awareness information in itself. ”
If you watch her videos, her cynicism is even more apparent.
She seemed patronizing in the sense of pretending to be an outsider when I’m sure she had plenty of formed opinions.