I’m not sure how I feel about Luhrmann’s text, When God Talks Back. Luhrmann sets out to understand the American evangelical experience through personally assimilating herself into a church system. “Tanya began researching the American evangelical experience by attending weekly services at the Vineyard Christian Fellowship Church in Chicago. This church, the Vineyard, is one of 600 congregations across America, and there are an additional 900 worldwide. Together, that makes a total of 1,500 congregations. Now, that’s really significant.” All of Luhrmann’s evangelical research (observation/experience/interviewing) is done within a specific, narrow context of Vineyard Church. While I believe her research is interesting, I question its validity in analyzing only one evangelical sect. What isn’t guaranteed is that her outcomes will translate across all denominational experiences. Apparently I’m not the only reviewer critical of Luhrmann’s research methods. Barton Swaim of the Wall Street Journal also questions Luhrmann’s validity in her sampling of just Vineyard Church attendees (among other research issues he raises but I did not highlight them here)… “But writing a book about American evangelicals and interviewing only Vineyardites is a bit like writing a travel book about the British Isles without leaving Inverness. However one defines the term “evangelical”—and it should include Reformed Presbyterians, Missouri Synod Lutherans, traditionalist Methodists and the majority of Baptists—a great many evangelical denominations and dispositions stand deliberately opposed to the kind of theological subjectivism, neo-Medieval spiritualism and pious self-absorption that Ms. Luhrmann finds at the Vineyard.”
As an Anthropologist and Psychologist by education, Luhrmann referenced “therapy” multiple times in her writing. The statements made me wonder, outside of her education, if she had any experience in the field. According to Wikipedia (I’m aware this isn’t the most valid source – speaking of questioning validity) Tanya Luhrmann progressed through her education rapidly – straight from her bachelor’s degree directly into graduate school culminating in her PhD in 1986 in Social Anthropology. In just three years she entered higher education as faculty. It’s a bit disturbing that her references to therapy infer she’s an expert in the field. I have to admit – several references of the God relationship being similar to therapy or the “evangelical experience” being similar to therapy – made me cringe.
“For example, people learn to treat God as a therapist. People take to God the kinds of concerns that many New Yorkers will take to a therapist—talk about the ways that you feel uncomfortable at work, talk about the ways that you felt you let somebody down, talk about the ways that your relationship isn’t going so well. In this daydream-like interaction with God that people call prayer, people learn to hear from God advice a therapist would give them.”
This kind of God is unique to each person, because it’s your mess of memories of being loved. It is a person among people. I came to believe that God worked psychologically for people the way that your own memories of parents work for you psychologically. You kind of carry them around in what a therapist might call an inner object or a self-object, available for you when you’re anxious, frightened, morose. If you have a robust internal object, that will buffer you against those difficult times.
Why do I cringe when I read these therapy references? Because the training and ethics of social work practice do not ascribe to Luhrmann’s suggested therapy behaviors. In full disclosure, psychology education is different than social work education, however techniques and interventions in the therapy process should be similar. The core values of social work include service, social justice, dignity and worth of the individual, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence. Our paradigm of client assessment focuses on the Person in Environment (PIE) theory – which is the importance of understanding an individual and individual behavior in light of the environmental contexts in which that person lives and acts. Social Workers also believe that clients ultimately possess the solutions to their problems – the social worker serves as the guide to help the client discover, reconcile, and implement this solution. Clinical social workers practice a type of mental health therapy that is strength based, working with the client to identify natural skills and abilities they possess that can be used as a launching point to tackle issues causing challenges in the individual’s life. The social work framework for mental health therapy is holistic – emotional, spiritual, physical, social, and psychological. It also takes into account the societal and environmental factors that can impact the well-being of the client. I share such detail to reiterate Luhrmann’s references to therapy are not accurate – therapists do not give “advice”; therapists are not just someone to “unload on” nor are they in any way similar to a relationship with a higher power (although therapists are trained to help a client connect to their higher power). Rather, the social work therapy process is an evidenced based system of engagement, assessment, planning/goal setting, intervention, evaluation, and termination.
So, Ms. Luhrmann, as interesting as your research could be if done with a more valid sampling of evangelical Christians, please stay in your lane of training – psychology and anthropology.