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

Who’s Your Buddy?

Written by: on February 14, 2019

Tanya Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back explores a mental place of cognizance where Christianity, Science, and Psychology intersect to form a type of a sustainable space where one can pray, communicate, and hear the voice of God. Using a phenomenological approach and ethnographic method, Luhrmann immersed herself into the Vineyard church to observe, interview, and experience the evangelical process of Christians with a special interest in how to improve both believer and non-believer communication with God. This post will examine the author’s work and look for connections to advance my dissertation research on spiritual warfare. 

According to Luhrmann’s four years of observations on Vineyard evangelicals she concludes that hearing God speak is part of a process where believers use their minds to perceive a spiritual reality that is part of a learning process that she calls a “theory of attentional learning.”[1] She also refers to “absorption training” as a developed skill that helps evangelicals hear the voice of God.[2] During her research Luhrmann discovered that she could not reliably establish how much training her participants had in prayer. So, she ran her own training and testing on three spiritual disciplines and determined that “kataphatic” prayer was the most successful.[3] I had never heard of apophatic (denial) or kataphatic (affirming) prayer but agree my prayer life is somewhere in between that may lean one way or the other depending on where my walk and abiding with the Lord is at for that moment.

Cultivation is a loaded term that Luhrmann uses frequently. She sees cultivation as part of the “step-by-step” process of learning about God over time.[4] Cultivation is used a lot in the Old Testament around agriculture and first fruit offerings but not as much in New Testament. The closest evangelical concept that comes to mind is the concept from 2 Cor. 9:6 that we reap what we sow, more than we sow, and later than we sow.

God as my buddy is another loaded phrase used by Luhrmann open to various interpretations. I am a little uneasy describing God like Luhrmann does but understand how C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity influenced her research approach.[5] She says that God is our “buddy to play with” and someone who does “magic” and if we are friends with our buddy, God “gives us magic, too.”[6] I wonder how all that works, and think the reference to magic, at least in our 21st Century context is a stretch with evangelicalism. Acting an observer-ethnographer I can understand how Luhrmann can gain this visualization context from inside the Vineyard church’s more charismatic body of Christ. Stromberg’s review does a nice job describing her immersive work as a “throwback to the glory days of ethnography” that helps explain evangelicalism to unfamiliar Western seculars.[7] I believe in John 14:20 paraphrased as  “I in you and you in me “and take that relationship literally; including spiritually, physically, and psychologically. First, I am spiritually connected by the Holy Spirit to the Son and the Father through their unique Triune nature as one, but existing as three-in-one. Second, I physically have the divine person of the Holy Spirit living inside me. Third, my head, heart, and soul are connected psychologically to the mind of God. When I connect to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit through prayer, conversation, thought, and action I don’t really have to understand the magnitude of the how they can do that. Instead, I just know and believe they are doing that because of my faith and obedience to them.

Luhrmann’s understanding of spiritual warfare surrounding demon possession is shallow. For instance, she says that Jesus comes to battle the spiritual forces, but since he is not fully present, “the war has not yet been won.”[8] I disagree and am sure most Vineyard members that she would have interviewed would understand that the cosmic battle between good and evil has already been won because of Christ’s victory over death on the cross. His atoning death on the cross and resurrection three days later clearly establishes that the ultimate war against spiritual forces has been won. Nevertheless, I commend Luhrmann for bringing spiritual warfare into her research and book narrative.  

I am proud of her for citing spiritual warfare instances eight times in her book. While she may not understand Paul’s metaphorical principles to put on and wear Christ as a personal defense system against the demons she references many times, at least she is getting the concept out there for her readers. The push back she experienced is the same type of push back I hear and see sometimes. Both believers and non-believers in Christ struggle with the whole spiritual warfare concept and cite extreme positions that include: I am not at risk from spiritual warfare on one side to I am going crazy from the influences of spiritual warfare on the other.[9]

Tandberg reviews the book and says Luhrmann’s attempt to bridge the gap between “believers and skeptics” deserves a wide audience.[10] Since most of Luhrmann’s respondents were women, Tandberg was surprised that gender differences were not discussed in the book.[11]

In conclusion, I like and connect to this book on many levels. First, I have hope when I see a publicly stated non-believer playing Christian. From my mission minded background, I always get excited when anyone plays Christian with the hopes that if they play long enough they may catch Salvation and become saved by Christ. I think the charismatic context that Luhrmann joined is a brilliant opportunity for her to immerse into the body of Christ group and study the anthropological relationships between Vineyard church members and God. Second, I like Luhrmann because she seems to be humble, practical, and real. For example, Gooren focuses on her humble sense of humor about her research. At one point in evaluating whether or not the Holy Spirit was moving in someone’s life Luhrmann jokes about the matter suggesting that instead of the Holy Spirit moving, it might just be our “burrito from lunch” that is moving.[12] I recommend this book for our LGP resource library.

Stand firm,

M. Webb

[1] Tanya M. Luhrmann. When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012) 252.

[2] Ibid., 222.

[3] Peter Stromberg. “Christian Charismatics, Anthropologists, and Truth: A Review Essay on Tanya Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back.” Pastoral Psychology 63, no. 2 (2014): 219.

[4] Philip Francis. “An Exquisite Awareness of Doubt.” Harvard Theological Review 106, no. 1 (2013): 106.

[5] C. S. Lewis. Mere Christianity. Macmillan Paperbacks ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1960) 73.

[6] Luhrmann, When God Talks Back, 35. erm

[7] Stromberg, Christian Charismatics, Anthropologists, and Truth, 216.

[8] Luhrmann, When God Talks Back, 254.

[9] Ibid., 266.

[10] Häkon Tandberg. “When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God.” Numen 61, no. 1 (2014): 123.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Henri Gooren. “Is It the Spirit Moving, Or Is It Just That Burrito from Lunch? A Review Essay of T. M. Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God.” Pastoral Psychology 63, no. 2 (2014): 197. n,t){var r=nul

About the Author


12 responses to “Who’s Your Buddy?”

  1. M Webb says:

    I had to go back in and add LGP8 tag before this showed up on our LGP8 Blogs. I think the system was acting a little weird on THURS when I tried to post this. Anyway, here it is now.
    Stand firm,
    M. Webb

  2. Dan Kreiss says:


    It looks like we have managed to bypass the difficulties of the new blog format.

    I too found this text interesting and thought that her personal development attests to God’s grace and power as even her academic distance could not prevent her having real and unexplainable experiences of her own. Admittedly she did not know much, particularly in regard to some Christian terms and experiences, as you point out in regard to Spiritual Warfare.

    • M Webb says:

      Thanks for your comments. I am praying that we see a book from her in the future that shows her real conversion to the Gospel. When you play Christian for 3 years for research that is an amazing amount of dedication. Sadly research also shows we have as high as 30-50% of people playing Christian in churches who do not admit they are unsaved like Luhrmann.

      Stand firm,

      M. Webb

  3. Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Mike!

    I am surprised you gave Luhrmann a free pass, especially since her first book was the same thing only with Wicca.

    “In 1986 she received her PhD for work on modern-day witches in England, later published as Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft (1989). In this book, she described the ways in which magic and other esoteric techniques both serve emotional needs and come to seem reasonable through the experience of practice.

    Mary Jo Neitz “Review: Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England.” The American Journal of Sociology 96:2 (September 1990) JSTOR 2781128

    I think we have been set up…

    • Jay Forseth says:


      I just realized I came across as condescending in my first sentence to you. I actually meant to put a smiley face after my comment. Just want you to know I wasn’t down on what you wrote or didn’t write.

    • M Webb says:

      It is good to condescend on your friends every now and then, good to get it out! I did not give her a pass, but have a lot of hope for her. I guess that is my mission heart. When I saw anyone seeking to know more about Christ in foreign countries it gave me encouragement and hope for their souls.

      Amazingly Luhrmann spoke more about spiritual warfare and demons than most Christian authors. I like that she was not afraid to call out the threat, even though she did not really understand all the supernatural implications or that the victory has already been won on the cross. But with time who knows….

      I bet if you took a poll you would find a lot of people sitting in all your churches who play church, yet do not really have a saving faith experience yet? Have you run a survey like that yet?

  4. Great post Mike! I appreciated your methodical analyzing of the book and highlighting the aspects that relate to your topic of study. I especially liked how you set the record straight regarding the spiritual war when you said…”most Vineyard members that she would have interviewed would understand that the cosmic battle between good and evil has already been won because of Christ’s victory over death on the cross. His atoning death on the cross and resurrection three days later clearly establishes that the ultimate war against spiritual forces has been won.” I not only believe God has already won the war, but I also believe the enemy continues to wage smaller battles in order to lead people astray or convince Christians that they have not won the war after all.
    Standing Firm, Jake

  5. M Webb says:

    You are a wise man, and I am so glad you “see” and “know” the real threat from the evil one. That makes you and your wife’s marketplace ministry so much more effective for the Kingdom. PTL.
    Luhrmann is kinda like Jane Goodall, an anthropologist who goes into their environment and lives with them for 3 years….wow!

    Stand firm,

    M. Webb

  6. Jean Ollis says:

    Thanks for your perspective on this book! We (the cohort) were all over the place as far as critiques.
    I’m glad that in her research, Luhmann recognized spiritual warfare as a real phenomenon – even if she didn’t have it quite right, she acknowledged it! In all of your spiritual experiences around the globe, who/what (denomination, culture, etc.) do you most identify with as far as hearing God speak?

  7. Shawn Hart says:

    Mike, I remember listening to a sermon once where the young man preaching referred to God as “daddy” and “pop.” He was trying to relate the intimate relationship that we can have with God and yet may lack. However, I could only think about how the people in the Old Testament actually made up other names for God out of a fear of coming across disrespectful in addressing Him by His true name. I suppose I fear that perhaps the most disturbing thing for me today is that people are so anxious to relate to God that they are losing respect for Him in the process. Though I know not everyone may agree with this; I just do not believe that we are supposed to have a “daddy,” “buddy,” or “pop” relationship with God. Perhaps that little talk at the end of the book of Job instilled just enough fear in me to tread carefully.

  8. Dave Watermulder says:

    Hey Mike,
    Thanks for your post and I’m glad you found resonances with her for yourself, or your research area. It seems like her sort of “direct knowledge” gained through experiences with churches and people would be interesting to you, as this has connections with your spiritual warfare theme. Of course, she has a more clinical approach that in the end, doesn’t seem to get where most Christian believers are actually willing or able to go. Thanks again.

Leave a Reply